Culture

Dossier of Controversy: Trump, Russia and the Question of Media Ethics

Buzzfeed‘s decision to publish an unverified dossier that makes explosive claims about Donald Trump has stirred debate about journalistic ethics.

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An explosive, unverified document with highly controversial information about US president-elect Donald Trump and his ties to Russia has stirred up trouble on multiple fronts in the US. The information contained in the dossier (a series of memos dated from June through December 2016), which was allegedly compiled a former MI6 operative, had been doing the rounds in Washington’s intelligence and political circles for a while but only came into the public domain recently when CNN reported that Russia allegedly had compromising information on Trump and Buzzfeed published the unverified document in its entirety on Tuesday, January 10.

The move to publish completely unverifiable information has sparked a debate on journalistic ethics since other news organisations had decided not to report on the information, or only to report on its circulation in high level meetings – allegedly involving President Barack Obama as well.

On Wednesday, January 11, Trump and the media, notably Buzzfeed and CNN, reignited their feud with renewed fervour when Buzzfeed published a controversial dossier of “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations” of close  links between Trump and Russian operatives.

The dossier, which can be found on Buzzfeed, provides information on Trump’s personal and economic relations with Russia, including details about potential real estate deals, Russian intelligence information that Trump received and sexual acts that Trump is said to have participated in.

The very first page of the document starts with the statement:

“Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.”

Details in the document

According to the dossier published on Buzzfeed:

“Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable information on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, for several years.”

“The Kremlin’s cultivation operation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far, for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these.”

While these allegations in themselves are alarming enough, the compromising personal information listed in the dossier has also raised several eyebrows and become entertaining Twitter fodder, as with all things Trump.

“According to Source D where she/he had been present, TRUMP’s (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suit of the Ritz Carlton hotel, where he knew president and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him.”

Twitter responded with a flurry of jokes.

The same paragraph goes on to say that “The hotel was known to be under FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.”

According to the dossier, all of this information was compiled to “exploit TRUMP’s personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable ‘kompromat’ (comprising material) on him”.

However, as Buzzfeed’s disclaimer before the document makes clear: its reporters in the US and Europe have neither been able to verify nor falsify the claims made in this collection of memos, which contain errors. All that can be said for sure, is that the document was compiled by a former British intelligence operative.

According to CNN, the former agent and purported creator of the dossier is one “whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible.” CNN described the man as a former MI6 officer who had since retired and started his own security firm. Wall Street Journal has since published a report that identified Christopher Steele, a 56-year old ex-MI6 officer, as a likely candidate for the spy and original compiler of the document. The report alleges that Steele, who is currently director of a London-based intelligence company called Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd, was hired by Trump’s Democratic and Republican opponents during the US presidential primaries.

The CNN report also added that FBI officials are investigating the “credibility and accuracy of these allegations” but the FBI sources did not confirm any of the claims made against Trump.

Who knew about the dossier?

Although the information contained in the document is alarming, it remains unverified. This begs the question – why would Buzzfeed publish something such unverified and controversial information, and why would CNN report on the document?

The answer is simple. Because versions of the document had been doing the rounds in the US’s intelligence, journalistic and political circles since as far back as last summer – as individual memos, as the entire dossier and as a two-page synopsis.

According to CNN, a two-page report based on the document was presented to Obama and Trump last week by no less than “four of the senior-most US intelligence chiefs – Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers.”

Sources quoted in the CNN report explained that the security chiefs decided to share the information with Trump to make him aware of the claims that have been circulating within intelligence, Congressional and other political circles in Washington.

The two-page report – which excluded specific details present in the original document (published by Buzzfeed) – was considered sensitive enough to only be shared with Obama, Trump and the top eight Congressional leaders (four each from the House and Senate).

Meanwhile, senator John McCain has come forward to say that he sent a copy of the report, which he got from an MI6 operative, to Comey on December 9.

