Gordon Campbell on the ethics of publishing the Trump dossier

The controversy over the dossier purporting to show US President-elect Donald Trump’s alleged ties with Russia has been virtually overshadowed by the related controversy over whether the Buzzfeed site should have published the dossier in the first place. After all, some august mainstream news outlets – eg the Washington Post, New York Times and the Guardian – had previously seen the dossier but had decided not to publish it, apparently because the contents could not be verified

I’m more inclined to agree with the equally prestigious Columbia Journalism Review, which has come out in support of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish. As CJR points out, and as you can see from the original Buzzfeed story, Buzzfeed had put a warning up front that the dossier contents were “unverified”. On the other hand, as CJR goes on to argue:

[Buzzfeed] Editor in Chief Ben Smith convincingly defended the decision [to publish] in a staff memo, arguing that the dossier was being read and talked about “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.”

By publishing the documents when it did, accompanied by strong caveats about their reliability, BuzzFeed put itself at the heart of the story and made some of its most prominent journalists go-to people for any tips the dossier might generate. The most typical kind of investigative reporting entails spending months or even years gathering documents and cultivating sources to build an unshakable edifice. BuzzFeed took a different but still well-established approach: Release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates.

Arguably, it should have been obvious weeks ago that this horse had already bolted. The fact that the dossier was clearly being taken seriously by decision makers in the US government (and by US intelligence agencies) and was already part of the decision frame for real-life repercussions – eg. the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by the Obama administration – makes publication (with the caveats provided) seem a virtual no-brainer.

Yet, with hindsight, it is fascinating that so many mainstream news outlets chose not to publish the dossier for so long. As CJR notes, this info on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia had been kicking around the backrooms of many news organisations for months. David Corn had written about it in Mother Jones magazine in late October 2016, at a time when the final stages of the US election were being roiled by vague and ultimately groundless insinuations (about Hillary Clinton’s emails) that were then being touted by FBI director James Comey. You can read Corn’s story here.

The Comey misgivings about the Clinton emails were front page news for the fortnight before Election Day, and are widely believed to have affected the outcome – even though, it eventually transpired that the “ new” information that Comey was talking about was comprised of only secondary and tertiary versions of emails already vetted and cleared by the FBI months beforehand. Point being : there seems to have been a double standard at work here, when it came down to publishing ‘unverified” concerns about the election candidates.

To back up the point: news organisations had been willing last year to publish what it had conceded were ‘unverified’ content from alleged Democratic Party emails obtained by Wikileaks via what are believed to have been Russian hacking and/or phishing operations. As CJR says, one of these stories – about an email in which Clinton allies were allegedly getting hold of debate questions beforehand – even included this explicit caveat:

The emails, which have been made public in batches by WikiLeaks, have been largely unconfirmed and are believed to have been stolen by Russian intelligence.

On the evidence then, media organisations have been rather more gunshy about publishing “unverified” negative news information about Trump than they were about Clinton. This is relevant, given (a) Trump’s strident attempts to portray himself as a victim of media hostility, and (b) his willingness to brush aside legitimate queries, and (c) try to intimidate or blacklist the journalists concerned.

More from the art/life intersection…

As we all know, it was the Simpsons that first invoked the spectre of a “President Trump” more than 15 years ago. Well, the item below goes back even further. In the late 1950s, a Western called Trackdown contained a sequence in which a charismatic con man called Trump came to town prophesying doom and destruction unless the good townspeople pay him money and follow his instructions:

8 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the ethics of publishing the Trump dossier

  1. Wikileaks is the US intelligence’s fast hearsay to the public program.
    If wiki said it then its true and or important.
    Trump and Clinton are both evil “Bankster twats “.

  2. Gordon, no amount of linguistic gymnastics by you, or any other blogger, will cover the fact that Buzzfeed published alleged rubbish that was not, and could not be verified.
    The harm is done, even if the alleged stuff turns out to be actually rubbish. Which it probably is. And that’s what these partisan hacks wanted to do.
    You can bet your boots if the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, three newspapers that have consistently trashed Trump, decided not to publish it because the contents could not be verified, that it is rubbish.
    This is just flat out unprofessional, and disgusting. The fourth estate is surely never going to recover it’s integrity after this sickening attempt to slime a President Elect.

  3. From Robert Parry of Consortium News, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek……

    “The stories about Russian intelligence supposedly filming Trump in a high-end Moscow hotel with prostitutes have been circulating around Washington for months. I was briefed about them by a Hillary Clinton associate who was clearly hopeful that the accusations would be released before the election and thus further damage Trump’s chances. But the alleged video never seemed to surface and the claims had all the earmarks of a campaign dirty trick.

    However, now the tales of illicit frolic have been elevated to another level. They have been inserted into an official U.S. intelligence report, the details of which were leaked first to CNN and then to other mainstream U.S. news media outlets.

    Trump has denounced the story as “fake news” and it is certainly true that the juicy details – reportedly assembled by a former British MI-6 spy named Christopher Steele – have yet to check out. But the placement of the rumors in a U.S. government document gave the mainstream media an excuse to publicize the material.

