Media firestorm over Trump-Russia report publication

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A media firestorm erupted Wednesday (Jan 11) after BuzzFeed published an unverified report with salacious details on purported intelligence gathered by Russia on President-elect Donald Trump.

Many media outlets and analysts joined Trump in denouncing the decision by BuzzFeed to release the report, which had been circulating in Washington for weeks.

"I think it was incredibly irresponsible." said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.

"These allegations are completely unverified, and as BuzzFeed acknowledged some are unverifiable."

Kennedy said the decision could further erode public trust in media after a bruising campaign in which news organisations were pilloried by Trump and his supporters and during which "fake news" became an issue.

"It is unfortunate because this is not 'fake news,' it is real documents," Kennedy said. "And it's not 'the media,' it's BuzzFeed."

BuzzFeed published the 35-page document, compiled by a former British intelligence operative hired by other US presidential contenders to do political "opposition research" on Trump last year.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a media education center, said in a blog post that "publishing an entirely unvetted document is a significant departure from the way editors of most significant publications would define the role of reporting." .

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the decision to publish the document, saying his goal is "to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers," while noting that "the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media."

Trump, who was set to hold his first news conference since the election on Wednesday, blasted what he called "fake news," and his spokesman Reince Priebus called it "complete garbage."

Media writers at other news organisations joined in criticism of BuzzFeed's decision.

Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple lamented BuzzFeed's "ridiculous rationale" for publication.

"It is unverified - meaning that it requires further investigation," Wemple wrote. "BuzzFeed has started that process and pledges to continue pursuing it. So why post the documents now?"

David Graham of The Atlantic said BuzzFeed "sidestepped a basic principle of journalism."

The release "unfairly forces a public figure - Trump, in this case - to respond to a set of allegations that might or might not be entirely scurrilous," Graham wrote.

"The reporter's job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain ... It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not."

He added that "transparent transmission of misinformation is no more helpful or clarifying than no information at all."

Michael Tracey of Vice News offered a dig at the online news rival, tweeting: "BuzzFeed breathlessly promotes a 'dossier' that it admits is unverified / riddled with errors, and reaps the rewards in traffic. A win-win."

Richard Tofel, president of the investigative news organisation ProPublica, welcomed BuzzFeed's decision to publish, noting that CNN had earlier reported on the existence of the document without revealing its contents.

"Kudos to @BuzzFeedBen and his team for publishing the dossier. Once CNN story out, citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves," Tofel tweeted.

"Thus the dossier became focus of public debate. What remained was whether the debaters should be allowed to know what they were debating."

Analysts at the blog Lawfare, which follows national security issues, noted that it had the document "for a couple of weeks" and had chosen "not to publish it while the allegations within it remain unproven."

But the analysts - Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey and Quinta Jurecic of the Brookings Institution - said this is nonetheless an important issue to be investigated.

"The President and president-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility," they wrote.

"While nobody has confirmed any of the allegations, both inside government and in the press, it is clear to us that they are the subject of serious attention."