Interview: Ben Smith is Still Strongly Defending BuzzFeed’s Controversial Trump-Russia Coverage
One of the more frustrating elements about the modern news media is their obsession with, and adherence to, conventional narratives. Once the clear majority of a particular segment of the news media accepts something as clearly either or true or not true, it is nearly impossible to turn that ship around, regardless of the factual record.
In this context, it has also appeared to me that BuzzFeed has gotten an unfair rap in certain influential corners because of two controversial, and, to some people, discredited decisions in their coverage of the Trump/Russia saga. The first was their judgement to make public the co-called “Steele Dossier” just before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the second was their report at the start of this year that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had strong evidence indicating that Trump had suborned Michael Cohen’s perjury to Congress.
As most news junkies now know, many of the salacious details within the Steele Dossier have either been disproven or are still unverified, and Mueller himself, in a highly unusual and dramatic move, pushed back against the report on Trump’s subornation of perjury. Consequentially, there is a perception that BuzzFeed really screwed this all up, and played right into Trump’s self-serving “Fake News” gambit.
For many reasons, I have never believed that this view is either remotely fair, or supported by even a cursory look at the facts with the use of basic logic. In reality, I think a strong argument can be made that, based on what was known at the time, each of these calls was, contrary to current conventional media wisdom, the journalistically sound way to go.
With that in mind, I asked Ben Smith, the man who ultimately made those choices as the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, to be a guest on my “Individual 1” podcast, which chronicles the Trump presidency. Yesterday, we spoke for about thirty minutes, and we got into great detail about why he still feels strongly that BuzzFeed did the right thing in both instances.
Here are the primary points we covered in our conversation:
- Smith’s reasoning for why the dossier was newsworthy, even if it wasn’t totally true, and my belief that its publishing was actually in the national security interest of the United States.
- What their original reporting on the Trump-Cohen story was based on, what he thinks Mueller really objected to, why he feels the media gave Mueller too much deference there, and why he still believes that the essence of what they reported is not only 100% true, but has already been vindicated.
- My confusion over how the heck, if Trump didn’t suborn Cohen’s perjury about the Trump Tower Moscow project, did Cohen know to specifically lie that the discussions with Russia ended just before the Republican primaries began in 2016?
- Our mutual befuddlement over how most of the news media has simply accepted Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report as the final word, and how Smith believes that the narrative is likely to swing back in the other direction once the Mueller Report is finally made public.
- Our views on how the business model of the news media having broken in recent years may, or may not, have impacted the nature of modern journalism.
My main takeaway here is how very strange it is that President Trump is benefiting so dramatically because the very same news media, which he whines is out to get him, is so short-sighted and incompetent. They seem incapable of seeing what the heart of the Russia scandal really likely was (hiding his absurdly inappropriate pursuit of a Moscow Tower during the whole campaign, and his many lies about it), and have unfairly/prematurely discredited the very report which could be the basis for the most obvious impeachment charge against him.
In a very real sense, Trump’s two most surprising supporters and enablers in the Russia probe, at least so far, have been the liberal news media, and Robert Mueller. The two entities that Trump constantly claims are on a “witch hunt” against him.
My entire interview with Ben Smith is well worth a listen, and can be heard at either of these two links:
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.