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Gordon Campbell: the ethics of publishing the Trump dossier

Gordon Campbell on the ethics of publishing the Trump dossier

First published on Werewolf

The controversy over the dossier purporting to show US President-elect Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia has been virtually overshadowed by the related controversy over whether the Buzzfeed site should have published the dossier in the first place. After all, some august mainstream news outlets – eg the Washington Post, New York Times and the Guardian - had previously seen the dossier but had decided not to publish it, apparently because the contents could not be verified

I’m more inclined to agree with the equally prestigious Columbia Journalism Review, which has come out in support of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish. As CJR points out, and as you can see from the original Buzzfeed story, Buzzfeed had put a warning up front that the dossier contents were “unverified”. On the other hand, as CJR goes on to argue:

[Buzzfeed] Editor in Chief Ben Smith convincingly defended the decision [to publish] in a staff memo, arguing that the dossier was being read and talked about “at the highest levels of American government and media. It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the President and President-elect.”

By publishing the documents when it did, accompanied by strong caveats about their reliability, BuzzFeed put itself at the heart of the story and made some of its most prominent journalists go-to people for any tips the dossier might generate. The most typical kind of investigative reporting entails spending months or even years gathering documents and cultivating sources to build an unshakable edifice. BuzzFeed took a different but still well-established approach: Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates.

Arguably, it should have been obvious weeks ago that this horse had already bolted. The fact that the dossier was clearly being taken seriously by decision makers in the US government (and by US intelligence agencies) and was already part of the decision frame for real-life repercussions – eg. the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by the Obama administration – makes publication (with the caveats provided) seem a virtual no-brainer.

Yet, with hindsight, it is fascinating that so many mainstream news outlets chose not to publish the dossier for so long. As CJR notes, this info on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia had been kicking around the backrooms of many news organisations for months. David Corn had written about it in Mother Jones magazine in late October 2016, at a time when the final stages of the US election were being roiled by vague and ultimately groundless insinuations (about Hillary Clinton’s emails) that were then being touted by FBI director James Comey. You can read Corn’s story here.

The Comey misgivings about the Clinton emails were front page news for the fortnight before Election Day, and are widely believed to have affected the outcome – even though, it eventually transpired that the “ new” information that Comey was talking about was comprised of only secondary and tertiary versions of emails already vetted and cleared by the FBI months beforehand. Point being : there seems to have been a double standard at work here, when it came down to publishing ‘unverified” concerns about the election candidates.

To back up the point: news organisations had been willing last year to publish what it had conceded were ‘unverified’ content from alleged Democratic Party emails obtained by Wikileaks via what are believed to have been Russian hacking and/or phishing operations. As CJR says, one of these stories – about an email in which Clinton allies were allegedly getting hold of debate questions beforehand - even included this explicit caveat:

The emails, which have been made public in batches by WikiLeaks, have been largely unconfirmed and are believed to have been stolen by Russian intelligence.

On the evidence then, media organisations have been rather more gunshy about publishing “unverified” negative news information about Trump than they were about Clinton. This is relevant, given (a) Trump’s strident attempts to portray himself as a victim of media hostility, and (b) his willingness to brush aside legitimate queries, and (c) try to intimidate or blacklist the journalists concerned.

More from the art/life intersection…

As we all know, it was the Simpsons that first invoked the spectre of a “President Trump” more than 15 years ago. Well, the item below goes back even further. In the late 1950s, a Western called Trackdown contained a sequence in which a charismatic con man called Trump came to town prophesying doom and destruction unless the good townspeople pay him money and follow his instructions:

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