BuzzFeed’s Trump–Cohen scoop is not dead yet

Late last Thursday, BuzzFeed dropped a bombshell. Reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold—who have blazed a trail reporting on Trump’s business ties to Russia—wrote that the president told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow, and that Robert Mueller learned of the directive thanks to witness testimony and corroborating documents from inside the Trump Organization.

While no other outlet could confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting, the story fed a frantic news cycle through Friday. Impeachment talk swelled as Congressional Democrats demanded answers. Late in the day, however, the tone dramatically changed. Peter Carr—the Mueller spokesperson known in some circles as “Mr. No Comment”—took the rare step not just of commenting, but of actively denying parts of the story. “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” Carr said. Suddenly, the prevailing question in coverage was not whether BuzzFeed had finally nailed Trump, but whether its story could be trusted at all.

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As details of Cormier and Leopold’s reporting process emerged, some of the steps they said they took invited scrutiny. On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter took Cormier and Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor, to task over what he called their “shockingly casual” request for comment—showing on screen an email (provided by BuzzFeed) in which Leopold told Carr only the story’s headline contention, without mentioning the supporting claim that Mueller knows about it and has evidence to back it up. Stelter’s colleague Oliver Darcy, meanwhile, pointed out that it wasn’t immediately clear whether Cormier or Leopold had seen any of that evidence themselves: Cormier said they had not, whereas Leopold suggested they had. Speaking to Stelter on Sunday, Cormier declined to clear that up, citing his duty to protect sources.

The statement from Mueller’s office, however, also raises questions. Its existence, in defiance of a tight-lipped norm, gives it undeniable weight; as the Post reported, it was viewed inside the Justice Department as “a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect.” But commentators should be careful not to treat the special counsel’s office—whose inner workings are opaque—as the infallible, benevolent voice of God. In any case, the statement neither kills the central essence of the story (it does not take a position on whether Trump did, in fact, tell Cohen to lie), nor specifies exactly what Mueller thinks BuzzFeed got wrong.

Just as the breathless early coverage of BuzzFeed’s story was over the top, so, too, were reports of its death. As the Post’s Aaron Blake put it on Friday, “Just like we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions about BuzzFeed’s report, we shouldn’t just assume it was completely botched based upon one denial, no matter how authoritative the denier.” BuzzFeed could not be clearer that it stands by the entirety of its reporting, and so its story is still very much alive.

As unsatisfying as it sounds, the most sensible position is to wait and see how this one plays out—even if that means leaving the 24-hour news beast unfed. A tweet by NYU Professor Jay Rosen still resonates two days after he wrote it: “There’s missing information here, and until it comes out having an opinion is hazardous.”

Below, more on BuzzFeed’s story:

  • “Limbo land”: Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo writes that reporters on the Mueller beat are struggling to reconcile the gap between the special counsel’s forceful denial and BuzzFeed’s forceful defense of its work. BuzzFeed seems “so damn sure, and I can’t tell if that’s real confidence because their sources are crazy good, or confidence because they know the implications of being wrong,” one source tells Pompeo. The Times’s Jim Rutenberg, meanwhile, writes that the story is in “limbo land.”
  • “Beware the permanent exclusive”: Hours before BuzzFeed dropped its bombshell, the Post’s Erik Wemple had this prescient warning about the dangers of breaking a story that rival outlets can’t corroborate. “Every journalist loves to produce an exclusive, but no journalist wants a permanent exclusive,” Wemple writes.
  • “A bad day for us”: After the special counsel’s office released its statement on Friday, several commentators suggested BuzzFeed’s carelessness would reflect badly on the media as a whole. “This is a bad day for us,” Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN, “It reinforces every stereotype about the news media.” Charlie Warzel, who recently left BuzzFeed for the Times, was among those to hit back. “To suggest gloomily that it’s a ‘bad day for us’ seems to be allowing those who suggest the media is the enemy of the people to own the narrative, no?” he asked on Twitter. “Doesn’t it give credibility to those who frequently and baselessly try to destroy trust in the media as a whole?”
  • “Vindicated”: In January 2017, before Trump was even inaugurated, BuzzFeed split the journalism world in two when it decided to publish, in its entirety, an explosive dossier containing unverified allegations about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. While BuzzFeed’s latest story is very different, it’s worth remembering that the widespread condemnation of its ethics that followed the dossier has not aged well, as I wrote last month.
  • “Hypothetical”: The BuzzFeed story is still moving forward. Yesterday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Pamela Brown and Laura Jarrett that the president’s legal team reached out to the special counsel’s office prior to Friday’s statement. He would not give further details. Giuliani also sought to walk back comments he made over the weekend suggesting that Trump and Cohen’s 2016 conversations about Trump Tower Moscow may have continued right up to Election Day.

