BuzzFeed’s report just made life harder for journalists

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish an unverified report about President-elect Trump damaged the already unstable relationship existing between the media, politicians, and voters. 

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Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith made the rounds on the Wednesday talk shows to defend what he described as BuzzFeed’s journalistic responsibility to publish the document. The media does, of course, have a role to play when it comes to acting as a government watchdog. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and even the Monica Lewinsky scandal are examples of when news organizations were right to release sensitive, verifiable information to the public.

 

Each of those examples involved evidence that led to a confirmation of wrongdoing. Smith, on the other hand, acknowledged that his team had spent weeks trying to verify the information in the report BuzzFeed published, only to come up empty-handed.

That story has only become worse for BuzzFeed in subsequent days. Far from being a document produced by the U.S. intelligence community, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on Wednesday, it appears to have been written by an overseas security firm, and it had been offered to more than one journalist over the last several months. BuzzFeed was just the first to accept.

Granted, BuzzFeed is not your typical news organization, noting on its website that it is “best known for exploding watermelons, The Dress, Tasty, award-winning news investigations, quizzes, and lists.” But it also describes itself as a “global news organization,” which involves an implied adherence to journalistic standards.

It isn’t the first time BuzzFeed deviated from those standards. Smith in 2015 told employees it was “entirely fair” to describe Trump as a “mendacious racist.” But at the same time, he claimed, BuzzFeed’s “reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion.”

He changed his tune on Wednesday in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. “I think in the long term, we all have to reckon with the reality that we've got to engage information that is out there, true and false, do our best to verify it and be as transparent as we can with our readers about what we know, what we don't know and what we doubt. It's an incredibly uncomfortable thing, I think, for everybody.”

BuzzFeed’s job in post-election America, in other words, is to publish information that supports a very narrow ideological agenda, even when it might be false.

Considering its opposition to Trump, it’s ironic that BuzzFeed has become the chief example illustrating Trump’s complaints about the “dishonest media.” Smith’s decision to publish “fake news” contributes to the narrative that the mainstream media is the chief culprit behind the spread of disinformation.

BuzzFeed’s persistent denial of wrongdoing amplifies that problem. Little surprise that Trump can refer to the organization as a “failing pile of garbage,” or get into a shouting match with CNN’s Jim Acosta after referring to his network as “fake news,” with little backlash from the public.

For now, it looks to the public that Trump is right to criticize the media. BuzzFeed has reinforced that impression by tarnishing the industry’s reputation and sowing mistrust among voters who see too many journalists acting more like political activists. That could undermine legitimate journalists seeking to fill a role as genuine government watchdogs in the future, whether that’s under Trump or subsequent presidents. 

Preya Samsundar is a senior editor for Alpha News, a Minnesota-based news agency.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.