BuzzFeed and CNN spent much of Wednesday being crucified by US President-elect Donald Trump on Twitter, and then on live TV, for publishing unverifiable allegations in a dossier that alleges the Russians have a video of him with two prostitutes in a Moscow hotel.
Trump called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage” in his press conference yesterday. CNN has now distanced itself from BuzzFeed even though it was CNN’s report that intelligence chiefs had briefed outgoing President Obama and Trump that made the document cross the threshold from “gossip” into “news.”
Frankly, Trump “won” on Wednesday. A lot of people — especially his supporters — regard the publication of that dossier as a prime example of left-wing “fake news.”
For the last 24 hours I have been debating with dozens of colleagues about whether it was right to publish that document in full. A lot of people in the media think it was wrong, precisely because there was no way to know if it was true and because the provenance of the document (a former British spy working on political opposition research) was sketchy.
But now that some of the smoke has cleared, it is good that the dossier is out there. I’m convinced BuzzFeed did the right thing. Here is why:
Imagine an alternative reality, in which journalists at BuzzFeed, CNN, The Guardian and Mother Jones got a copy of the dossier (just as they did in real life), and decided that because it was unverifiable it should not be published. What would that mean?
As we reported yesterday, Sen. Harry Reid knew about the document too, and he thinks it’s serious enough to warrant an FBI probe. Sen. John McCain has his own copy, and he thinks it’s serious enough to warrant an FBI probe. He meets with FBI director James Comey personally to get this done. The FBI takes out a FISA warrant to look into it. Both the FBI and CIA brief the two presidents on it because they think the same. Every decent journalist in DC, at this point, has seen this doc — but it’s not “out there.”
Inside the Beltway, everyone knows Putin may or may not have a video of Trump with a couple of hookers doing … that. In that world, everyone in power believes the president is — maybe — hopelessly compromised. But no one dares say it aloud.
That is actually a worse world for Trump. And it’s terrible for America, because anyone who has the dossier — which is now circulating among thousands of “insiders” — can blackmail the president by the mere threat of publication, even if it is false. It would taint every dealing Trump has, on every issue. A president in that much trouble is news. It is a matter of public interest.
In the world we actually live in, there is only one difference: the document is out there now, and everyone can make a judgment on its quality. Pro-Trump people can clearly see this is as sketchy as hell. On Wednesday, Trump did a GREAT job of crucifying both BuzzFeed and CNN. He got his own back.
Score 1 for Trump.
If that video does not exist, then this issue is now totally sterilised. The decks are cleared. Trump can sail on. And his enemies in the liberal media elite* have been made to look like fools.
If the video does exist then … I sure hope we don’t sit around coming up with Media Criticism 101 reasons to not publish it if it lands on our desks: In that scenario, it is actually better (albeit embarrassing) for Trump — and America and the World — for the video to be published in full.
Putin is actually in a stronger position by not revealing the video and keeping it forever. It’s like owning an atomic bomb. Powerful if used as a threat, but once it’s detonated there is nothing left. As long as Putin keeps that video a secret, he has a hold over Trump. When might Putin play the video card? What geopolitical favour would he demand? What crucial advantage would Trump give to Russia in return for keeping the video in a basement under the Kremlin?
So, in either scenario — video or no video, true or false — it’s better for everyone if the material is aired immediately. Keeping it a secret is only “the right thing to do” if you believe that unverified blackmail and vicious rumour are more ethically acceptable than sunlight and truth.
*Which doesn’t really exist, but whatever.
Got a comment on this? Tweet at @Jim_Edwards.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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