It happened fast. Just like everything else in Trumpland.
On January 10th, CNN published an explosive story: a dossier alleging President-elect Donald Trump had been embarrassingly compromised by the Russian government had been circulating among high-ranking government officials and journalists for months. But CNN, along with a number of other organizations that had access to the dossier, stopped short of publishing it. Their reasoning? They couldn’t confirm any of the file’s salacious details or damning allegations.
An hour later, BuzzFeed went ahead and published the documents. BuzzFeed described the dossier’s allegations as “unverified” and pointed out some obvious errors that suggested sloppy work, such as misspellings and easily debunked claims, but didn’t weigh in on the truthfulness of its most damning charges.
Journalists quickly weighed in on the ethics of publishing a document containing such allegations without proof of their veracity, many harshly condemning BuzzFeed. The next day, Donald J. Trump, days away from becoming the most powerful man in the world, had his own message for the 10-year-old site: “As far as Buzzfeed, which is a failing pile of garbage… I think they’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are.”
Despite Trump’s attacks and condemnation by fellow journalists, Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, seemed confident that the decision to publish the dossier in full was the right one: he defended it on cable TV shows, Twitter, and in an op-ed in The New York Times. Speaking with Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, Smith suggested that the move to publish the dossier wasn’t a one-off decision, but a different, more modern approach to journalism. Unlike traditional organizations that start by asking why they should share documents, Smith said BuzzFeed starts at the inverse position: “Why should we suppress this?"
“It seemed strange that the media elite knew about it, and people at the highest forms of government knew about it, and people were hearing something was out there, but didn’t know what it was,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti said when we spoke with him. “At that point it felt like, why does everyone get to see this except the public?”
Now, BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the dossier containing unconfirmed material will be tested in court. Last Friday, Aleksej Gubarev, the Russian-born chief executive of tech firm XBT, sued BuzzFeed for defamation. The published dossier included an allegation that Gubarev and his company had, under duress by Russian intelligence, helped hack the Democratic Party. It’s a charge Gubarev adamantly denies, and which he says has damaged his reputation, harmed his company’s business, and put his family’s personal safety at risk. BuzzFeed immediately apologized and redacted his name, but Gubarev intends to continue the lawsuit.
Last month we reached out to BuzzFeed in the wake of the dossier to find out whether the company felt it would be putting itself at risk — legal and financial — by publishing such materials. Smith and Peretti made themselves available for interviews. After Gubarev filed his suit, BuzzFeed distributed a one-sentence statement: “We have redacted Mr. Gubarev's name from the published dossier, and apologize for including it.” Peretti and Smith declined follow-up interviews. “We stand by our decision to publish the dossier,” said a BuzzFeed spokesperson.
Though Gubarev’s lawyer insists that his client is in no way tied to the president’s administration, and the suit is not political, it does pose a major question for BuzzFeed: what are the potential repercussions of its aggressive approach to journalism, which pushes beyond some of its more traditional competitors? And in the Trump era, how should it balance the risk and reward of hard-hitting journalism at a company that makes most of its money on light-hearted entertainment?
Twelve days after the dossier published, sitting in his office overlooking the BuzzFeed newsroom, Ben Smith was undeterred by Trump’s insults. Readers liked the dossier story, the BuzzFeed editor-in-chief said. In response to Trump’s comments, BuzzFeed sold cheeky T-shirts and trash cans to revel in their “garbage” status; the proceeds went to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
When it was formed in 2012, News was the shiny new mission of BuzzFeed, and since then it has built a well-deserved reputation for serious work. Last year, for instance, an investigation into match-fixing in tennis, produced in conjunction with the BBC, generated worldwide notice and an award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors trade group. In the summer of 2016, the company created two distinct entities: BuzzFeed News for serious journalism, and BuzzFeed Entertainment for everything else.
Over the course of the 2016 election cycle, BuzzFeed News reporter Andrew Kaczynski and a team of three co-workers published frequent “KFile” scoops based on old TV footage and other archival material — revelations like the fact that Trump had, contrary to his assertions, supported the Iraq War in a Howard Stern interview.
At the height of the election cycle this past October, CNN poached Kaczynski and his Kfile team. It was a testament to the work they’d done at BuzzFeed, but also a painful loss for Smith at a critical time. Three other senior political reporters — Rosie Gray, McKay Coppins, and Adam Serwer — all left for The Atlantic after the election. The publication of the dossier, say several former and current BuzzFeed News employees, should be viewed as an act of strength, but also a play by Smith to keep his division at the center of the conversation.
