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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Connection from Comet Ping Pong to Buzzfeed

On Sunday December 4th, Edwin Welch drove to Washington DC from his home in North Carolina with a rifle. He had read a story on the Internet that a pizza parlour was the center of a child pornography ring being run by Hilary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta.

Welch walked into the restaurant which was filled with families having lunch. He demanded that the children "held prisoner" in the basement be released. Then he fired at least one shot into the ceiling before being arrested.

Welch later explained that he read about the restaurant on a number of websites including Reddit, 4chan and Twitter where conspiracy theorists who are Donald Trump supporters spread the notion of Clinton being involved. Welch said he came to Washington to "self-investigate" what he believed to be true, because he read it on the Internet.

Even after the story broke, hundreds of people flooded the Internet claiming that Welch was a so-called "false flag" - a dupe set up by the Democrats whose purpose was to discredit the anti-Clinton sentiments in the country.

Fast forward to this past week and the online site Buzzfeed published unverified and in its opinion, "credible" information from US intelligence sources. Buzzfeed said that the CIA had made Trump and Obama aware that Russia was deeply involved in the hacking of both political parties. More controversially, Buzzfeed claimed that the Russians had taken photos of the President-Elect cavorting with prostitutes in hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg five years ago.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations, blaming Buzzfeed (along with CNN which reported only what Buzzfeed said).

Other media outlets didn't hesitate to report the controversy while taking cover under the guise that this is all "unverifiable".  Buzzfeed had - without question - a big scoop. And many digital journalists supported Buzzfeed for its boldness. Mathew Ingram, writing in Fortune said that the public does have a right to know what is being talked about behind closed doors, even if the information can't quite be confirmed.

I regard Mathew as a friend and colleague who has spoken to my journalism students on a number of occasions. But I have to disagree with his argument because there is not a lot of difference between Edwin Welch and  Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed. They both acted on unverifiable rumour, the consequences of which could have been tragic in the first instance. As for the fallout from the Buzzfeed "scoop", we are still watching this play out in the days before PEOTUS is inaugurated and the Trump years begin.

If Buzzfeed had been able to give us more information as to where they got this story, who was circulating it, how the Russians have often resorted to blackmail, and other evidence that some real journalism had gone into this story, it might have given restored the public's trust.

But it would have taken a brave (or foolhardy) editor to say "we aren't touching this story until we know more."

We are entering John Le CarrĂ© territory here: Was this story was another example of Russian "dizinformatsiya" designed to discredit Trump? Or was it an American intelligence agent getting back at Trump for his open distrust of the CIA? Or what about a former British spy (now in hiding) who gathered this information for a client in the US who he won't identify?

We just don't know enough...yet. And if if the media don't know enough to inform us, they shouldn't publish.

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