BuzzFeed’s editor in chief says his organization is “proud” of its decision to publish unverified memos alleging that Russian operatives have compromising personal and financial information about President-elect Donald Trump.
“We thought that it was important, when you have a blanket claim like he was compromised by Russian intelligence, to share the details,” Ben Smith told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” on Sunday. “I think we are trying to best inform our audience, to be true to our audience, to treat our audience with respect.”
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed published 35 pages of memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, shortly after CNN revealed that a two-page synopsis of their contents had been included as an annex in the classified materials presented earlier this month to Trump and to President Obama. CNN’s report said that Trump was briefed on claims the Russians had compromising information on him.
BuzzFeed’s decision sparked an intense debate within the journalism community about journalistic ethics and responsibility. A number of outlets, including CNN, had obtained the memos in recent weeks, but they had not published the memos or any specific details from them because the accuracy of the memos’ information could not be verified. After BuzzFeed’s publication of the memos, The New York Times added some of the allegations contained in them to its article on the subject.
Smith said the extent to which the memos had spread among politicians, intelligence officials and journalists, along with the revelations that intelligence officials were acting on the existence of the information, justified publication.
“When you have a document in that kind of circulation among the country’s elites at the center of an incredibly heated political battle, the argument for keeping it away from the American people has to be really, really strong,” he said. “Our job is not primarily to be gatekeepers, to decide what to suppress and keep from our audience. It’s primarily to share with our audience what we’ve got.”
At Trump’s press conference last week, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer conflated the CNN report with BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full document, and said that both organizations made “a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks.”
Smith said of those comments, “There’s obviously an attempt, right now, to divide the press, to turn us on each other.”
Smith said BuzzFeed has not been threatened with any legal action by the Trump transition team for its decision.