Certainly, the impression that President-elect Donald Trump gives in public is that he is upset with prominent online news site BuzzFeed for publishing an alleged dossier full of salacious details that Russian intelligence was allegedly planning to use to compromise him. Furiously upset, even — going so far as to call them a "failing pile of garbage" in a defiant press conference Wednesday morning. And who knows, Trump's anger might well be genuine; but he really ought to be thanking BuzzFeed for changing the course of this story in a way that has been very positive for him.
Rewind the clock to Tuesday afternoon and recall what Trump was facing. CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who enjoys one of the broadest bipartisan reputations for honesty of any person in the media, was on television, flanked by reporters Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez and Carl Bernstein. Tapper reported that CNN had developed credible information that U.S. intelligence officials had presented evidence to both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama that Russian intelligence agents claimed to have compromising information about Trump "of both a personal and financial nature." Further, the agents claimed that surrogates for the Trump campaign had regularly been in contact with Russian officials throughout 2016, directly contradicting Trump's fierce denials of any such contact.
Tapper made clear that CNN would not be discussing the contents of the allegations. He stated that they had not been able to independently verify them and thus would not repeat what they were. He stated that no one knew if the claims allegedly made by Russian intelligence were true or not. All they knew was that this dossier was out there, and it had been handed to Trump and to Obama, with the message that the Russians were allegedly trying to use its contents to compromise Trump. Responsible reporting if in fact CNN did its due diligence on the report.
Then came BuzzFeed. They, in fact, had no such qualms about publishing the contents of the dossier itself. They emphasized that the material was both "unverified" and likely "unverifiable," but laid out the claims in all their glory.
As the dust has settled, a general consensus has developed that CNN's reporting should be distinguished from BuzzFeed's and that CNN acted responsibly where BuzzFeed was reckless. It should be noted, BuzzFeed has its notable defenders today, including the Columbia Journalism Review, but most members of the media agree: What BuzzFeed did was worse than what CNN did (if you grant that CNN did anything wrong at all).
However, from Trump's perspective, BuzzFeed's reporting did him a huge favor. The reason for that is simple: The contents of the dossier were so obviously suspect that they called the veracity of the entire account into question. What reasonable intelligence official would have taken this transparent pulp to the president of the United States without a shred of verification to back it up? None would have, it was virtually obvious from the document's face.
Imagine if BuzzFeed's story had never been printed. CNN's allegation that Russians had unspecified compromising information of both a "personal" and "financial" nature would have been left hanging in the air. And it would have been believable by a large number of people. Polls have shown that, after a brief post-election honeymoon period, Trump is unpopular again and the American public is increasingly uneasy about his public posture toward Russia — a vulnerability that Senate Democrats have mercilessly exploited during the first few days of confirmation hearings for Trump's Cabinet appointments.
"Donald Trump is in Russia's pocket" is a damaging narrative for Democrats to build, because it fits what swing voters already suspect might be true about Trump, fairly or not. And the CNN report, by itself, would have fed into that narrative.
However, even an extreme Trump skeptic like myself could not believe the allegations in that dossier were presented to Obama and Trump as some sort of legitimate piece of intelligence. By the time I got to the unfortunate part of the document that briefly led the hashtag #PEEOTUS to trend on Twitter — a high point in the history of the Republic, to be sure — I said to myself, "This is so ridiculous that not even Alex Jones would present it to his audience as credible evidence." As an editor, it took me less than two seconds to make the decision not to run any portion of the dossier.
BuzzFeed made a different choice. The ethics of that choice will likely be hotly debated for some time to come. Ultimately, of course, their readers — both actual and potential — will likely have the final say in whether it was the "right" call or not.
What I will say is, letting America see the too obviously fake dossier changed this story from another potentially damaging intelligence leak about Trump into the narrative that suits Trump best, at least with his base — the narrative in which Trump is the victim of an overreaching press that is bent on his destruction. In the span of one evening, BuzzFeed turned this story from a losing one into a winning one for Trump.
Trump is an astute enough student of human nature and public relations to understand that everyone who repeats allegations this fanciful without ironclad proof is demeaned thereby, whereas the victim of the allegations is elevated by the obvious desperation of his opponents. Let's hope someone on his campaign sends the "failing pile of garbage" a nice fruit basket or something for their trouble. .