Smith says that News has plenty of resources and that his group will continue to do the aggressive reporting that’s garnered accolades. BuzzFeed News has hired more than 20 journalists since November, putting its head count above where it began in 2016.
Among the hires: Steven Perlberg, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who will cover the intersection of Trump and the media; Anthony Cormier, who won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; and Jason Leopold, a former Vice staffer known for his ability to build stories from public documents.
Even as the new administration complains about the media, for now Trump and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, seem to enjoy having an antagonist. When Bannon told The New York Times the press should “keep its mouth shut,” he was clearly serving up the red meat quote for the benefit of his base. And as vicious as it seems, the administration seems to recognize their symbiotic relationship with the press.
Smith says he’s known Steve Bannon for “a long time”; in 2015, Bannon’s Breitbart went to bat for a BuzzFeed reporter who was banned from covering the Pope’s visit to the US. Bannon continues to talk to Smith, on the record, even after BuzzFeed antagonized the White House with the dossier.
Aggressively covering news, Smith says, “is a way to sort of both build your audience’s trust and have your audience see that you’re out there fighting for them.” Rather than pulling back from stories that might anger Trump voters or result in lawsuits, the company is leaning in, staffing up its news division to take direct aim at Washington, and printing what many traditional outlets won’t.
The Gubarev lawsuit may prove to be the first big test of that approach. “If you pass on to others something that is false and defamatory, you may be liable for it. It’s not a defense, to say someone else said or wrote it,” says Thomas Hentoff, an attorney with Williams & Connolly who specializes in libel and defamation cases. “They would have to defend their conduct in publishing the dossier.”
Gubarev’s complaint uses BuzzFeed’s own description of the dossier — “It is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors” — as evidence the company acted recklessly when it published it: “In other words, Buzzfeed and Mr. Smith knew for sure only that certain parts of the dossier were untrue.”
The suit also argues that Gubarev is not a public figure, a charge that BuzzFeed seems to support with its subsequent move to blot out his name in the dossier. Before publication it had already redacted other names of private citizens in the files, while leaving names of public figures like Trump advisor Paul Manafort untouched. If the suit moves forward, it will likely hinge in part on this question. If Gubarev is considered a public figure, the standard for defamation is quite high. He would have to prove actual malice on BuzzFeed’s part. If the court considers him a private citizen, then he would need to show only that BuzzFeed was negligent for including allegations about him in a story it could not verify.
Val Gurvits, Gubarev’s attorney, says redacting his client’s name from the dossier no longer solves things. “It’s kind of like, a guy punches you in the nose, knocks your teeth out, sends you to the hospital, then shrugs his shoulder and says, ‘Sorry bro.’ It doesn’t fix everything,” he says.
In publishing the dossier and placing itself front and center in the debate over Russia’s involvement in the election, BuzzFeed positioned its relatively young news division against a potentially dangerous adversary in a precarious environment.
In 2014, the Gamergate community — a collection of individuals that includes several high-profile Trump supporters — fashioned a template for online hordes to use against outlets they don’t approve of. A Gawker source says that Gamergate bled $7 million from Gawker Media in 2014 by convincing advertisers to pull their campaigns. (Some former Gawker executives dispute this figure, and place the loss at just over $1 milion.) Peter Thiel, the billionaire Trump backer who worked on his transition team and remains a key advisor delivered the mortal blow by secretly funding a privacy lawsuit that resulted in Gawker’s bankruptcy filing in 2016.
Gurvits says his client is funding his defamation suit on his own, and has no connection to Thiel, Trump, or anyone else associated with the administration. “My client does not have a social or political agenda. He was dragged into this by what we allege is irresponsible behavior by a media outlet. To him, it’s just a matter of fixing his reputation.”
But the White House is occupied by people who have made targeting the press a core part of their strategy. On the campaign trail, the president, who once sued a journalist for undervaluing his net worth, promised to “open up libel laws” to make those suits more effective. Trump routinely takes to Twitter to insult outlets like The New York Times and CNN.
And while Smith has been vocal about BuzzFeed News as a politically neutral operation, it would be easy for a Trump supporter to argue that both Smith’s unit and the company at large have a long-running bias against Trump.
In 2015, for instance, Smith told his staff it would be “entirely fair to call [Trump] a mendacious racist” on social media, because, he claimed, his team’s reporting had proven that out. In 2016, BuzzFeed said it wouldn’t take money to run Trump ads from the Republican National Committee. “We don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason,” Peretti said. Around the same time, BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer, a longtime Democratic Party supporter, hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at his Manhattan apartment.
A week and half before the lawsuit, we asked Smith about the risks BuzzFeed was taking with its aggressive posture. At the time, Smith bristled at the idea that BuzzFeed was at any greater risk than other traditional news outlets.