    Now, we are seeing what looks like a new phase in this “stop (or damage) Trump” strategy, the inclusion of anti-Trump dirt in an official intelligence report that was then leaked to the major media.
    Whether this move was meant to soften up Trump or whether the intelligence community genuinely thought that the accusations might be true and deserved inclusion in a report on alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics or whether it was some combination of the two, we are witnessing a historic moment when the U.S. intelligence community has deployed its extraordinary powers within the domain of U.S. politics.

    J. Edgar Hoover would be proud.”

  4. Trump has the potential to do what John F Kennedy wanted to do before he was assassinated – break the CIA into a thousand pieces. Trump’s friendly approach to Russia and Putin threatens the oligarchic warmongers’ plans for endless war and domination – thus the continuing efforts by the current Deep State to undermine him.

  5. Gordon, do you read Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept?
    If not, you should. He’s got it right this morning…..

    “The serious dangers posed by a Trump presidency are numerous and manifest. There are a wide array of legitimate and effective tactics for combatting those threats: from bipartisan congressional coalitions and constitutional legal challenges to citizen uprisings and sustained and aggressive civil disobedience. All of those strategies have periodically proven themselves effective in times of political crisis or authoritarian overreach.

    But cheering for the CIA and its shadowy allies to unilaterally subvert the U.S. election and impose its own policy dictates on the elected president is both warped and self-destructive. Empowering the very entities that have produced the most shameful atrocities and systemic deceit over the last six decades is desperation of the worst kind. Demanding that evidence-free, anonymous assertions be instantly venerated as Truth — despite emanating from the very precincts designed to propagandize and lie — is an assault on journalism, democracy, and basic human rationality. And casually branding domestic adversaries who refuse to go along as traitors and disloyal foreign operatives is morally bankrupt and certain to backfire on those doing it.
    Beyond all that, there is no bigger favor that Trump opponents can do for him than attacking him with such lowly, shabby, obvious shams, recruiting large media outlets to lead the way. When it comes time to expose actual Trump corruption and criminality, who is going to believe the people and institutions who have demonstrated they are willing to endorse any assertions no matter how factually baseless, who deploy any journalistic tactic no matter how unreliable and removed from basic means of ensuring accuracy?

    All of these toxic ingredients were on full display yesterday as the Deep State unleashed its tawdriest and most aggressive assault yet on Trump: vesting credibility in and then causing the public disclosure of a completely unvetted and unverified document, compiled by a paid, anonymous operative while he was working for both GOP and Democratic opponents of Trump, accusing Trump of a wide range of crimes, corrupt acts and salacious private conduct. The reaction to all of this illustrates that while the Trump presidency poses grave dangers, so, too, do those who are increasingly unhinged in their flailing, slapdash, and destructive attempts to undermine it”

  6. Who is it that believes the banker’s media conglomerate has any knowledge of ethics?
    We don’t have real news (just the facts) that would be independent and objective, what we have is polarized( us v them, good v evil) and tons of fake news.
    Both Clinton and Trump appear as corrupt, criminal and perverted characters, that was why they were selected, not selected by the people but by the money-men to run for president of the corporation of the usa.

    None of the CIA’s Wikileaks stream is verified for that is why it was created, for fast dispersal of ideas and thoughts to people who now know enough to do not trust the mainstream media or govt.
    Who believes the Empire that runs the internet or the US intelligence agency would allow information that they did not want to be publicly released?

    The banking cabal wanted you to know your privacy is being violated by the govt’s mass surveillance program.As Michel Foucault and other social theorists have realized, the watcher/watched scenario is chiefly about power. It amplifies and exaggerates the sense of power in the person doing the watching, and on the flip side, enhances the sense of powerlessness in the watched.”

  7. LOL, your paranoia’s are running wild this morning Anabel!

    You better watch out posting comments on the internet or the US intelligence agencies will be knocking at your mothers door!

    And I notice that “the empire who runs the internet” is allowing you to keep posting. Surely “…they do not want(your)information to be publicly released?” Or maybe they thing what you post is mostly loony tunes stuff.

  8. @John, but as Trump has been selected and run for president by the oligarchy and was put in as president of their US corporation he is part of the Oligarchy.
    What on earth would make you believe that the false news and cold war memes from the mainstream media is the truth? He was not selected by the people, no one just says he’ll run for president gets handed “CANDIDATE COMMITTEE MONEY” $248 million us dollars and OUTSIDE MONEY: $75 million us. The whole so called election process is a media campaign ( unfair, corrupted and biased).

    There is no such thing as ethics in the Oligarchy’s media conglomerate.
    Even in NZ its branch media brand posts a $100 million loss and yet still pays its shareholders dividends while it fires its journos and continues to publish propaganda, the ruling 1% opinions and stories.
    Putin, Trump, Clinton and Bush all bat for the same team … and that oligarchy runs a globalized intel org.

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