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Thursday, December 20, 2018

BuzzFeed's win in Steele dossier defamation case: A victory for freedom of the press and, I hope, a rebuke to gatekeeping in journalism

Ben Smith
BuzzFeed has won the defamation lawsuit filed against it by Aleksej Gubarev, owner of Luxembourg-based XBT Holding SA and Florida-based Webzilla Inc., for publishing the so-called "Russia dossier" compiled by Christopher Steele. The dossier, which BuzzFeed made public on January 10, 2017, reports allegations that Gubarev was responsible for cyber attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.

The decision is a clear victory for freedom of the press and the public's right to know. It should also be a gentle rebuke--and a lesson--to those journalists and pundits who initially criticized BuzzFeed for publishing the dossier, even though its key allegations had not (yet) been substantiated by reporters.

Indeed, in my view, the last two years have served as a clear vindication of BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith's risky decision to publicly reveal the dossier's full contents, very shortly after CNN reported its existence. As he wrote in a note to BuzzFeed's news staff later that evening, "Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers," even though, as the news outlet's accompanying story made clear, "there is serious reason to doubt the allegations." Smith concluded: "But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."

Of course, not all journalists and editors saw it that way. Smith and BuzzFeed came in for some fairly ferocious criticism, including from the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan--a commentator for whom I have great respect and who has more recently led the way in urging journalists and the media to slice through the lies of the Trump administration. But in a column the following day, Sullivan severely chastised BuzzFeed, arguing that "It's never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo." Yet in my view, Sullivan and others undermined their own argument by pointing out that news organizations and government officials had "known for months that this information, if it can be called that, existed. But despite many attempts, the claims about Trump's behavior and relationships in Russia could not be verified."

Sullivan was far from alone. Jane Martinson of The Guardian made similar arguments in a column the same day, and many journalists employed social media to criticize BuzzFeed on the same grounds. One notable exception was Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, who took to Twitter to support BuzzFeed's decision. "If you oppose the BuzzFeed decision to publish, you need to explain why citizens should not be allowed to see the dossier," Tofel wrote, arguing that once its existence was revealed "the dossier became focus of public debate. What remained was whether the debaters should be allowed to know what they were debating." Columbia Journalism Review's Vanessa Gezari also wrote a spirited defense of BuzzFeed, branding the "media's full-throated condemnation" as "self-righteous and self-serving."

Aleksej Gubarev
In my opinion, Tofel and Gezari summed up the issues very well. In January 2017, politicians (including John McCain), journalists (including most of the major media), and many others in Washington were fully aware of the contents of the Russia dossier. The only ones in the dark were the American public. Thus many journalists and editors made the wrong call in criticizing BuzzFeed, an error that, looking back at what we have learned during the two years since--two years in which the Steele dossier has been a political football for both Trump supporters and opponents--I doubt they would make today.

And given that some journalists and editors (including myself) were vocal in defending BuzzFeed's decision at the time, we cannot be accused of benefiting solely from hindsight. The role of the press is not to serve as gatekeepers of what the public does and does not have the right to know; nor should journalists and editors be gatekeepers within our own profession when an editor makes a difficult but ultimately justifiable decision to publish a document when others declined to do so, for whatever reasons. (I sincerely hope that envy at BuzzFeed's scoop did not play a role in the criticisms, even though some accused the publication of using the dossier as clickbait.)

Whatever the case, Ben Smith and his reporters on the dossier story, Ken Bensinger, Miriam Elder, and Mark Schoofs, should be congratulated for their freedom of press victory, one which benefits us all, journalists and the public alike.




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