BuzzFeed has been around for 10 years. The New York Times (NYT) began publishing in 1851.
BuzzFeed on Tuesday published a 35-page dossier of uncorroborated and potentially very damning information about President-elect Donald Trump supposedly held by some of those same Russians. Particularly incendiary is the allegation that Trump's campaign colluded with Russian officials before his victory over Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times and The Washington Post, standard bearers of U.S. journalism, chose not to publish the dossier despite Trump and President Obama having received a two-page summary of the allegations last week from intelligence officials.
Trump, in his first press conference since the election, called the dossier "all fake news, it's phony stuff." The document, which Sen. John McCain reportedly took to the FBI, was compiled by an opposition research group headed by a retired western European former counter-intelligence official. Funding for the group initially came from an unnamed Republican candidate, but soon after was picked-up by a Democrat though not necessarily anyone from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
A visibly angry Trump on Wednesday called Buzzfeed a "failing pile of garbage." Buzzfeed promptly put those words on a t-shirt for sale on its website.
The very different decisions of Buzzfeed on one hand, and The Times, CNN and others on the other, illustrates a stark divide in U.S. journalism some 20 years after the debut of the visual web. The choices underscore a prickly, age-old debate as to what is in the best interest of the reader as well as the subject.
"In the traditional world of journalism and journalism ethics, this is very troubling," Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and director of the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University, said. "Journalists do not publish unsubstantiated rumor. Just because something is circulating around doesn't mean you publish it."
BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith took a very different position, a stance arguably in line with his news organization's character and purpose.
In a series of tweets, Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, a not-for-profit web investigative news site, backed Smith, countering that when CNN broke the news of the two-page summary on Tuesday, the dossier entered the public sphere. For U.S. senators and Washington journalist to have the documet but not the public, Smith later argued on MSNBC, would be to play self-appointed gatekeeper.
Thus the dossier became focus of public debate. What remained was whether the debaters- Richard Tofel (@dicktofel) January 11, 2017
should be allowed to know what they were debating /4
Whether for reasons of political payback or the day's chaotic events, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, poured gas on Trump's anti-media fire by conflating CNN's initial report that the president-elect had received the dossier with Buzzfeed's decision to print the whole document.
Spicer seemed to incorrectly group CNN with Buzzfeed when he charged that any reporting on the dossier was a "sad, pathetic attempt to get clicks." At the press conference, Trump cut off CNN's Jim Acosta's attempt to ask a question after Trump had berated the network.
"You are fake news," Trump bellowed at Acosta.
In response, CNN issued its own statement to correct Spicer while attempting to distance its reporting from that of Buzzfeed.
"CNN's decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than Buzzfeed's decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. The Trump team knows this," the network said in a statement. "They are using Buzzfeed's decision to deflect from CNN's reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations."
For BuzzFeed and Smith, the choice to publish fits with a workplace culture shaped as much as anything by the ascendancy of Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) , now the country's largest sources of news even though neither does any actual news reporting.
BuzzFeed, as is well known in journalism circles, rattled cages and ruffled feathers early in its history by publishing piles of lists on seemingly trite and low-brow subjects all aimed at appealing to a largely millennial audience. Its larger purpose became clear as BuzzFeed founders John Johnson and Jonah Peretti proved that the site could generate bucket loads of traffic to which it could sell advertising from brand marketers looking to reach those same millennials.
Cash from ad sales combined with funding from investors including Comcast's (CMCSA) venture arm has bankrolled a smart and deep newsroom that has had its share of big scoops despite typically aggressive competition from the Times, Post and many others.
The New York Times, meanwhile, has a far different calling, and business model. The Times, like most news organizations to the left of Fox News, has sparred with Trump over the past 18 months. Yet despite its many misgivings about the tone and direction of the new administration, it didn't view publishing the 35-page dossier as a public necessity anywhere near that of the secret war detailed by the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
"We, like others, investigated the allegations and haven't corroborated them, and we felt we're not in the business of publishing things we can't stand by," Times editor Dean Baquet said in explaining his newspaper's decision to only describe the 35-page dossier rather than reprint it.
There has always been a great range of journalistic ethics in this country. What a tabloid would publish, The Wall Street Journal might not. Yet the debate over BuzzFeed's decision both illustrates and transcends the internet's impact on political life and the media.
"Whether it's WikiLeaks or BuzzFeed, these organizations have different traditions, different standards; they're creations of a digital age where news information flows more freely and the attitude is an open-source environment," Sesno said. "That means the responsibility is more on the news consumer to determine whether something is credible than on the news organization itself. Still, this whole story occupies a very troubling gray area."