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The Media’s Prime Directive

Buzzfeed, the media, and the Age of Trump.
January 21, 2019
The Media’s Prime Directive

“Trump is reckless with the truth,” John Podhoretz writes over at Commentary. “That doesn’t give his pursuers license to be reckless with it as well. Quite the opposite, in fact. The discredited Buzzfeed story advances the dreadful case that there is no truth—that there are only agendas.”

It is of course, possible to quibble with this, since we do not yet know the full extent of what Robert Mueller knows about what Donald Trump may have told Michael Cohen. But his office’s extraordinary denial of Buzzfeed’s bombshell was a brutal reality check. Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Department of Justice and a sharp Trump critic, probably has it right:

You can spend hours parsing the Carr statement, but given how unusual it is for any DOJ office to issue this sort of on the record denial, let alone this office, suspect it means the story’s core contention that they have evidence Trump told Cohen to lie is fundamentally wrong.

One of the obvious early signs of trouble for the Buzzfeed scoop was the lack of corroboration; no other major media outlet confirmed the report and (unlike much of the rest of the media) the New York Times was notably reticent in its reporting on it. We now also know that when the Buzzfeed reporter sought comment from Mueller’s office he “made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.”

Buzzfeed continues to stand by the story, but the evidence suggests that it violated the media’s Prime Directive: “Get it right. Always get it right.”

This has always been important, but now that errors are weaponized by partisans intent on portraying any unhelpful reports as being the product of “fake” news, the pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds has intensified. Trump and his supporters now routinely conflate journalistic errors or lapses with intentional distortions.

“People are going to take from this story that the news media are a bunch of leftist liars who are dying to get the president, and they’re willing to lie to do it,” CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said. “I just think this is a bad day for us.”

Well, yes.

Unsurprisingly, Trump himself leapt on the story, calling Buzzfeed’s report “a disgrace to journalism,’ and extended his indictment to the media at large. “I think also that the coverage by the mainstream media was disgraceful,” he said Saturday, “and I think it’s going to take a long time for the mainstream media to recover its credibility.”

His most ardent defenders in conservative media took the same line, with Mollie Hemingway tweeting out that “There has been no accountability in the media for the hundreds of false Russia stories invented and widely accepted by media.”

But this claim is profoundly disingenuous.

The vast majority of media reports about Trump and Russia have proven to be accurate and while the media will occasionally get it wrong, the stories are not “invented.”

In fact, unlike in Trump World, there is generally accountability for media screw-ups and errors. Corrections are issued, reporters and editors fired.

All of that said, the Buzzfeed affair nevertheless exposed some nasty realities that require some hard questions and serious introspection. The first question involves one of the two reporters who “broke” the story, Jason Leopold.

Who Is Jason Leopold?

The article sitting on my desk is headlined “Jason Leopold Caught Sourceless Again.” The piece, from the Columbia Journalism Review, described Leopold as a “serial fabulist,” who was “caught making stuff up,” and called his then-most recent article an “application for membership in the Stephen Glass school of journalism,” a reference to the New Republic’s infamous reporter who fabricated stories out of whole cloth. The CJR story notes that Leopold had his “memoir cancelled because of concerns over the accuracy of quotations.”

The CJR article concludes: “But we wonder when editors will finally figure out his game, save themselves the trouble, and just stop publishing him.”

This piece is dated July 13, 2006.

The evisceration of Leopold’s journalism was prompted by his report in in May 2006 that presidential adviser Karl Rove was about to be indicted by then-Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. Leopold insisted that he had multiple sources “who confirmed Rove’s indictment is imminent. These individuals requested anonymity saying they were not authorized to speak publicly about Rove’s situation.”

Rove was never indicted.

This was not Leopold’s first bust. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported last week, Leopold’s first journalistic scandal had actually occurred four years before that:

In 2002, removed a story Leopold had written as a freelancer for the site. Salon said that as it investigated a piece he wrote about Enron, including an allegation of plagiarism against him, Leopold “distributed an account of events” that was “riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.” Ultimately Salon said it “reluctantly had to conclude” Leopold’s piece carried “an instance of plagiarism,” despite his strong denials.

Perhaps the most disturbing account of Leopold’s modus operandi came from journalist Joseph Lauria, who wrote an extended piece in the Washington Post in 2006 about his interactions with Leopold.

In the article, Lauria suggests that Leopold had stolen his identity and pretended to be Lauria in his calls to a spokesman for Rove, even giving out a phone number that was only a single digit away from Lauria’s own phone. His 12-year-old account of Leopold does not do much to suggest confidence in the Buzzfeed reporter:

Leopold says he gets the same rush from breaking a news story that he did from snorting cocaine. To get coke, he lied, cheated and stole. To get his scoops, he has done much the same. As long as it isn’t illegal, he told me, he’ll do whatever it takes to get a story, especially to nail a corrupt politician or businessman. “A scoop is a scoop,” he trumpets in his memoir. “Other journalists all whine about ethics, but that’s a load of crap.”

Like the Columbia Journalism Review piece, Lauria’s 2006 article compared Leopold to other infamous journalistic frauds such as Jayson Blair:

Leopold is in too many ways a man of his times. These days it is about the reporter, not the story; the actor, not the play; the athlete, not the game. Leopold is a product of a narcissistic culture that has not stopped at journalism’s door, a culture facilitated and expanded by the Internet.

In the end, whatever Jason Leopold’s future, he got what he appears to be crying out for: attention.

More than a decade later, Leopold has again gotten a lot of attention.

An Editorial Failure?

Leopold’s defenders—and there are many of them—argue that he has since turned his life and career around. He has had a host of legitimate scoops and was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Russiagate.

In this telling, Leopold’s story is about redemption. But that redemption should come with a healthy dose of caution.

Over the years Leopold rebuilt his reputation, in part, by breaking stories that he got by his aggressive use of Freedom of Information Act requests. As CNN’s Darcy notes, he earned the nickname the “FOIA terrorist.”

But this latest story about Trump and Cohen was not based on FOIA documents; it is a story based on anonymous sources. And Jason Leopold’s history with these sorts of sources is more than a little troubled. That should have raised a forest of red flags, especially given the dramatic nature of story and the importance of the claims it made. If the Buzzfeed story was (is?) true, it would have meant that there was almost no way in which the president of the United States had not obstructed justice. It claimed that there was a “smoking gun.”

And this is where we move past Jason Leopold. The lone gunman theory doesn’t fully account for what happened because there are too many other actors, both inside and outside Buzzfeed, who participated in the decision to publish: There were (we assume) multiple Buzzfeed editors who read the piece and decided to publish it. There were (we hope) Buzzfeed lawyers who vetted it.

And then there were the other news outlets which seized on the story even though they were unable to independently confirm it. Leopold’s co-author was Anthony Cormier, a highly respected, former Pulitzer Prize winner. Cormier and Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith continue to stand by the story, and the two went on CNN Sunday to defend it. But Leopold seems to be being kept under wraps. (That’s a sign that Buzzfeed understands how risky it was giving Leopold so much headroom in the first place.)

And even now, we do not know who said what to whom. But that’s the point.

The Buzzfeed story seemed so plausible; it seemed so consistent with what we “knew”—which many people seemed to be conflating with what they suspected. That’s what made it so tantalizing. And so dangerous.

We all suffer from confirmation bias and the stories that we might wish most fervently to be true are precisely the ones that need to be wrapped most aggressively in caveats, caution, and skepticism.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.