NEW YORK ― BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith on Tuesday defended publishing a 35-page dossier of unverified allegations Russian spies are said to have collected about Donald Trump, saying the website wanted to be transparent and “share what we have with our readers.”
“Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice,” Smith wrote in a memo to his staff. “But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Major news organizations, including some that had the information since fall, haven’t published the unsubstantiated claims. The dossier is said to have included allegations that Russian intelligence has long cultivated Trump, that members of his inner circle received intelligence from the Kremlin, and that the president-elect participated in “perverted sexual acts” in Russia.
CNN drew attention to the allegations Tuesday when it reported how four top U.S. intelligence officials presented President Barack Obama and Trump with a two-page synopsis of the dossier. A former British intelligence operative reportedly compiled the research, which was first commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans and later by Democrats.
The decision by top U.S. intelligence agencies to notify the president and president-elect about these claims was clearly newsworthy, even if they remain unconfirmed. CNN acknowledged having reviewed the 35-page compilation of memos, but didn’t publish details because the allegations had “not been independently corroborated.”
When BuzzFeed published the dossier hours later, it noted that the allegations were “unverified” and that the document contained errors. In a memo after publication, Smith cited BuzzFeed’s own story giving “serious reason to doubt the allegations” and said the site was still investigating specific claims.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” Smith wrote. “We have always erred on the side of publishing. In this case, the document was in wide circulation 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.”
Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) apparently referenced the dossier when writing in an October letter to FBI Director James Comey that “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.”
Smith is correct that the claims had spread in media circles. The New York Times noted Tuesday night that “details of the reports began circulating in the fall and were widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington.”
Mother Jones’ David Corn first reported on the allegations in a late October. He wrote that a veteran spy had provided the documents to the FBI, though it was unclear if the bureau was investigating. Corn on Tuesday explained his decision to hold back on the details.
Corn’s handling reflects standard journalistic protocol of not publishing explosive allegations without corroboration. Journalists often receive opposition research during a campaign. Unless the information can be confirmed as true, it’s not published.
Trump, scheduled to hold his first press conference since July on Wednesday, is sure to be asked about the allegations, and is likely trying turning the tables on the news media over one outlet’s decision to publish the claims. His first tweet Tuesday night following BuzzFeed’s story decried “fake news.”