It was a report that read like something out of a Tom Clancy thriller, only the critics probably would have panned the thing for being too unrealistic. Donald Trump, a man who had already shattered all notions of conventional political wisdom and become the most controversial figure on the planet, was now being implicated as something close to a real-life Manchurian Candidate, engaging in all manner of unethical, illegal and downright treasonous activities with the Russian government. Just some of the many accusations levied against the president-elect in the 35-page dossier included coordination with Vladimir Putin to take down Hillary Clinton in exchange for ignoring Russia’s belligerence in eastern Europe and the Middle East, sharing money and intelligence with Russian oligarchs and throwing lavish extramarital sex parties intended to symbolically defecate on President Obama’s legacy. All of it sounded pretty damning, and easily grounds for impeachment (if not indictment) once Trump took office. Yet here we are two weeks later. President Trump is firmly ensconced in the White House, and you can bet that at least for the time being, he will face no consequences for the actions described in that stranger-than-fiction report. The reason? It might just be fiction after all.
Yes, it appears that 2016, the year of “Fake News,” may have only been a primer for what we can expect over the next four years. You see, the dossier was not leaked to the public by a hacker or disillusioned government official, but rather released by a major internet news outlet: Buzzfeed. After months of being subjected to blatantly false independent propaganda websites that show up on your grandparents’ Facebook feeds (the Fake News of the right) and narrative-driven, selective reporting in the media (primarily the Fake News of the left), we now have a mainstream news site shirking all notion of journalistic integrity and publishing a totally unsubstantiated, single-sourced report for the world to see.
To be fair, the dossier appears to be something far more credible than the 4chan troll-job than some of Trump’s most ardent backers are claiming it to be; Christopher Steele, the alleged author of the report, is a well-regarded ex-MI6 agent, and the intelligence community thought enough of his findings to compile a short summary which was then presented to Trump and President Obama (a story broken by CNN). Still, not one of the claims against Trump and the Kremlin has been independently verified, either by an intelligence agency or the media. Simply stated, there is no reason as of yet to believe any of the content is true beyond a reasonable doubt, which should be enough for a news organization to refrain from reporting. And in case you are thinking that the publication might have been a mistake, or perhaps that Buzzfeed’s journalists had received some confirmation from a source that they are protecting, think again. The website’s editor, Ben Smith, said himself that “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations,” and that his reasons for publishing were so “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.” Yeah, to hell with the truth and libel laws, just get everything out there and let people decide for themselves which rumors they ought to believe!
Regardless of what you think of Trump as a person or as a president, whether or not you feel that your fears over the prospect of his administration have been validated with this report, I implore you to see just how fundamentally unethical Buzzfeed’s decision was. We rely on our media not to be arbiters of morality, but to present us with the facts so that we are an informed electorate, capable of making reasonable political decisions. Obviously not every person can be expected to pay close attention to the news or to make an impartial decision (it is well within their rights to remain ignorant) and there will always be nuts out there who propagate conspiracy theories and other falsehoods in order to demonize the other side. However, because this is the case, it is all the more essential that influential, “legitimate” media outlets retain an allegiance to the truth. A strong and (relatively) unbiased media is one of the most important elements of our democracy and what Buzzfeed did seeks to undermine that pillar.
The subtext of Buzzfeed’s document dump is of course a continuation of the left’s ceaseless assault on Donald Trump; the dossier might as well have been released with a #NotMyPresident at the end of it. Will there be no end to this? Look, I will never say that Democrats need to just kneel down and accept everything that President Trump proposes. Only a sycophant (which, unfortunately, is a word that can be used to describe a large part of the Republican base at the moment) would fail to question some of Trump’s more radical ideas. But that is not what informed people mean when they say to “give him a chance!” Rather, they mean that the left should be opposing Trump in the political arena instead of attempting to demonize and delegitimize him at every turn. Scrutinizing some of Trump’s more questionable cabinet picks isn’t just the responsible thing to do, it should be an opportunity to reach across the aisle, since there are plenty of traditional conservatives who view Trump and his gang of alt-right supporters as a bigger threat to their principles than the left ever was. Yet instead, when an openly biased leftist organization like Buzzfeed commits an act so brazenly designed to engender distrust in the new administration, all they accomplish is to take the focus off of legitimate criticisms and invalidate them by association, as well as to further the political discord that is tearing our country apart.
Lest I sound like Chicken Little, I don’t think the sky is falling, at least not yet. Things were looking pretty dicey in November when news outlets were giving Hillary Clinton a 90+ percent chance of winning off of information from polls that look ever more dubious, but there is in fact a silver lining to be found in this Buzzfeed should-be scandal. The complete dossier had purportedly been circulating around the intelligence community and media for several months, and there was enough journalistic integrity in all of these organizations sans Buzzfeed to not publish something that they knew they could not independently verify (CNN reported limited specifics in its story about the two-page synopsis given to Obama and Trump). Because of that fact, and because I like to remain optimistic, I will hope that Buzzfeed is an outlier in the media, and that news executives out there still believe that they are serving a public interest in reporting the truth, not what they and their audience want the truth to be. If not, and this becomes the norm? Better buckle your seatbelts, because the polarization will only be on track to get worse.