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Donald Trump

Lurid claims about Trump’s ‘compromising behaviour in Russia’ are published, prompting media ethics storm

BuzzFeed publishes ‘unverified’ dossier, after US intelligence chiefs tell Trump and Obama that Russian operatives claim to have damaging material about president-elect’s ‘perversions’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 8:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 10:41pm

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish an intelligence report filled with salacious and unsubstantiated claims about Donald Trump’s purported behaviour in Russia has triggered a political storm and debate over media ethics.

The news website posted the explosive documents on Tuesday , just 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, with a warning that the contents contained errors and were “unverified and potentially unverifiable”.

The decision to put the claims in the public domain forced other media outlets to repeat the allegations or ignore a story that lit up the internet. Some critics rounded on BuzzFeed, calling it irresponsible.

Trump now admits Russians were behind election hacking, says top aide Priebus

But the story had been gaining momentum before BuzzFeed uploaded the documents. CNN had earlier on Tuesday reported that America’s intelligence chiefs gave Trump and Barack Obama a two-page summary of the lurid reports last Friday, without specifically describing the “compromising information”. Associated Press later cited a US official who also said Trump and Obama were informed of the material on Friday.

The documents, reportedly compiled by a British former intelligence agent, alleged that the Kremlin was “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for at least five years.

The documents alleged that Russian spies exploited the president-elect’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gather compromising material.

The president-elect denied and denounced the claims in a series of tweets. “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT.”

Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith

The memos were compiled by the former intelligence officer on behalf of some of Trump’s Republican opponents in the primaries, and later by Democrats.

Other media outlets including the Guardian obtained and reviewed the documents in recent weeks but declined to publish because there was no way to independently verify them.

CNN said that Senator John McCain delivered a copy of the documents to FBI director James Comey last month. The network withheld the documents’ most eye-opening details, citing lack of corroboration.

But an hour later, BuzzFeed went ahead and published the documents. “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full 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,” the site said in an accompanying note .

The news site noted the documents’ provenance and the fact they contained “some clear errors”, such as misspelling the name of a Russian company.

Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief, followed up a few hours later with a statement that defended publication as an act of journalistic transparency in a hyper-partisan era.

“Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.” Smith amplified the warning in BuzzFeed’s original story by saying there was “serious reason to doubt the allegations”.

Some prominent journalists and media executives excoriated BuzzFeed.

“Rare that a story stinks from every possible angle: the source, the content, the consequence, the messenger, the target,” tweeted Wolfgang Blau, chief digital officer of Conde Nast International and a former Guardian executive.

“Not how journalism works: Here’s a thing that might or might not be true, without supporting evidence; decide for yourself if it’s legit,” tweeted Brad Heath, an investigative reporter for USA Today.

“Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness,” tweeted David Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief.

Adam Goldman of the New York Times blamed CNN for opening the can of worms. “Sequence of events: @CNN finds way to talk about report and @buzzfeed uses that as reason to publish. Media critics are gonna be busy,” he tweeted.

The rumours had been rattling around Washington for months. “What has changed since then is that US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations” to Trump, CNN said.

Among the first public indications of their existence was when the then Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said in a letter to FBI Director James Comey a week before the November 8 election: “It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government - a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information.”

In the Friday briefing, Trump was also told by the intelligence officials - the heads of the Directorate of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency - of allegations that supporters of his White House campaign had a “continuing exchange of information” with intermediaries for the Russian government during the election.

Asked about this in a Senate hearing Tuesday, Comey refused to confirm or deny that his agency was investigating such links.

US intelligence has concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an operation to meddle in the US election to hurt the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton with embarrassing hacked emails, and then to boost Trump when they thought he had a chance to win.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the conclusion that Moscow influenced the election while expressing the need to “move on” and smooth over bilateral relations deeply strained during the Obama presidency.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse