In the midst of Sen. Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing for attorney general and hours before President Obama’s final address yesterday, Buzzfeed News published an “unverified dossier,” which overshadowed both. The document, “compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official,” suggests that the Russian government has unreleased dirt on President-elect Donald Trump, meaning he’s firmly under their thumb.
Finally, after months of wondering why Trump would be consistent only in his dyed-in-the-wool dedication to a foreign despot, we’ve got an answer.
Except we don’t. As an answer to the public’s speculation, BuzzFeed’s piece is so thin and disclaimer-laden as to be worthless; it offers the shape of scandal without actionable content.
I’ve been lucky enough to learn from seasoned reporters who have broken deeply reported, rigorous stories. Some of these stories have changed the course of history; all have led to the improved administration of justice, be it social, political or legal. Investigations are both technical and theoretical; we spend as much time learning about source protection and how to file FOIA requests as we do on journalism history and ethical debates.
But if pressed to condense the rich range of what I’ve learned from my teachers and colleagues in a single sentence, it would be thus: Don’t publish unverifiable information, you numbskulls.
Does the admonition sound stodgy, as if spoken by a wigged barrister, shaking his stick at the internet, tripping over skateboarding teens? Am I so out of step with the new-new journalism, which arguably isn’t journalism at all, much less service journalism, but a feeling about a thing that somebody told you?
I can live with that. Investigative journalism by promise does more than raise provocative, flimsily considered questions. Work that by its very nature affects people’s reputations and lives should be executed with more sobriety than passing a note across the classroom.
As a person, I have no love for Donald Trump; as an investigative reporter, I have no interest in protecting the powerful from scrutiny. But taking cheap shortcuts is not the way to nail him. It was wrong when FBI Director James B. Comey made eleventh-hour content-free rumblings about Hillary Clinton’s emails. It’s wrong each time Trump demurs “there’s something going on” about an insane premise or rumor he should disavow. Sometimes taking the high road, as Michele Obama urged progressives to do, absolutely, 100% sucks.
And yet: An unverified piece of gossip thirstily repackaged as adversarial journalism is still an unverified piece of gossip, no matter how much we might long for proof of or intuitively agree with the points it advances. If Investigative Reporting 101 introduces us to the concept “verify your documents,” Philosophy 101 introduces us to Kant’s categorical imperative — the first formulation of which is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
If we don’t believe the right should be able to sling mud without sourcing it or “just put things out there for the public to decide,” the left can’t do it either.
“Dossier” is a word imbued with authority, authority that’s undeserved in this case. Demystified, here’s what BuzzFeed published: an unverifiable word document that at least a handful — perhaps many more — of investigative shops passed over. BuzzFeed has a well-reputed investigative operation filled with professional journalists, but its decision to publish, and the rationale provided for that decision, is all the more disappointing for its past and promise. Ostensibly, they hoped to stick it to Trump. Instead they stuck it back to journalism, willfully blurring the line between fake and real news, giving ammunition to the accusations of bias and thin-sourcing that the alt-right lobs at any source of information that isn’t its own.
Some investigative reporters I’ve spoken with were shocked by BuzzFeed’s choice, others were more blasé, seeing it as the inevitable result of an increasingly loose landscape; one had been working to source the same information for weeks. The fact that CNN first reported that its journalists had read the memos makes no difference; TV news has its own problems. The goal of reporters in other media shouldn’t be to double down on TV news’ failings.
If that sounds self-serious so be it. Information released through investigation invariably alters the accuseds’ lives; having weighed the seriousness of that, the reporter should be able to stand on it.
There’s a reason that investigations, unlike many other kinds of journalistic work, are done by teams. They take a village of lawyers, and editors, and data reporters, and investigators. They can be brain-shakingly hard and often take months to source, or even years. Spotlight brought a Hollywood sheen to the work, but it got mostly right. What investigative reporting looks like in practice is sifting through documents until you go cross-eyed, then waking up the next day and doing it all over again.
This is not a new conversation — Gawker provided perhaps the most notorious example of the publish-first-decide-later model; WikiLeaks made us ask big meta questions about information-dissemination; journalists have been debating ethics and standards since the beginning of time.
But it’s as relevant now as it’s ever been. All those who are so gravely concerned about the erosion of democratic norms and journalistic standards in the Trump age get to look at ourselves and ask the same questions BuzzFeed staffers will inevitably ask themselves this morning after an evening of gloating; if the report turns out to be real, will it take root with all the scrutiny and doubt that surrounded its release? If the report is false, will we be believed when we do have something real? Does it matter, if the price of the bargain is our integrity?
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.
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