Other notable stories:

  • A viral video appearing to show high-schoolers in MAGA hats mocking a Native American man near the Lincoln Memorial sparked a cycle of online outrage over the weekend. Some commentators (particularly on the right) claimed different footage of the incident exonerated the students, and condemned those who’d rushed to judge. But then came the backlash to the backlash to the backlash, as others (particularly on the left) insisted that the kids’ behavior looked just as racist in the longer video. As reporters worked to paint a fuller picture, takes overflowed. Writing in The Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman said the episode was a political Rorschach test (“tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues”), while Ian Bogost argued that we should stop trusting viral videos.
  • It’s day 32 of the government shutdown, and, at risk of sounding like a broken record, the end does not appear to be in sight. Among the federal workers affected are journalists at US state-backed broadcaster Voice of America, who have worked without pay to report the news. CNN’s Stelter has more.
  • The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Jill Abramson, the former editor of the Times, on her new book about the future of the media business. After passages of a proof were called out on Twitter last week—most strongly by Vice journalists who said they’d been misrepresented—Abramson told Chotiner she didn’t think she had dismissed their talent, and that the book has been fact-checked.
  • Fox & Friends briefly aired a graphic yesterday stating that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. (She has not.) The network later apologized, blaming “a technical error that emanated from the graphics team,” Mediaite’s Ken Meyer reports.
  • Carlos Fernando Chamorro, one of Nicaragua’s best-known journalists and editor of news website Confidencial, has gone into exile in Costa Rica after armed police raided and ransacked his newsroom, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports. The development furthered Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s vicious clampdown on press freedom. For a useful primer on the topic, read Charles Davis’s November report for CJR.
  • In Libya, Mohamed Ben Khalifa, a photographer and video journalist, was killed on Saturday after a militia he was accompanying in Tripoli came under fire. “With his sharp eye for detail, Ben Khalifa captured the attempts by ordinary Libyans to carve out normal lives amid the turmoil of the past decade,” the AP reports.
  • For CJR, I talked to New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe about his new book, Say Nothing, a gripping history of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
  • And while the long weekend may be over, you should still make time for Robert A. Caro’s deep reflection, in The New Yorker, on his life’s work researching and writing about Lyndon B. Johnson. In one especially resonant section, Caro recalls moving to Johnson’s native Texas after his subjects there saw him as an East Coast parachute journalist. “As soon as the people of the Hill Country realized we were there to stay, their attitude toward us softened; they started to talk to me in a different way,” he writes.

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Patrick Radden Keefe on Northern Ireland’s Troubles

In 2013, Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker, read an obituary in The New York Times of Dolours Price. Price, who died at 61, had been a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the period of Northern Irish history known as the Troubles. It was a bitter, 30-year sectarian […]

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A maddening shutdown story turns silly

Neither Trump nor the Democrats are budging, and neither is the shutdown story. As the longest ever freeze of the federal government continues, the president still wants a border wall; Nancy Pelosi and her House majority still don’t. Politico Playbook, which for 28 days has gone into the weeds, yesterday zoomed out to draw a simple, stark overview of the impasse: “Over the past few days, it feels as if the crisis in our government has hit a new inflection point. Look at all of the available evidence and ask yourself a simple question: Do you believe the government is poised to function over these next two years?”

Media outlets also appear entrenched in their arguments. Before the shutdown started, right-wing commentators with direct lines to Trump and his base grumbled about a mooted compromise package that did not include wall funding, causing the president to do a U-turn. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote yesterday, those commentators, including Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh, have only doubled down since.

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Back in the real world, reporters covered the shutdown’s effects. A CNN list of consequences stands at 91 and counting; these include the Federal Aviation Administration recalling furloughed safety workers without pay (via The New York Times), North Carolina schools scaling back lunches to conserve food (via The Charlotte Observer), and the closure of an airport security checkpoint in Texas. Yesterday brought more bad news, including a Times report that thousands of federal workers have filed for unemployment benefits, a Journal story that routine small-business loans have dried up, and a Washington Post alert that navigation systems worldwide are being misdirected because the shutdown means scientists can’t post an emergency update to their model.

