Why the BuzzFeed debacle damaged journalism and handed Trump a gift

For BuzzFeed to publish totally unsubstantiated allegations against Donald Trump -- while saying “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations” -- turns the practice of journalism on its head.

It is a perversion of what we do for a living to spew out material that may be nothing more than bogus rumors and disinformation, and to claim, as BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith does, that this is “how we see the role of reporters in 2017.”

The president-elect and his team decided yesterday to tackle this head on, to take the fight to both BuzzFeed and CNN, to make the media the issue rather than defensively deflecting the questions. And they had a big fat target.

BuzzFeed, a pop culture site with an overlay of news, is not exactly friendly to Trump. In fact, Smith told his staff in a 2015 memo that it’s “entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others have reported clearly and aggressively: he's out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign.” This, said Smith, was fact, not opinion.

Trump called BuzzFeed “a failing piece of garbage” that is going to “suffer the “consequences” of its actions. Sean Spicer called it “frankly outrageous” and a “highly irresponsible” decision by a “left-wing” blog. Mike Pence blamed it on “media bias.” The decision to have the incoming vice president and press secretary denounce the website before Trump spoke -- with Reince Priebus doing the same on the morning shows -- underscores how they viewed this as a prime opportunity to discredit the press.

Smith told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd last night, “When you have an object that’s in play … you do have to ask the question, why should I suppress that?”

But Todd shot back: “You’ve just published fake news.”

But it’s worth noting that Trump also said this: “I want to thank a lot of the news organizations, some of whom have not treated me very well over the years -- a couple in particular -- and they came out so strongly against that fake news, and the fact that it was written about by primarily one group and one television station.”

The furor began Tuesday when anchor Jake Tapper said the following: “A CNN exclusive. CNN has learned that the nation's top intelligence officials provided information to President-elect Donald Trump and to President Barack Obama last week about claims of Russian efforts to compromise President-elect Trump.”

Now CNN made an editorial decision not to detail those claims because they are unverified. That’s an important distinction.

But by using the fact that Trump was briefed about a two-page synopsis as a way to report the story, CNN put it in play and raised doubts whether, in some nefarious way, Trump had actually been “compromised.” I wouldn’t have made that decision, and other news outlets that now say they had the material didn’t either.

There was a confrontational moment at the presser when Trump started criticizing CNN and its correspondent, Jim Acosta, demanded to be heard. I can understand him shouting out, but when he did it repeatedly as the president-elect refused to call on him, it sounded rude. Trump finally dismissed him by saying: “You are fake news.”

After the presser, Tapper told viewers: “I suspect we are seeing here is an attempt to discredit legitimate responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration with irresponsible journalism that hurts us all.”

But it was BuzzFeed that published the whole sex-lies-and-videotape report, which you can easily find elsewhere. All this put the rest of the media in the uncomfortable position of reporting on an unproven story while trying to dance around the details -- although some websites were happy to repeat the rumors.

As one example, the 35-page dossier says that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met with Kremlin envoys last year in Prague. Cohen says he has never been to Prague and can confirm where he was on the date in question.

As a reporter, I’ve heard all manner of rumors, unproven conspriacies and salacious crap over the years. I would never dream of publishing them without rock-solid confirmation.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, told his paper: “We, like others, investigated the allegations and haven’t corroborated them, and we felt we’re not in the business of publishing things we can’t stand by.”

BuzzFeed -- whose other offerings yesterday included “How Bitchy Is Your Resting Face?" and ”Would you get rid of your phone just to have an orgasm?”-- says it is being “transparent” with its readers. Unfortunately, the transparency enabled all of us to see shoddy journalism in action and handed Trump a gift-wrapped present.