Be careful when you fight monsters, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned, lest you become one. That’s advice the editors of Buzzfeed should have heeded. Instead, thanks to the publication of months-old, unsubstantiated opposition research on Donald Trump as supposed serious intelligence, the “fake news” hysteria has come back to bite its original source – and more.
Last November, Buzzfeed did an analysis of the most-clicked Facebook news feed items during the course of the election to argue that “fake news” impacted the election. Craig Silverman claimed that the top twenty “fake news” items got more social-media access than the top twenty “real news” items, even while offering no evidence of the correlation between Facebook clicks and voting behavior, let alone causation.
The hypothesis took an even bigger hit from the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, who pointed out that the top five in the “real news” category consisted of four liberal opinion pieces and a New York Post story on Melania Trump’s nude modeling in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, the mainstream media has continued to hyperventilate about “fake news” even in the absence of any evidence of its impact. Media outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press have run news articles exposing false stories as part of their pushback on the phenomenon; the latter runs a post-script on those stories as “part of an ongoing AP effort to fact-check claims in suspected false news stories.” Barack Obama even indirectly referenced it in his farewell speech on Tuesday evening, warning that engaging “without some common baseline of facts” was a threat to democracy, following up on other warnings Obama has issued about “fake news.”
At nearly the same time as Obama delivered that speech, Buzzfeed published a dossier on Donald Trump that it reported had been “circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks.” The memos alleged that Trump’s campaign officials had met with Russian government officials to coordinate efforts, and that Russia had highly damaging personal and financial information on Trump, including a predilection for sexually deviant behavior. It provided more context for a CNN report hours earlier that said US intelligence officials had briefed Trump and Obama on the Russian blackmail threat as well as the alleged contacts between Team Trump and the Russian government.
Hours later, both stories fell apart. As it turned out, this dossier had floated around media circles for months without anyone biting on it or being able to corroborate it. One key part that alleged contacts between Trump attorney Michael Cohen and Russian agents fell apart almost immediately on publication, as Cohen provided clear evidence that he’d never been in Prague “in his life,” let alone at the time the dossier declared, and that he’d actually been at the University of Southern California with his son that entire week.
Tom Brokaw said the next morning that NBC had been unable to verify any of its claims and had decided to drop it after weeks of interest. By late morning, just before Trump held his first press conference as president-elect, NBC News reported that the two-page annex that summarized the documents was intended as a lesson on disinformation, not an assessment of legitimate intelligence.
In fact, the intelligence briefers had decided not to include that in their presentation anyway. Had they done so, NBC reported, it would have been used to “provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted ‘disinformation.’”
That certainly put an even more ironic twist on a report from the tip of the spear on “fake news.” Buzzfeed had acknowledged that the report had some obvious errors in it and that it had done nothing to verify its contents – and yet published it anyway.
Its editor in chief, Ben Smith, e-mailed staff to explain that he “erred on the side of publishing” because the memos were “in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and the media.” The context of that circulation seems to have eluded Smith, however; other media outlets didn’t publish it because it was impossible to verify, and intelligence agencies had it but considered it “disinformation” – which Buzzfeed then made public, doing the damage that intel agencies had wanted to warn against. And almost immediately, the other major media outlets reported on Buzzfeed’s report, exponentially adding to the damage.
What gives this “fake news” yet another level of irony is the fact that some of it had been published in the past. David Corn had covered the outlines of the dossier at the far-Left magazine Mother Jones in October without delving too far into the details. Some of the more lurid information from the dossier had been picked up by 4chan in the same time frame, one of the more notorious sources for supposed “fake news.” The allegations didn’t attract much attention at the time despite their lurid and sensational qualities.
The fever swamps and ideologically driven media didn’t fan this into a flame – it took the mainstream media to do that, and specifically the outlet that first created a nonsensical hysteria about ideologically driven “fake news.” This is almost certainly why other media outlets – especially CNN, whose own story got eclipsed and then damaged – have turned on Buzzfeed and its decision to publish a document whose veracity they barely attempted to validate, other than its existence.
This episode undermines their credibility on “fake news,” and, perhaps more importantly, their overall credibility on fairness and objectivity when it comes to covering a Republican administration.
That essentially inoculates Trump from investigative reporting that relies on anonymous sourcing and leaked documents. The public already has deep suspicions about the motives of national media outlets when it comes to Republican political figures, and this example of “fake news” will validate their skepticism.
That’s not just a crisis for the media, but a potential problem for transparency in governance over the next four years. The mainstream media should stop worrying about “fake news” from fringe outlets and focus more on getting their own stories right. They’ve done far more damage than any Facebook clicks on silly and obvious nonsense could possibly do.