Not infrequently, the shutdown story has also become silly. Yesterday, after Pelosi asked Trump not to deliver his State of the Union address in Congress unless the government reopens, the president retaliated by grounding a military flight she’d planned to Afghanistan an hour before it was set to take off. News organizations jumped on the tit-for-tat. “As the shutdown drags on, septuagenarian politicians are squabbling like 7-year-olds,” Mark Landler wrote in the Times. “Trump’s letter to Pelosi accomplished its main goal: Owning the libs,” added the Post’s Philip Bump.

Weightier shutdown-adjacent stories got pushed down the cycle, including the publication of a federal audit admitting that thousands more migrant families have been separated at the border than previously acknowledged. And reporters are stuck in a frustrating loop. Katie Rogers, White House correspondent at the Times, suggested: “If we turned off cable and internet for one day this shutdown would end.”

Below, more from the past 24-hour news cycle:

  • Send in the clowns: After Trump grounded Pelosi, “The scene around the Capitol quickly devolved into a circus-like atmosphere as reporters chased a charter bus with lawmakers on board who were supposed to join Pelosi on the trip overseas,” Politico’s Andrew Restuccia, Heather Caygle, and Andrew Desiderio report. Desiderio writes separately that “one reporter grabbed a shared electric scooter and rode toward the bus, leaving everyone else in the dust.”
  • Towering presence: Last night, a BuzzFeed scoop pierced through the shutdown noise. Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier report that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his planned Trump Tower Moscow project, and that Trump was eager to travel to Russia during his presidential campaign to kickstart the deal. While rival outlets could not immediately confirm the reporting, the Post, CNN, and others followed up on BuzzFeed’s story.
  • Hot mess: In a banner day for Cohen news, The Wall Street Journal published a story on his alleged interference with Drudge and CNBC polls. The reporters—Michael Rothfeld, Rob Barry, and Joe Palazzolo—include a juicy detail: that Cohen paid for a Twitter account, @WomenForCohen, dedicated to calling him hot. Jezebel’s Katie McDonough zooms in.

Other notable stories:

  • In Ghana, Ahmed Husein, a journalist who went undercover to expose corruption in African soccer, was shot dead on Wednesday night. Before the murder, a Ghanaian lawmaker had showed Husein’s photograph on TV and encouraged viewers to beat him.
  • Les Moonves, the disgraced former CEO of CBS who resigned after a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct, will take the network to arbitration over its decision last month to deny him a $120 million severance. “CBS wants to break from the Les Moonves era, but Moonves isn’t making it easy,” CNN’s Brian Stelter writes.
  • In a HuffPost Q&A, Ashley Feinberg holds Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s feet to the fire over right-wing extremism on the network. Among other vague answers, Dorsey refuses to confirm that Trump will be booted from the platform if he asks his followers to kill journalists. “Dorsey can be incredibly disorienting,” Feinberg writes. “Not because he’s particularly clever or thought-provoking, but because he sounds like he should be. The reason his impassioned defenses of Twitter sound like gibberish is because they are.”
  • After 121 years, The Forward, a prominent Jewish publication, is ceasing its print operation and going online-only. Keith J. Kelly of the New York Post reports that, in the process, about 40 staffers are being laid-off.
  • Separately, Jesse Angelo, the New York Post’s publisher and CEO, is stepping down.
  • For CJR, Kelsey Ables charts how Himal magazine, a publication dedicated to upending clichéd narratives about South Asia, died in Nepal and was reborn in Sri Lanka. Ables writes, “Reporting on the plastic surgery industry in Afghanistan, the control of the media in the 2018 Maldivian election, the orientalization of Sri Lankan tea advertising, and civil service exams in Bhutan, the magazine upends narratives and steers clear of tropes.”
  • In the UK, Arif Ansari, head of news at the BBC’s Asian Network, is standing trial after a broadcast he oversaw named a survivor of sexual abuse. Under British law, news organizations are banned from naming survivors who have reported their abuse without their consent or an appropriate court order.
  • Sarah Carr, who edits the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, writes for CJR that becoming a mother has changed her perspective on education reporting. “When I began rereading old stories through my new lens as a parent, what struck me was how often—when it came to my writing about children—I wanted more,” Carr reflects. “More details. More depth. More of them talking about their lives and feelings.”
  • And the Louisville Courier Journal apologized after it refused to publish a line in a local woman’s obituary claiming that “Her passing was hastened by her continued frustration with the Trump administration.” Gannett, which owns the Courier Journal, told Frances Irene Finley Williams’s family that it does not allow “negative content” to appear in obits.

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