BuzzFeed editor defends publishing explosive allegations against Donald Trump

BuzzFeed on Tuesday published a 35-page dossier that summarized damaging allegations about President-elect Donald Trump's personal and financial dealings.

By publishing the entire dossier, which has not been disclosed publicly by U.S. intelligence agencies, BuzzFeed has taken an unusual step. It's uncommon for public-spirited news organizations to publish explosive, unverified information about public officials without first confirming the details independently.

Complicating the situation is the origin of the information: The dossier was compiled by a person — not identified in the story — who claims to be a former British intelligence official working for Trump's political opponents. The report also contains errors, as BuzzFeed notes — one company's name is misspelled, and one town is inaccurately described. Furthermore, Trump and his surrogate, attorney Michael Cohen, have denied the substance of the report.

Despite this, BuzzFeed's story justified publishing the information "so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government."

Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed, explained the decision to publish the story in a memo to staff Tuesday evening (which he then shared on Twitter).

Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation 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.

In the memo, Smith said that BuzzFeed has been working to verify "specific claims in this document for weeks." The story notes that some of the claims are "potentially unverifiable," however, and the dossier says that proving the allegations may require testimony from key witnesses that have been "silenced."

BuzzFeed opted to publish the dossier anyway, Smith wrote.

"Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice," Smith wrote. "But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."

CNN, meanwhile, has disclosed that "compromising personal and financial" allegations have been made against Trump but did not describe them in detail. The New York Times describes the report as "unsubstantiated" but published summaries of the most damaging allegations.

Here's Smith's full memo:

As you have probably seen, this evening we published a secret dossier making explosive and unverified allegations about Donald Trump and Russia. I wanted to briefly explain to you how we made the decision to publish it.

We published the dossier, which Ken Bensinger obtained through his characteristically ferocious reporting, so that, as we wrote, "Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government."

Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation 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.

As we noted in our story, there is serious reason to doubt the allegations. We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to.

Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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