This is the second such encounter between Ben Smith and the media that I’ve written about. What’s clear if you watch the interview below or the one Ben Smith did with NBC’s Chuck Todd a few days ago, is that Ben Smith is begging major media outlets to give him and BuzzFeed a pass. It’s also clear that no one who hears Smith’s line of argument is buying it.
Brian Stelter cuts to the heart of the matter about midway through this interview saying, “I’m trying to figure out if you all are Washington Post or WikiLeaks.” He continues, “It seems to me you’re trying to be both, saying we’re going to dump this document online…we don’t know if the facts in it are true or not.” “That’s not what the Washington Post or CNN or the New York Times would do.”
Smith replies, “We are, I think, well within the tradition of American journalism which is every time you use the word alleged on your air, every time you see the word alleged in print or on the web, that is saying we are repeating a claim we can’t verify.” He goes on to say, “If you’ve got the indictment, even if you think there’s lots there that’s false” why not publish it.
The word “alleged” is primarily used in reporting on criminal matters to preserve the presumption of innocence of the accused (and to prevent being sued). After police arrest someone for a crime, the word alleged signals that the person has not yet been convicted. Nevertheless, the police have made some effort to investigate, i.e. they have some basis for the arrest or indictment, even though the details supporting that decision are not yet public. Bottom line: There is no indictment in this case, just a bunch of unverified allegations which no one can back up.
BuzzFeed’s brief story appended to the document dump says, “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the President-elect.” “How can Americans or anybody else make up their own minds without providing reporting to them…How do you expect your readers to make up their own minds?” Stelter asks. This is exactly right. BuzzFeed offered almost nothing on which to base any decision about the contents of the 35 page document.
“Let’s be honest, you rushed this out,” Stelter says. “CNN published and you published a couple hours later trying to get this on the internet as fast as possible,” he adds. “I mean, it is both of our jobs to be as fast and as accurate as we can,” Smith replies. “Accurate and then fast,” Stelter counters.
“There’s obviously an attempt right now to divide the press, to turn us on each other and to turn reasonable differences about editorial decisions into screaming matches between us on this show,” Smith says. “I think that’s a trap the media has obviously repeatedly fallen into the last couple of years but I think it’s better not to right now,” he adds.
That really is the goal for Smith. He’s trying to insulate himself and BuzzFeed from controversy by playing the media collegiality card. Hey, look, we’re all in this together, let’s not turn on each other here. Let’s not say we made a decision that other news organizations chose not to make for the weeks (or months) they had the same document.
To his credit, Stelter, like Chuck Todd before him, isn’t buying it. “There’s a tension between, yes, there are reasons to have unity, on the other hand, as CNN’s Jake Tapper said, what you did was irresponsible and that irresponsible journalist hurts us all,” Stelter says. “It’s not possible to have unity in the press corps if BuzzFeed is acting more like WikiLeaks just dumping material on the internet and telling the audience to decide if it’s true or not,” he adds.
Smith is really out of talking points by this time. He’s chuckling to himself as if pretending to take this seriously, even for the duration of this interview, is just hilarious. “I think we reported a very important story about…” Smith starts to say. Stelter interrupts saying, “Reporting…you just published. There’s a difference between publishing and reporting.”
Here’s the full interview: