Secret meetings in Moscow and Prague. Business leaders conducting sordid affairs with prostitutes. Russian intelligence services blackmailing the President of the United States.
The allegations sound like they found their way out of a political thriller. Yet they are all allegations leveled at Donald Trump and his presidential campaign in a dossier published in full yesterday by Buzzfeed. The report, formulated by a private intelligence firm during the 2016 election, was commissioned by Trump’s political opponents and details allegations that Russia has amassed embarrassing information to blackmail Trump once he becomes president. The dossier also alleges that surrogates for the Trump campaign met repeatedly with high-level Russian actors and discussed matters, including the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
Little is known about the veracity of the dossier, which has been circulating in secret for several months. Senator John McCain, though refusing to speculate on the truth of the document’s claims, first passed the report on to FBI Director James Comey in December. Barack Obama and Trump have since been briefed on the report’s existence – facts that suggest that the United States intelligence community is taking the allegations seriously.
The material in the dossier is no doubt controversial. Yet equally explosive has been Buzzfeed’s choice to publish the report in full, before the statements can be verified. In a Wednesday press conference, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, condemned the move, calling Buzzfeed’s reports a “sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks.” Trump also expressed disdain over the release, referring to the organization as “a failing pile of garbage.”
Trump’s team was not the only group opposed to the publication; as noted by The Guardian, investigative reporters from a variety of established outlets expressed skepticism over Buzzfeed’s methods. Some saw Buzzfeed’s justification for publishing the dossier – allowing the American people to decide on the report for themselves – was insufficient; The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple called such a justification a “ridiculous rationale.” Other media figures, including ProPublica president Richard Tofel, argued in favor of the move; Tofel noted on Twitter that it would likely “accelerate what in (the) dossier is true and what not.”
Though opinions remain divided, it is difficult to deny that Buzzfeed is playing with fire in this case. If it cannot be verified, or if it is proven false, the dossier will lend more fodder to Trump and his allies, who have attempted to discredit the media as a watchdog at every turn. In effect, by taking such a risk, Buzzfeed may end up aiding these efforts, especially if the reports prove as difficult to verify as some have expected.
Certainly, the public should know about such allegations at the proper time, especially allegations of such magnitude. Bringing the full document to the public may also hasten a formal investigation, as Tofel suggests. Yet, by publishing the dossier with massive caveats before it can be verified, Buzzfeed’s actions may also have hurt future efforts to hold the Trump administration accountable through investigative reporting.
This may prove true even in the most likely situation – namely, that many of the reports will simply remain unverifiable. Most of the dossier’s allegations involve secret meetings and actions in which the involved actors reportedly ensured no paper trail would exist. Buzzfeed itself acknowledged this fact, calling the dossier “potentially unverifiable” in their reporting. If this is the case, proving the majority of the dossier’s reports could prove exceptionally difficult, if not impossible. Barring conclusive proof that the allegations in the report are true, then, publishing the dossier under such circumstances is especially risky.
If the reports in the dossier are found to be unverifiable, it will not just be Buzzfeed that will pay the price. Buzzfeed’s decision comes at a particularly tenuous time for trust in media; a September 2016 poll from Gallup reported that trust in traditional media outlets was lower than ever before in the organization’s history. Trump has only furthered this waning trust, repeatedly referring to the media as “lying” and “dishonest” throughout his campaign. For the American public, many of whom hold a strong distrust of traditional media sources, Buzzfeed’s actions may only solidify their suspicions: that investigative news organizations operate without regard for independence or veracity.
Now more than ever, media outlets must tread carefully to regain public trust and exercise their function of holding the government accountable. By publishing the Trump dossier in full, Buzzfeed’s actions have made that process a lot more complicated.