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Real news, fake news, or "up-to-you": Journalism & The Trump-Russia dossier leak

This "transparent" flow of unverified information could be both desirable and dangerous.

NBC News

Wednesday morning (January 11), President-Elect DonaldTrump held his first press conference since summer 2016. That's extraordinary timing in itself, but all the moreso given Tuesday's explosive reports by CNN and BuzzFeed of a memo suggesting Russian president Vladimir Putin had been "cultivating" Trump as an unwitting asset, feeding him intelligence while simultaneously compiling compromising information against him in an effort to control him and disrupt the international alliance that Putin views as inconvenient to Russian interests. Sounding like a movie plot—almost is a movie plot—it certainly set the stage for a memorable press conference -- and for a pivotal conversation in the ethics, and existence, of journalism.

Trump's incoming Press Secretary Sean Spicer set the tone by dismissing the reports and their underlying intel out-of-hand, grouping the CNN and BuzzFeed reports as essentially one and the same. Except, they contain a crucial distinction: CNN reported, based on their direct sources, that this memo existed and had been presented both to Trump and President Obama, but stopped short of reporting on the memo's allegations because they hadn't yet been verified; BuzzFeed, on the other hand, published the entire memo, explicitly noting that it contained factual errors and leaving readers to "make up their own minds."

This is a momentous and unprecedented editorial stance for a "reliable" news source to take with unsubstantiated information. In a memo to staff, BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith said that it was not an easy decision, but that he chose to publish the memo in the interest of "transparency," as this document had been circulating government and media hands for some time.

"Publishing the dossier is how we see the job of reporters in 2017," Smith added.

With that, BuzzFeed has precipitated a new debate in journalistic ethics while CNN adhered to standards and conventions of publishing only verified material. In Trump's eyes, however, they are one and the same: "fake news." That's the rationale he gave, explicitly, in ignoring CNN's Jim Acosta at his press conference. And it's the most recent example of the term "fake news" being removed from its root (news that is completely fabricated) and weaponized.

To reiterate: CNN didn't publish the memo, only the fact that it existed and its underlying claims, which were credible enough that the intelligence community elected to present them to both the president and president-elect.

All of this sets off a series of questions:

First, what is "fake news"? And when is news "real news" to Donald Trump? (In this case, the CNN report is based on independent verification and limited to substantiated facts. The memo itself contained unverified allegations from anonymous sources, the hallmarks of the sort of "fake news" which diluted Facebook discourse this past year.) Whatever the case, today's incident illustrates how "fake news" as a term has been weaponized, and may be invoked to delegitimize any report or information someone finds adversarial or inconvenient.

Second, what is the role of reporters in 2017? Is it simply to report the existence of content or to ensure that content's veracity and truthfulness before sharing? If the former, what is the difference between a "reporter" and a "person with an internet platform/social media account"? If the latter, see the first question (i.e. What are the standards for "real" and "fake" anymore? As Kanye would say, "Do anybody make real sh-t anymore?" Fair question, 'Ye. Fair enough.)

Third, what is more important in reportage: transparency or accuracy? Is it asking too much of readers to "make up their minds for themselves"? Is the general reader sophisticated enough (in background knowledge, in independent channels of information and verification) to really make up their minds in objective ways? Or does this just allow people to decide facts for themselves based on their prejudices, biases, and opinions?

Fourth, is the "transparent" flow of unverified information desirable or dangerous?

Let me know what you think on social media (@amritsingh). Let's feed the conversation before the conversation feeds on us.

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