However, Comey refused to even say if the FBI has been investigating Trump and his campaign’s links with Russian government intermediaries when he was questioned at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, January 10.

“I would never comment on investigations,” Comey told Democratic Oregon senator Ron Wyden. Of course, this was not Comey’s stand when he released information concerning an ongoing investigation into Clinton and her email servers late last year.

Another concerning point is that the dossier clearly mentions the existence of a similar stock of information on Clinton – mostly recordings of tapped phone calls collected during her visits to Russia, CNN reported. However, Russian intelligence only chose to share damaging information on Clinton and not Trump. Several intelligence officials who were aware of the briefings said that some officials are treating this fact as further evidence of claims that Russia was interested in ensuring Trump won the election.

Violation of journalistic ethics?

While it is evident from CNN’s report that the document has been circulating for quite some time, the news organisation explained its decision to not publish any of the claims since they have not been able to verify them independently.

However, Buzzfeed simply decided to publish the document so that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Buzzfeed‘s decision has earned it some opprobrium from the journalistic community.

Wolfgang Blau, chief digital officer at Conde Nast and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian tweeted:

In a subsequent tweet, Blau referred to Trump as “horrible”, perhaps confirming that his condemnation of the story has less to do with his support for Trump than his distaste for Buzzfeed‘s decision to publish information that it has not yet verified.

On the other hand, Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica tweeted to congratulate Buzzfeed on its decision.

The New York TimesWall Street Journal and The Atlantic have all published pieces examining the rationale and propriety of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the documents.

The New York Times report, which covered the debate on journalistic ethics ignited by Buzzfeed, listed a number of publications that, like CNN, decided not to publish the report since they couldn’t verify the information.

The New York Times and political blog Lawfare said they decided not to publish for the same reasons as CNN. The New York Times‘ editor Dean Baquet said, “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”.

However, other publications have chosen to publish some of the allegations from the dossier. Notably, Mother Jones reporter David Corn discussed some of the claims before the US presidential election. Newsweek too published some information.

Eric Wemple from the Wall Street Journal adopted a disparaging tone, saying, “Americans can only “make up their own minds” if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe.”

He also questioned why Buzzfeed decided to publish the dossier now before its reporters confirmed the allegations in the documents, as it says they are doing now.

The obvious answer might be Trump’s impending swearing in as US president.

David Graham, from The Atlantic, too refused to quote or cite the allegations in the dossier and took a hard stand on Buzzfeed‘s decision to publish it. He wrote, “… the appeal to “transparency” notwithstanding, this represents an abdication of the basic responsibility of journalism. ”

Graham also pointed out that publishing the document will put Trump in the unfair position of having to defend himself against what may be entirely “scurrilous” information.

Despite the criticism, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith has stuck to his controversial rationale. He tweeted a picture of a memo sent to Buzzfeed employees that delves into some detail about Smith and his colleagues’ decision to run the dossier.

“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” Smith wrote.

Trump and Putin respond

Trump was quick to refute the allegations in the dossier, calling it fake news. He responded to the allegations in a series of tweets

In addition to equating the news coverage with Nazi Germany, he also branded CNN a “fake news” organisation at a press conference held yesterday, January 11, his first since July 2016.

While Trump’s team did not respond to Buzzfeed or CNN reporters’ requests for comments, Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, told Mic , “It’s so ridiculous on so many levels,” he said. “Clearly, the person who created this did so from their imagination or did so hoping that the liberal media would run with this fake story for whatever rationale they might have.”

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, held a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday, January 11, to refute the claims made in the documents. He referred to the allegations of collusion between Trump’s team and Russian officials as “pulp fiction” and responded to a question from CNN saying, “No, the Kremlin does not have ‘Kompromat’ on Trump”.

In addition to calling the information “complete fiction,” Peskov added, “Clearly there are those who are creating hysteria, who are trying to support this witch hunt, and President-elect Trump himself described it like this.”

The statement clearly pleased Trump, who tweeted: