- BuzzFeed reported on January 18 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had evidence that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress – parts of which were later disputed by Mueller’s office
- In the two weeks since, no other news outlet has confirmed BuzzFeed’s report – which deepens the confusion around BuzzFeed’s original story.
- Journalism experts are grappling with discrepancies in the site’s reporting process, and the broader questions they raise about how newsrooms should operate.
It’s been two weeks since BuzzFeed rocked Washington with a story alleging that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to deceive Congress about a real estate project in Moscow. But the report continues to roil the capital for reasons other than its explosive claim that the president committed a felony. In the fourteen days since Robert Mueller publicly disputed the site’s reporting, no other news outlet has corroborated or confirmed BuzzFeed’s story.
The Trump Organisation documents
BuzzFeed critics have primarily seized on the story’s reliance on internal Trump Organisation documents that reportedly implicate the president. Mueller’s statement explicitly disputed the site’s “characterization” of those same documents. At the same time, the story doesn’t specify what exactly those documents say.
Formerly of Vice News, Leopold was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year. He also wrote a memoir, published in 2006 and reissued in 2014, in which he recounted lying to sources and colleagues to get ahead of competing reporters. In one instance, in July 2001, Leopold agreed to talk to a government spokesperson off-the-record and later reneged on the agreement to break a story. Later that year, when reporting on the unfolding Enron scandal, he lied to two sources about what each said about the other, to goad both into speaking to him. And in early 2002, he deceived two of his editors at Dow Jones about the source of a story that required several corrections. Leopold called it “a huge, desperate lie.”
Still, BuzzFeed’s team stands resolutely behind his reporting.
“Jason is one of the best journalists in the world, which he’s proven as the foremost authority on FOIA, and with reporting that’s been months ahead of public developments in the Mueller investigation,” said BuzzFeed spokesperson Matt Mittenthal. “Jason’s work on this story has been borne out at every turn, and BuzzFeed News stands behind him 100%.”
When INSIDER asked BuzzFeed whether anyone else at the company besides Leopold, such as an editor or attorney, had seen the internal Trump Organisation documents, the site refused to provide an answer.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, global investigations editor Heidi Blake, and senior investigative editor Ariel Kaminer all worked with Cormier and Leopold on the story. BuzzFeed declined to say whether any of them had seen the Trump Organisation documents mentioned in it.
“We can’t discuss any further who has seen what,” BuzzFeed’s Mittenthal said. “Know that’s frustrating for you, but sorry.”
Journalism experts are worried about the story’s sourcing
“Reporters reviewing documents without editors seeing them happens every single day across news media,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Take, for instance, a crime reporter doing a story on filed charges by reviewing the criminal complaint. An editor rarely reviews the document as part of the editing process.”
But, Culver noted, “A story this monumentally important and potentially explosive deserves scrutiny far beyond routine practices.”
Culver emphasised the necessity of editors who scrutinize their own reporters’ claims. “It’s not yet clear specifically what BuzzFeed staff saw and heard or how many people were involved,” she added. “The situation itself is a developing story. But in these kinds of cases, it’s critically important to aim for triangulation, where you have multiple sources confirming information and the editing process brings healthy scepticism and checks into what is known and how it is known.”
Erik Wemple, who writes about the media for The Washington Post, questioned how BuzzFeed interpreted the documents the story relied on. “The troublesome dimension for BuzzFeed here, it seems to me, is that whatever the website extracted from the documents didn’t yield a great deal of detail about just how Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress,” he told INSIDER.
A question of commenting.
The way BuzzFeed asked the story’s subjects for comment has drawn criticism, too.
Before publication, Leopold and Cormier contacted the main players-the White House, the Trump Organisation, Donald Trump, Jr., and the special counsel’s office-to ask for comment. The first three didn’t respond, and the last declined to comment.
But it turns our BuzzFeed sent each very different emails. The story says the first three subjects received “detailed messages seeking comment” and ignored them. By contrast, the special counsel’s office received a brief, undetailed message that omitted any mention of the special counsel’s alleged role. BuzzFeed sent that message eight hours before it published the story.
“This is a shocking casual way to ask for comment for such a serious story,” CNN media critic Brian Stelter said last week. “There’s a dereliction of duty to send a three-sentence email for comment,” he added.
It’s unclear why the special counsel received a different message than the other subjects. And it’s likely unknowable whether BuzzFeed would have published the same story if they received the special counsel’s written denial beforehand.
BuzzFeed declined our request for copies of the emails it sent to the White House, the Trump Organisation, and Donald Trump, Jr. “We are not going to provide those emails because they are private, and no one has questioned the way in which we reached out to those entities,” said Mittenthal. (All three recipients didn’t respond to our requests for comment.)
A lack of corroboration.
If BuzzFeed’s story is true, other reporters should eventually be able to confirm it – at least in theory. The fact that this hasn’t happened, in spite of the media industry’s intense coverage of Mueller’s investigation, could be blamed on any number of circumstances. Perhaps BuzzFeed’s sources were spooked by the special counsel’s denial, or maybe it’s just taking a long time for reporters to catch up on a competitor’s months-long reporting project.
Wemple, the Washington Post writer, is sceptical. “I trust that these two reporters are well sourced on the topic of Trump, buildings and Russia; they have proven as much in their stories,” he said. “But are they so well sourced that the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC News et al cannot match the story after the fact?”
The sum of available evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate that BuzzFeed’s story is wrong. It doesn’t indicate that it’s right, either.
Meanwhile, others on the same beat have expressed misgivings about the core thesis of BuzzFeed’s report.
“I declined to run with parts of the narrative [BuzzFeed] conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind,” tweeted Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker. “One person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s testimony to the special counsel’s prosecutors said that Mr. Cohen did not state that the president had pressured him to lie to Congress,” reported The New York Times.
BuzzFeed continues to defend Leopold and Cormier’s story.
“One thing that strikes us is there’s been a clear divide in how people are writing about this,” BuzzFeed’s Mittenthal said.
“A lot of what’s been written so far assumes that our story has it wrong,” he continued. “We contend that is not the case and expect to be vindicated, which would set up all of these writers to be on the hook for mea culpas in a matter of weeks or months.”
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