Buzzfeed faces setback in defamation case stemming from its publication of the Steele dossier (Update: Buzzfeed wins)

Buzzfeed is facing a setback in court in a lawsuit filed against the company over its decision to publish the Steele Dossier. When the dossier was published in full by Buzzfeed last year, it contained allegations that companies run by Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev had been involved in hacking connected to Russian spies. Gubarev complained and Buzzfeed blacked out references to his companies but by that point, the dossier had already spread everywhere. In February 2017, Gubarev sued Buzzfeed for defamation. Tuesday, Buzzfeed’s defense against that claim got more difficult when a judge ruled that Gubarev was not a public figure. From Politico:

Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled that Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev is not a public figure for purposes of the defamation suit he filed last year.

The decision means that Gubarev might be able to prevail in the suit by showing mere negligence by BuzzFeed and won’t have to meet the more demanding “actual malice” standard typically applied in U.S. courts in controversies involving prominent individuals or those actively engaged in a public debate.

BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal expressed disappointment in the decision, but he stressed that the media company is advancing several other legal arguments about why it was justified in its decision to publish the dossier former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled about alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.

Two months ago, Buzzfeed argued that Gubarev’s lawsuit was tantamount to “asserting that the American public should, to this day, be ignorant about the text of a document that has been at the epicenter of government activity and public debate for almost two years.” That seems a bit overly-dramatic. No one knows what might have happened or been published over the past two years but it seems reasonable to say that allegation in the dossier that can’t be verified probably shouldn’t be published. That’s usually how journalism works or is supposed to work.

Back when Buzzfeed published the Steele dossier, there were numerous voices in the media saying the company probably wasn’t justified in doing so because it hadn’t done the work to verify the contents. One such criticism I highlighted at the time came from NBC’s Chuck Todd who told Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, “you just published fake news.”

Here’s a bit of what I wrote about the Chuck Todd interview back in January 2017:

Later in the interview, Smith argued the decision to publish was based on faith in his audience to be able to separate fact from fiction, i.e. to realize the document was unverified and probably inaccurate. That idea can quickly be dismissed by taking a look at the comments posted under the story by Buzzfeed’s readers. I won’t quote them here but I see the word “impeachment” repeated a lot.

In response to Smith’s claim that this was about transparency, Todd says, “Transparency can turn into a crutch to turn into laziness.” “The job of the reporter is we’re doing our best to find truth,” he adds. “At the end of the day it’s the best truth we can have and you are…you made a knowing decision to put out an untruth or at least something you hadn’t proven true yet.”

Ben Smith faced similar questioning when he was interviewed by CNN’s Brian Stelter. Stelter argued that unlike Buzzfeed, CNN chose not to publish the document and didn’t even publish specific details about the allegations it contained. When Smith argued that he didn’t understand the “middle position” to publish aspects of the dossier in general terms but not the full document, Stelter replied, “the middle position is journalism.”

It seems pretty clear what happened here. Buzzfeed saw an opening to publish the Steele Dossier and it took it because it a) wanted to be first and b) knew it would generate immense traffic. But it did so despite the fact that it couldn’t verify the information the dossier contained. Leaving it to readers to sort out whether or not the dossier was true is not how journalism is supposed to operate. That’s not to say that journalists always get it right even when they do try. Clearly, that’s not the case. But in this case, as Chuck Todd pointed out at the time, Buzzfeed’s leap to publish the dossier looks a lot like laziness, and I would add greed.

Here’s Stelter’s interview with Ben Smith:

Update: Buzzfeed has won the case.

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