In this week’s politics chat, we debate the journalistic ethics and political implications of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish a memo full of unsubstantiated allegations against President-elect Donald Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone. It’s been an unreal week in the political world. We’ve got the confirmation hearings, President Obama’s farewell address and Donald Trump’s first press conference in months. Then, amid all this, news broke about a “secret” dossier that the Russians supposedly compiled about Trump. Then Buzzfeed published the documents. So we’re going to talk about this dossier and how it’s been handled, but first: Nate, can you give us the top line of what happened here — what we know and don’t know?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): There’s a 35-page document, attributed to a “person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official,” which makes various accusations about Trump, ranging from a kinky sexual episode (which is said to have provided Russia with “kompromat,” or compromising information that might be used for blackmail) to various quid pro quos between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The document, or previous versions of it, has been circulating in journalistic and political circles since at least October. Buzzfeed published the whole thing on Monday, when other news organizations had mostly referred to it only in a circumspect way. And lots of people are pissed at Buzzfeed for doing this, and Trump spent a lot of time bashing Buzzfeed and CNN (which also reported on the documents fairly extensively) in his press conference.
micah: So let’s start with the fundamental question: Should Buzzfeed have published the memo in full? Would we have published this? (I should say, at the outset, that there are a lot of FiveThirtyEighters who aren’t in this chat who also have strong opinions about this and would have a say on whether to publish, so this is not a perfect representation of what our internal deliberations would look like.)
natesilver: Well, I’ll ignore for a moment that this isn’t really a story in FiveThirtyEight’s expertise, which obviously is a reason that we’d lean against publishing a story on this at all. Suppose the memo was on a subject where we felt like we had a lot of in-house expertise? The answer is that … we’d have had a huge fight about it. Parts of which we will simulate for you, dear reader, right now.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Under the circumstances — a number of unverifiable and not-yet-verified allegations in a document rife with errors — no, I don’t think Buzzfeed should have published.
I think it’s journalistic malpractice to have done so.
And I say that not because I think the American public can’t decide things for themselves (Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith reasoned that by publishing the full document, the site allowed readers to evaluate it themselves) but because part of the responsibility of journalists is to act as a filter for people to help them discern what is real and what is not. And I think that this story has done the industry a huge disservice at a time when it can’t afford to keep losing the public’s trust.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): There are reasons to publish and reasons not to publish, but I don’t think the idea that we should just let people decide for themselves is a reason to publish. That’s what Wikileaks does. That’s not a news organization. That’s a clearinghouse of information that is either real or fake. And while it could be argued that journalists aren’t very good at figuring out what is good or bad information, I think it’s something quite different when you have a news organization essentially saying at the top that some of this stuff is fake.
micah: OK, Nate, give us the pro-publishing argument. I think you lean more in that direction, right?
natesilver: I’m not sure I’m pro-publishing, no. But what I’d say is this: If you’re going to write about the document at all, I think there’s a strong case for publishing the document. We probably wouldn’t have written about the document at all if the sourcing was so sketchy.
clare.malone: Well, Nate, I think you can write about the allegations in the document effectively while not exposing yourself to being caught up in propagating some untruths. CNN did that with their report on it.
natesilver: I’m just more cynical than you about how effective reporters are at doing that sort of thing.
clare.malone: We’re already seeing claims made in the documents being debunked, yet Twitter has glommed on to this golden shower thing, and I think that’s likely to be most people’s takeaway from all this. And I find that unfortunate, especially if it’s unverifiable. The top-line takeaways are being undercut, I think.
natesilver: I agree that the, uh, golden shower stuff in some ways does Trump a favor, because who the hell cares about that, really?
I’m just a lot closer to Buzzfeed’s paradigm where I distrust the idea of the media as gatekeepers.
micah: I think I’m against publishing, but something about the idea that this was widely circulating among the media and political elite but wasn’t available to the public does bother me. At the same time, I don’t buy the argument that that wide circulation made this newsworthy. Slate’s Will Oremus had a good summary of the problem here:
It [publishing] happened via a series of steps by various actors, each of whom relied on the actions of those before them to justify their own decisions. BuzzFeed presumably published it in part because CNN was reporting on it. CNN was reporting on it because intelligence officials had briefed Trump on it. Intelligence officials briefed Trump on it because senior congressional leaders were passing it around. Senior congressional leaders may have been passing it around in part because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid alluded to it in a letter blasting FBI Director James Comey for publicizing information harmful to Hillary Clinton but not publicizing the dirt on Trump. Each act lowered the bar for those who followed to act on information that they knew might or might not be true.
clare.malone: I don’t think of media as gatekeepers so much as watchdogs for truth, Nate. That’s a real difference.
harry: The question is: Where does Buzzfeed end and Wikileaks begin? Well, that’s the question for me, anyway.
clare.malone: Gatekeeping implies some sort of power conspiracy in Washington that just wanted to keep this gossip for themselves, but that wasn’t the concern for news organizations — the concern was the report contained a lot of on-the-face-of-it errors, a lot of things that made them suspect, and a source that had a serious bias.
natesilver: I don’t think the comparison between Buzzfeed and Wikileaks makes sense.
With Wikileaks, there wasn’t really much question about the veracity of the information. The ethical issue was about how it was obtained.
harry: I meant it more in terms of just publishing stuff that isn’t exactly verifiable.
natesilver: I compare it more to how the media handled the Comey letter. Very unclear what it was all about. And yet it was treated as obviously bad news for Hillary Clinton and a huge game-changer. And it turned out to be a nothingburger. That was a massive, massive journalistic failure.
micah: How is this similar to that, though? I’m not seeing it.
harry: Of course, that was an actual letter from someone who was known.
clare.malone: Well, in the case of the Comey letter, there had been a previous investigation into Clinton by the FBI, so there was actually something for people to follow off of to make deductions that it wasn’t the best thing for Clinton. Not the best comparison, in my book.
natesilver: Meaning, the campaign press was happy to speculate based on incomplete information in the case of the Comey letter, without really having done any reporting on the story.
clare.malone: We’ve got one British intelligence agent who is our source in this story. No one knows him from Adam. Comey was the head of a federal agency.
micah: But with the Trump dossier, they had done a ton of reporting and not been able to verify any of the claims in the documents. That fact — that multiple media organizations and intelligence agencies have had this for a while and not been able to verify any of it — is super important in my book.
clare.malone: The dossier was published by Buzzfeed essentially, they said, because it had been the subject of Washington chatter and they thought Americans should be able to chatter about it too. But we aren’t British biddies gossipping in a village market — “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” isn’t a good enough reason to publish something like this in the way that they did.
natesilver: Right, so you maybe shouldn’t publish anything on it at all? I’m just saying. I don’t necessarily want CNN’s filtered version of the story. And I don’t like the idea of gossip that’s circulated very widely in media circles being withheld from the public out of some sense of propriety. When in so many other cases — like the Comey letter — the press is abundantly happy to gossip in public.
clare.malone: So CNN was basically laying out for people the thing that purportedly intelligence services had told Trump in a meeting.
micah: Although there’s some question about whether they did tell Trump about this now.
Backing up a second for a moment: The dossier might have been part of the intelligence briefing not because intelligence agencies believed the allegations. Their point might have been to show that Russia was tilting toward Trump, and the proof was that Russia had dirt on both campaigns but only released stuff about Clinton. From the intelligence community’s point of view, it didn’t matter if the allegations in the dossier were true; they had a different point to make. And that’s something journalists should write about. And journalists can do that without publishing the dossier itself. They can say that it’s a bunch of unverified salacious gossip that may well have been made up by a rogue agent — but that ultimately, Russia did nothing with it. (And the FBI didn’t do much, either.)
clare.malone: Press people gossip, yes. But they don’t publish their gossip all the time for good reason. Human beings, especially reporters, want salacious things to happen — that’s just the way it is. But better angels and journalistic ethics advise us to carefully comb through things three times before we go to press.
Journalism isn’t gossip on glossy pages or newsprint. At least it shouldn’t be. I know my esteemed former Gawker friends would insert some arguments here. But I stand by my old-fashioned sanctimony.
natesilver: You’re describing a world where political journalism is a lot more truth-driven than it is in practice. Political journalism is incredibly political, and the reason that stories get published or not published or framed in a certain way often has a lot more to do with appearances than the underlying veracity of the claims.
micah: But Nate, that’s not reason to just throw up our hands and say, “Well, let’s just publish everything.” I’d rather us say, “Let’s do a better job of filtering and framing.”
natesilver: I just think some of the sanctimony about what Buzzfeed did is hypocritical.
harry: Would you have published it?
micah: The more I think about this, the more publishing the document seems like a fundamental abdication of journalistic duty — to put it in really obnoxious terms. We, for example, would never publish a data set and say, “We’re not sure if this is right, but have at it!”
natesilver: But what if lots of news organizations were publishing snippets of the database? And characterizing the database? And maybe even mischaracterizing it?
micah: That doesn’t persuade me at all. So what? We would write about them mischaracterizing and misusing it. Does publishing the full data set add truth into the world? No.
natesilver: It possibly adds to truth relative to publishing parts of the database.
clare.malone: Basically, so far, what your argument seems to be to me, Nate, is that we have journalists with bad standards and … we should realize that and get past our demand that journalism be better?
I’m missing the philosophical argument here about our role as journalists. And I want to hear the baseline opposing view!
natesilver: I think our role as journalists is to discover the truth.
clare.malone: OK. I agree.
micah: Should we ask our colleague Kyle Wagner (erstwhile Deadspin editor) to make the opposing argument?
kyle has joined the chat
clare.malone: Glad to have Kyle, but also want to hear Nate’s say.
natesilver: I guess something just feels wrong to me about the idea that dozens of reporters have seen this document, but that the general public can’t be trusted with it.
clare.malone: Because it might be untrue. That’s the reason. And news organizations publishing what might be internet rumor or Kremlin misinformation is really problematic.
What was there to report is that this was presented to Trump by intelligence agencies as something that was being peddled — rumors of Trump having close, possibly illegal ties to Russia. But they weren’t sure of that info either.
harry: Clare is a lot more convincing to me, I’ll tell ya.
clare.malone: When you put a document out there, unfiltered, as a news org, you’re lending your imprimatur to it.
micah: That’s the thing: In an ideal world, a reader visits nytimes.com or fivethirtyeight.com or buzzfeed.com and starts with the premise that everything they’re reading is true. Publishing this memo hurts that cause. If you want to live in a world where the media leans much more heavily toward publishing everything and then the media and the public engage in some type of Socratic effort to move everyone toward the truth, that’s defensible, but I just can’t imagine how that would work.
clare.malone: By publishing, you’re saying, implicitly at the very least, that you think there is substance to this.
natesilver: My stance is that then you shouldn’t touch the subject at all. I don’t like when reporters try to make superfine distinctions about how to characterize the dossier. If none of it is verifiable, don’t even go near it.
I’ve spent almost 10 years covering how the political press reports on polling data, and I’d say nuance isn’t really a strength.
micah: That’s 100 percent true.
clare.malone: But then we have to make it better, right? There are nuanced reporters. We should be encouraging that, not throwing up our hands and saying, “Nothing to be done here, they’re all fools.”
kyle: I can see the argument for not running the story at all — though I’d disagree with it — but once the CNN report was out there, the document itself was the story. The absurdity of the claims and the shaggy provenance of the report are crucial parts of that story. CNN tried to run the making-the-sausage story, but they left out the pieces that made it such a complex mess.
micah: So Kyle, your argument is to write a story about how there’s this shady/unsubstantiated memo rocketing around? Does that require publishing the memo?
clare.malone: You can publish a story about it and say that the claims haven’t been verified. It’s pretty simple. And that’s the reason why you’re not pubbing the claims.
And your language about the report is more vague, sure, but that seems responsible.
I would note here that I am the daughter of a lawyer and I feel that particularly in the internet age, people seem to feel free to lob around accusations and take a “guilty until proven innocent” stance on things that I’m fundamentally uncomfortable with.
kyle: If you’re going to do the story, I don’t see how you don’t run the memo. Lots of places chose not to run the story! CNN ran the story about this mysterious document that left readers with big, obvious questions that CNN had the answers to, but it didn’t share them.
micah: What questions?
kyle: “What are these claims that are so salacious that they’re eyes-only for the Gang of Eight and found their way to John McCain’s desk and are still being passed around to Trump and Obama?”
natesilver: To some extent, this is a question of defaults. I think Buzzfeed’s default is “the public has a right to this information as much as we do.” And I think I mostly agree with that.
micah: Margaret Sullivan captured your point about defaults succinctly:
Smith said he did so because his, and BuzzFeed’s preference and philosophy is, essentially, “When in doubt, publish.” But at many other news organizations, the rule is caution: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
harry: The more I think about this the less I wonder if this should have been published. I am not sure if any of this is true.
kyle: Micah didn’t ask me, but referring to the claims without actually stating them is no different from The New York Times refusing to publish the word “fuck” when a public figure says “fuck.” You’re leaving the reader with a needlessly incomplete accounting of facts.
clare.malone: I will accede that there is a fair amount of political journalism that falls into a certain penumbra — there is politicking between political figures and agencies and bodies. So there is reporting that gives the broad outlines of strategic thinking and back-and-forths. The idea that intelligence agencies are worried about ties to Russia and the president-elect are important ones to note to the American people, especially given previous reporting. You could characterize the intelligence community presenting Trump with allegations that he had made “inappropriate contact” with Russian intelligence agencies but say that the claims were still being investigated or some such.
We’re trying to help people synthesize and understand the world, and part of that synthesis is eliminating the hooey.
micah: So let’s talk briefly about the fallout from all this before we wrap. First, the relationship between Trump and the press seems to have reached a new low (and it was already really bad) just as Trump is about to take office. He bashed the hell out of the press in that news conference. And that CNN reporter pushed back pretty hard.
That terrible relationship seems like not a good thing, but it helps Trump in his crusade against the media, right?
natesilver: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think the politics of this are quite helpful for Trump.
clare.malone: Oh yeah.
natesilver: It was nicely timed from his perspective, in terms of letting him claim the moral high ground in the press conference.
harry: Well, hold on a second. I don’t think this loses him a single supporter. But I’m not sure it helps him gain one either.
clare.malone: I dunno, Harry.
kyle: To steal a phrase from a former boss, I think this serves as a literal vaccination against future stories or claims with anything but the most undeniable proof.
micah: Yeah, I think that’s right — at least with his supporters.
harry: Why would it help him? (In terms of polling, anyway.)
micah: Won’t some swing voters who aren’t reflexively anti-media look at the facts here and side with Trump?
clare.malone: Yeah, and I think, Kyle, that that sort of nuclear logic is not quite right or … logical.
natesilver: It also distracts from Trump’s conflicts of interest, which was the ostensible subject of the press conference.
harry: That’s a different tack.
clare.malone: I mean, forget gaining supporters, it’s eroding trust in the institution of the press — that has cascading effects.
harry: I could see that happening, where it distracts us from things that could hurt Trump.
natesilver: I don’t know. I’m not thinking about his approval ratings or anything like that, though. I’m thinking about the extent to which the dossier and how it was reported will make the press more fearful or fearless about covering Trump in the future.
I thought one of the brilliant things Trump did was to praise the news organizations who didn’t publish the memo. Give them a little treat for being obedient.
clare.malone: Jesus, you are cynical.
micah: I’m not sure reporters will see that as a reward.
kyle: Reporters, maybe not, but publishers?
micah: Publishers, yeah. Good point.
harry: These are arguments I’m more open to. And questions that I cannot answer. We still haven’t heard the last about this report, I don’t think.
micah: But if next week, some media outlet has some other magical dossier, and let’s say they’re 90 percent confident in the claims contained therein, do they publish? Aren’t they less likely to publish now? And at 90 percent or 95 percent, don’t we want them to publish?
clare.malone: These things are case-by-case calls. There’s no way that we can sit here and make that call for people.
natesilver: This sort of gets back to the conversation about defaults.
micah: No, I know, but I’m just saying they’re less likely to publish now. Given all the blowback against Buzzfeed.
clare.malone: Are they?
harry: Most news organizations wouldn’t have done what Buzzfeed did. We know that because they didn’t.
clare.malone: I don’t know. It would make me hungrier to publish something that I felt confident I had reported out. And take the inevitable spitball from Trump as a mark of honor. I’m going to stand up for reporters here!
As long as your mother or your dog loves you, you shouldn’t worry about who you offend, right? As long as it’s verifiable and the truth.
micah: Yeah, I think most reporters would love to be attacked by Trump, actually.
harry: If you want someone to love you and you’re in the media, get a dog.
micah: My dog loves me:
natesilver: Do these principles need to be in conflict, though? Suppose I believe both of the following: 1. reporters ought to make a lot of effort to determine the veracity of what they write, and 2. there shouldn’t be that much of a distinction between reporters and citizens, and we should generally avoid reporters knowing things that citizens don’t know.
micah: But those are in direct conflict, Nate.
natesilver: Really? What if you reported out a very in-depth story about the dossier that tried to sort through the claims as best it could but then also published the dossier to show your source material.
kyle: Take a dumb sports analogy: If a general manager was trying to tank a player’s trade value with ridiculous claims, the decision to publish isn’t based on whether or not those claims are true, it’s based on the fact that this is a thing that someone is trying to sell to other GMs. And, of course, you include what the ridiculous claim is, because that’s the reason it is a story.
micah: Hmmm … that’s actually somewhat persuasive, Kyle.
clare.malone: But there is training that reporters go through, Nate. Knowing who to call for comment, knowing your responsibilities for reaching out to such and such.
Citizen bloggers or whatever don’t have that same background most of the time. I’m not disputing the idea that reporters should fill citizens in on pretty much what they know — that’s our job — but if a reporter is genuinely unsure of something, I think it’s prudent to hold back until you know more and can more fully educate the public.
natesilver: At FiveThirtyEight, we quite often say, “Here’s what’s going on the best that we can figure out, but if you don’t trust us, go download the data yourself.”
micah: But the data isn’t in question there, Nate, the conclusions that should be drawn from it are.
Think about all the reporting that goes into a typical story. Think about all the calls you make and all the B.S. that gets fed to you — that should be left out.
natesilver: So, would you have a problem if a news organization started to run a transcript of every interview they conducted?
Generally, we want there to be a really high signal-to-noise ratio in American media. That would add a ton of noise.
harry: (I, for one, wouldn’t read those transcripts.)
natesilver: Having had my views misquoted and mischaracterized so many times, I’d be way in favor of news organizations often publishing transcripts.
micah: But that’s an argument for better filtering, not for no filtering.
natesilver: It’s also an argument for recognizing our human limitations as filters.
And that journalists have a lot of incentives that compete with truth-seeking, in terms of making them better filters.
clare.malone: Ton of noise, I agree. But technically, if the conversation was on the record, sure, run the transcript. What’s important with quotes is always context. Context problems are mostly what pols/public figures/Nate Silver complain about when being misquoted or misconstrued, right?
micah: Sure. I’ve been at FiveThirtyEight for six years now and been around for several separate flurries of stories about us, and I’d say probably only 10 to 20 percent are fundamentally accurate. But I don’t think those writers publishing transcripts of all their interviews would help.
micah: OK, we gotta wrap. Closing thoughts?
clare.malone: Well, now I’m worried Nate’s gonna fire me and hire a 13-year-old citizen blogger.