Commentary from news journalists about the meteoric but now suspect BuzzFeed News report that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress has been a strange mix of implied exoneration and muted dread. The sense of exoneration comes from frustration and puzzlement that a competitor broke a huge story that their organizations didn’t have and still don’t have. The dread comes from the knowledge that if the story is wrong, media critics and Trump supporters will use it (and already are) to condemn the news media as a whole. Their job will just have gotten a whole lot harder. The fairest, most valid way to judge media performance and credibility is organization by organization, not the field as a whole. But it won’t happen that way. While news consumers have traditionally rated their local media higher in trust and credibility than the national media, the national media get broad brushed based on preconceived biases supposedly validated by any gaffe of a single news outlet. Certainly, there is substantial reason to question the accuracy of the BuzzFeed story — the rare and stunning (though vague) public rebuke by the special counsel’s office and, probably more telling, the inability of any other news organization to independently corroborate the story. I think it’s safe to say, nonetheless, that BuzzFeed News did not take publication of a story of this magnitude cavalierly. Further, this is an outlet with a good track record of reporting on Trump/Russia connections and other issues, plus a Pulitzer Prize finalist recognition for stories about Russian assassinations. One of the reporters on the current story in question, Anthony Cormier, is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And this story may yet turn out to be true. Still, I spot some journalistic alarms. I’m doubtful most news organizations would have published a story with such far-reaching implications with only two anonymous sources (though BuzzFeed says there’s other sourcing not in the story). I’m doubtful most organizations would have sought response from the special counsel’s office in the brief, casual manner than BuzzFeed News did. I’m doubtful most outlets would even have hired reporter Jason Leopold in the first place (and I say that based only on his past documented reporting failures). It’s relevant, too, I think, that BuzzFeed News was the only news outlet that chose to publish full details of the unverified Steele dossier. BuzzFeed News, being a relatively young operation birthed from a medium of memes and clickbait, may approach publication standards with an unconventional mindset. Let’s hope any misapplications of a tried-and-true legacy news vetting process don’t end up damaging BuzzFeed News — and everyone in journalism.
UPDATE (1/20): Cormier says on CNN’s Reliable Sources that BuzzFeed News is trying to determine the language that was used between Cohen and Trump “in the room.” Knowing the language seems like a really vital element to substantiating the story’s crucial word choice of “directed.” That would be another journalistic alarm.