As you’re likely aware by now, yesterday evening BuzzFeed published a dossier of allegations about Donald Trump, including the instantly unforgettable description of a hotel-room piss party with Russian prostitutes. This set the internet on fire for much of last night and dominated a bizarre press conference held earlier today in which the president-elect, among other things, suggested that BuzzFeed would face “consequences.”
The truth of the claims in the dossier has not been verified; what has been verified, by several other outlets, is that this dossier exists, and has been known to exist for some time, and contains the claims in BuzzFeed’s reporting. Yesterday afternoon, prior to BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier’s contents, CNN reported both the dossier’s existence, and that both Trump and President Obama had been briefed on its contents by senior intelligence officials. According to CNN’s reporting, as far back as Dec. 9, John McCain gave a copy of the dossier to FBI director James Comey. In BuzzFeed’s words, the dossier “has been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks.”
As you might expect, much of the talk around media today is about journalism ethics and responsibility. What may surprise and horrify you—or anyway should—is that by and large the journalists being accused of dereliction are not the ones who participated in the circulation of this explosively and undeniably newsworthy dossier for weeks without reporting its contents to the public, but the ones who eventually did get around to performing that simple and fundamental journalistic function.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple thinks the public can’t be trusted with the dossier’s contents until they “build their own intelligence agencies,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the public already did that, when it built the very intelligence agencies whose head honchos briefed Donald Trump on the dossier’s contents but withheld them from the public. Poynter, a professional handwringing outfit specializing in scolding working reporters who break news, thinks “the work of journalists in 2017” is to make sure the public doesn’t learn about the things its elected leaders are discussing in secret unless those things can be proven to be based on verifiable fact. CNN’s Jake Tapper went on the air today to draw a smarmy contrast between “legitimate, responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration” and, y’know, publishing the contents of a document that has been occupying attention in the corridors of national power for weeks.
Here’s a revoltingly typical example of today’s performative qualming, from The Atlantic’s David Graham; I’ll highlight the part where my laptop went frisbeeing over the fucking horizon:
That raises a range of potential objections. First, it unfairly forces a public figure—Trump, in this case—to respond to a set of allegations that might or might not be entirely scurrilous; the reporters, by their own admission, do not know. Second, the appeal to “transparency” notwithstanding, this represents an abdication of the basic responsibility of journalism. The reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain, though that can at times be useful too, as some of WikiLeaks’ revelations have shown. It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not.
The appeal to “transparency” notwithstanding. Holy shit! If a reporter’s job is not “learn what powerful people are talking about in secret, and then share it with everybody else,” then I sincerely do not know what the fuck it is, or why we are supposed to believe it has any value whatsoever.
Here is a document that “elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists” have been circulating among themselves in secret “for weeks” is not merely a permissible news story. It needs no radical extremist reporting catechism to smile upon it. Publishing that document, if you have gotten your hands on it, is the most basic and essential act of reporting. The mandate to publish that document is not a matter of journalistic ethics, but the entire reason to have a free press. If the reason not to publish it is fealty to some code of ethics, then that code of ethics serves only to uphold reporters as a privileged class of information brokers. Of what value is that to the public?
But even on its own terms, this argument can’t stand up. If a reporter’s job is to sift through information to parse out what can be verified before sharing it with the public, let’s look at the verified truths in this story. No one disputes that the dossier exists, or that it contains the claims in BuzzFeed’s reporting, or that it has been making the rounds among many of the most powerful people in American government, though not all of them:
Some of the most powerful people in American society have been sharing and reading and discussing a document. We’re supposed to be mad at the reporters who decided that everyone else should get a look at it too?
Graham further wrings his hands over Trump—by his own admission a public figure—being forced to respond to the dossier’s allegations. That Donald Trump is a public figure is no accident: You may recall him seeking, and winning, election to the presidency of the United States. (Perhaps you additionally remember him flouting the disclosure protocols typically associated with campaigning for that job.) This dossier reportedly has been making the rounds among some of the highest-ranking people in the United States government, including Trump and (presumably) his staff; the discussion about it is happening; and it was already happening before anybody at BuzzFeed clicked a button to publish the thing. Under no set of circumstances would the incoming president of the United States—a figure not just “public” in the sense of being very famous, but one whose accountability to the public is written into the laws of the land—be able to avoid responding, in some way or another, formally or informally, to a dossier circulating at the highest levels of government alleging that he has troublesome and potentially scandalous ties to a foreign power (and enjoys watching Russian hookers piss on beds in which the Obamas have slept).
All BuzzFeed’s reporting has assured is that that response—which, again, never was not going to happen—must include some public component. In short, it has assured that an elected official is forced to answer, however poorly or dishonestly, to the people who elected him. It has fulfilled the highest and most basic purpose of journalism.
And here are reporters, for chrissakes, telling us that a trade interest in controlling the flow of information ought to prevent that from happening. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Donald Trump happened. Here’s part of the answer.