But BuzzFeed isn’t like traditional media outlets, both because of its business structure and business model. It’s a young, venture-backed company, with investors who have put in more than $400 million and who haven’t exited via a sale or IPO. Its business is also based almost entirely on advertising revenue. Compare that to The New York Times, for instance, which is public but controlled by a single family and has over 3 million paying subscribers, or The Washington Post, which is owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, and is building up its own subscription business.
And unlike the Times or the Post, BuzzFeed isn’t, at its core, a news company: it makes most of its money from — and commits the majority of its resources to — its video and entertainment operations, which Smith doesn’t touch. In a 2014 essay Smith pointed out that BuzzFeed puts barely any advertising on its news articles, meaning there is little direct revenue from news, even on scoops with huge traffic. If BuzzFeed’s controversial reporting turns off advertisers or leads to lawsuits, it could drag down the company’s bottom line, even if it boosts readership.
Jonah Peretti’s New York office sits on the 16th floor of BuzzFeed’s Manhattan headquarters. It features a tall bay window that looks north toward midtown, the golden peak of the New York Life tower in clear view. On a shelf behind his standing desk, there’s a signed photograph of Donald Trump. On closer inspection it turns out to be Trump nemesis Alec Baldwin, playing the president on Saturday Night Live. The framed photo is a gift from Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, which has invested $400 million into the young media startup. (NBCUniversal is also a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.)
A co-founder of The Huffington Post, Peretti started BuzzFeed without a news division, focusing instead on jokes, memes, and other internet ephemera designed to go viral on social media. The decision to add news, he explained, came down to long-term success. “The advertising community and CMO’s respect companies that do news, even if they don’t want to advertise on the news content itself. The fact that you’re doing news is a reason they want to meet with you, and a reason the company is seen as being legitimate, substantial.”
Peretti is a student of media history, and sitting in his office he says he’s eager to continue funding and promoting the News division. He sees news and entertainment as forces that balance each other out. “If you look at Ted Turner, he [had] TBS and CNN. When it was a slow news day, people could watch baseball games and old movies on TBS. When a war was starting they would watch CNN.”
Peretti uses Hearst, one of the great media barons, as an example. “Hearst Newspapers did these undercover investigations exposing corruption in government. The reader felt like the papers were on their side. Later on, Hearst became much more obsessed with connecting with power players and not upsetting the president. That was fine for business in the short term, but the papers lost their relevance, it undermined the long-term success of the paper.”
When we spoke in the days prior to the lawsuit, Peretti argued that publishing a dossier that had circulated among the highest reaches of government, even if it was was comprised of questionable facts, was part of modern journalism. “If you can’t report on things that are having a big impact, that are false, then you wouldn’t be able to write about a lot of Trump’s tweets,” he said. He compared it to the debunking of viral images BuzzFeed had done during Hurricane Sandy. “Our audience is on Twitter and Facebook and looking at all this stuff, they are seeing it. If someone doesn’t write about it and debunk it, they will think that it’s true.”
Smith thinks the same way. There’s a “real, legitimate disagreement here, about how do you get the trust of an audience, in a moment when the media landscape is so fucked? And it’s getting worse,” he told us. At a moment when the size of the inaugural crowd seems as subjective to many Americans as the color of that famous dress, BuzzFeed’s approach makes sense. Amid a flood of fake and disputed news, covering unreliable information often is the story — and doing so without offering up the content you’re debunking leaves readers lacking. “When I came up in newspapers it was like, you would never touch a false rumor — you wouldn’t validate it by denying it. I think [that] has changed.”
Peretti says he knew that Smith had the Trump dossier weeks before BuzzFeed ran it. He says Smith didn’t ask for permission to publish the document, and didn’t need to. “He called me as he published it,” Peretti says. “It was Ben’s decision to do it, and he was empowered to make that decision.”
This is a battle that, Peretti told us, BuzzFeed has prepared for. After Trump’s victory in November, BuzzFeed senior staff conferred with their legal team as they considered the risks of publishing hard-hitting stories under a new administration. Peretti thinks the company is buffered by money, good counsel, and the law. He also thinks that writing stories Trump doesn’t like can be a good thing for his business.
“If you actually want to reach young people, you have to have a voice,” he said. Young readers, and the brands that want to market to them, will respond to a publication with some spine. “Having a little swagger, having a point of view, being willing to do things that seem risky, is less risky than being the lapdog of the administration.”
Update: This piece has been edited to reflect conflicting reports on the financial impact of Gamergate on Gawker Media.