Why the media's Trump dossier coverage is suicidal
The media is sinking to Donald Trump's level.
Reeling from their inability to stop his election, envious of his power to make people believe his most ridiculous statements, and rinsed by a needy mood for self-soothing, the media and other American institutions are greeting the era of Trump by lowering their ethical and professional standards and indulging in attention-seeking hysteria. However cathartic it may be, the effect is suicidal for the media and dangerous for the nation.
Just witness the undignified, stupid press conference that the president-elect gave yesterday. The result was that Trump's denunciation of "fake news" and the subsequent media outrage crowded out stories about the conflicts of interest that may bedevil Trump or his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
Here's how it happened.
On Tuesday evening, BuzzFeed published a document that supposedly revealed deep ties between Trump and Russia and included fantastical, salacious details. BuzzFeed's rationale for releasing this document as news is that it was reportedly given to them by someone who claims to be a British ex-spook and worked up this memo as part of an anti-Trump opposition research effort for a Republican rival. The document contained obvious howlers and details that BuzzFeed could have vetted to ascertain how non-credible this "intelligence" was. Editor-in-chief Ben Smith ludicrously beat his chest about the "characteristically ferocious reporting" his outfit does. And yet the article had to admit that BuzzFeed reporters "have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them."
The effect of BuzzFeed's item was not that journalists, elected officials, and intelligence agents were sharing a load of ridiculous tosh with each other, but that they were sharing something of indeterminate value. Maybe it's trash, maybe it's the smoking gun. BuzzFeed invited readers to judge for themselves.
The context for this immense error of judgment makes it worse. Earlier in the week, The Wall Street Journal's editor-in-chief Gerard Baker responded to a question about headlines or stories that report on what Trump says without attaching an assessment of its veracity by arguing, "I think it's then up to the reader to make up their own mind." Journalists lined up to condemn him on social media and across other news sites.
And just 12 days before BuzzFeed surfaced the "dossier," Smith sent out a memo to his staff and the public that attempted to outline a Trump-era approach to news and the "fake news" panic that has spread across the media since his election. "Fake news will become more sophisticated," Smith warned. "And powerful filter bubbles will drive competing narratives from parallel universes of facts." While acknowledging that Trump would drive the news in the U.S., Smith promised BuzzFeed would endeavor to "[r]eport something nobody else has found or observed, clearly, fairly, and credibly." It seems clear BuzzFeed didn't do that in this case because the target was Trump. Obviously it would have a higher standard of qualifying or vetting a dossier of unvetted GOP opposition research on Barack Obama.
It's not the first time that a highly regarded media outlet has run with a conspiracy theory that involved Trump and Russia. It's not even the first time one ran after being passed over by other media outlets. Shortly before the election, Slate ran a piece suggesting that Trump maintained a kind of secret digital revolving door with Russia. More skeptical and tech savvy reporters found that the likelier explanation was that it was a chatty email marketing server.
Some commentators have attributed the appearance of the BuzzFeed story to a retaliation campaign against Trump by America's intelligence agencies. If this is true, it's even more dangerous. Elected leaders assert civilian control over the the state. If people in these agencies dislike the president so much, they should resign in protest, not use their offices to inflict damage on him.
Of course it is tempting to play dirty pool with Trump. A journalist who thinks he is halting the rise of fascism in America will of course find plenty of excuses for sinking to Trump's level. Trump lies and enflames all the time. Trump spread the delegitimizing and racist conspiracy theory that his predecessor was born in Kenya. He encouraged his supporters in "Lock Her Up" chants against Hillary Clinton, which was both inflammatory and a lie he had no intention of prosecuting.
But our institutions can't temporarily suspend the very standards that grant them credibility and expect to survive.
Besides, it's foolish as a strategy. Trump doesn't just duck under ethical norms in an emergency; he relishes his total freedom from them. His whole persona and affect is one of candor, of lying to you and winking at you even as he demands you believe him. In the weird way humans calculate virtue, this works to Trump's advantage. His dishonesty comes across as authentic and constitutive. The media's dishonesty will come across as hypocritical and treacherous. The dishonesty of the intelligence services might come across as treasonous.
If his adversaries in the press or within the government think they can outlast and outwit him by adopting the shameless ethic of reality TV, they are grievously mistaken. If the Trump era is as bad as his worst critics insist, the most important commodity going forward is personal and professional integrity.
Neither the Kremlin nor the president-elect have the power to make you lie or lower your dignity. So don't.