A dossier alleging that Russian intelligence agents watched and possibly recorded Donald Trump in kinky flagrante in Moscow has set the internet alight: #watersportsgate is the top trending topic on Twitter. Its publication by Buzzfeed raises the question of whether journalists' role has changed in 2017.
Penned by a former MI6 intelligence agent, according to CNN, the report also cites sources who claim Trump and his associates were happy for Russia to be painted as the bogeyman during the election, as it diverted attention away from their bribery and other corruption in China and elsewhere.
The dossier's sources also claim that Trump’s team accepted information about Hillary Clinton and other political opponents from Russia for several years. Moreover, they allege that Russian intelligence agents have ‘kompramat’ – compromising materials – about Trump that could give them leverage over him.
Buzzfeed admitted it was unable to verify the report’s claims and conceded it contained errors. But it went ahead and published it anyway, entrusting the matter to the court of public opinion. Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote to his team that “publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017”.
Although the events of the past year have forced journalists to do some soul-searching, it’s doubtful their job will be to publish highly defamatory claims without verifying them first. Buzzfeed and the droves of news outlets that reported on its decision have given the report a veneer of credibility that it doesn’t deserve.
One can argue for an ‘open-access’ society where information is shared with the public without editing or curation, in search of greater truth and objectivity. However, the reality is that only a minority of people seek out original documents and form their own conclusions; many trust news outlets to tell them what they need to know. By publishing without verifying, Buzzfeed has neglected its duty as a journalistic outfit to serve as a garbage filter and arbiter of the truth.
Another concern is that if the report’s claims are proven false – individuals who supposedly held secret meetings in Russia are already coming forward with alibis – they will provide ammunition for conservatives to return fire against liberals who have accused them of propagating ‘fake news’. Public faith in mainstream media would likely weaken even more. Indeed, Donald Trump’s tweet in response to the report was: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
Thirdly, the report is likely to distract from real concerns about the incoming administration. Some pundits have crowed about the timing of the report, as the president-elect has scheduled a press conference today for the first time in more than five months, and will likely face a barrage of questions on the topic.
However, journalists will be wasting a rare opportunity to interrogate Trump about pressing issues rather than salacious and potentially false accusations. His plans for handling conflicts of interest between his businesses and political duties, for example, or his stubborn denial of the intelligence community’s view that the Russian government interfered in the US election to help get him elected.
Buzzfeed’s saving grace is that US intelligence officials deemed the allegations to be credible enough that they briefed both the incoming and outgoing presidents on the report. However, they may have just been preparing them in case the claims were made public. Moreover, information relevant to national security doesn't necessarily belong in the public sphere.
In an attempt to redefine journalism for a new era, Buzzfeed violated a critical tenet of the profession: ABC, or accuracy, balance and care. Journalists will have a vital role to play in holding Trump accountable; spreading ungrounded claims will distract from that mission and erode the public’s trust in them.