On CNN, Buzzfeed Defends Dubious Report With Shady Deflections

Buzzfeed News got into hot water over the weekend, after the Special Counsel’s Office issued a rare public rebuke regarding the outlet’s claim President Trump directed his attorney to lie to Congress. Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith and co-author of the dubious piece Anthony Cormier appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to defend themselves and “to talk about process”, but what viewers got were shady deflections.

After being introduced by host Brian Stelter, Smith shared his pleasure for being on the show: “I'm glad you began with the question of the truth of the allegations because ultimately, this is a media show, we're here to talk about process, we're happy to talk about that.” But he immediately launched into talking about what Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said in the previous hour.

A couple minutes into their over 20-minute-long interview, Stelter questioned Cormier on what his sources were telling now, given Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s rebuke. “I have further confirmation that this is right. We’re being told stand our ground. That this is –that our reporting will be borne to be accurate. And we’re 100 percent behind it,” he declared.

But when asked who was telling him that, Cormier refused to say: “I'm not going to talk about my sources. I got to be honest with you. This morning, Rudy Giuliani seemed to signal that there’s going to be a leak investigation.

As CNN had previously reported, Cormier’s co-author Jason Leopold has had a long “checkered past” when it came to reporting. Allegations against Leopold included plagiarism and a case in 2006 where he falsely claimed in a report that White House official Karl Rove was facing an “imminent” indictment, but nothing happened.

 

 

When questioned about these facts, Smith dismissed it as not a concern and threw CNN under the bus for inviting Leopold to their offices to teach reporters about Freedom of Information Act requests (Click “expand” to read):

STELTER: Jason [Leopold]'s past has been scrutinized, including by CNN, in recent days because he was accused of making up stories 15-plus years ago. Do you have any concerns about his credibility permanently?

SMITH: I have no concerns about his credibility. As soon as this story was published, people started pointing to it – a real mistake he made and owned – we’re talking 20 years ago.

STELTER: Right, he said by his own admission, he's had a checkered past.

SMITH: We're talking a long time ago. Slightly more recent -- in the slightly more recent past, we're talking the last 10, 15 years. He's America's leading expert in the use of the Freedom of Information Act, he's been invited by CNN to train your team on use of the Freedom of Information Act.

Further hitting on the topic of Leopold’s questionable journalism, Stelter pressed Smith on the “shockingly casual way” he asked the Special Counsel’s Office for comment on the report in question. “But come on, one paragraph?! That’s a dereliction of duty to send a three-sentence email for comment,” Stelter exclaimed. Smith really didn’t have a problem with it.

Stelter scolded Smith on how the e-mail should have been written but Smith insisted the responsibility was on the Special Counsel’s Office (Click "expand" to read):

STELTER: When I'm sending an e-mail to Buzzfeed spokespeople, when I’m about to write about you, it's a bullet point long e-mail, everything that's going to be included. I want to make sure everything has been checked first. Why didn't Jason do that?

SMITH: Again, I'm – [Peter] Carr has now said he would have responded in more detail if he had more detail. He could have said that two minutes later. Right? He could have said, “That's quite a statement, tell me more”. He did not, he said, “we'll decline to comment”.

A little after the 13-minute mark in the show, and in an effort to claim Buzzfeed’s sourcing was airtight, Smith let the cat out of the bag about how the rest of media liked to “fudge” their sourcing:

I would say, that once something reporters sometimes do is they describe someone as senior law enforcement official and they fudge that. And these senior administration official characterizations can be shady and sometimes that identity is revealed and you want to say, come on. And I just do want to say in this story, in this case, these are very narrow, very strong descriptors.

Stelter moved further into the dubious nature of Cormier’s and Leopold’s reporting by questioning him about their conflicting accounts of seeing supporting documentation for their claims. “Yeah, I can't really get into like the details there,” Cormier deflected, asserting fear of a leak investigation was holding him back. Cormier had told CNN on Friday that he had not seen documents, while Leopold told MSNBC that they had.

We make a commitment to them and we’re going to honor that commitment,” Cormier proclaimed. But what about a duty to the public to ensure their news is not fake news and so that they know they can trust the sources?

As they were wrapping up the long interview, and after Stelter had asked them if Trump used “mob” lingo to talk with Cohen, Cormier reiterated: “We're here to talk about our work. I'm glad to do it.” He then immediately start spouting off about how the case was “fundamentally” about President Trump and Russia.

“I greatly appreciate both of you being here and being transparent. I think it helps viewers understand how these stories happen. How they work,” Stelter concluded. What?! It raised more questions than answers.

The transcript is below, click "expand" to read:

CNN’s Reliable Sources
January 20, 2019
11:00:56 a.m. Eastern [21 minutes 18 seconds]

BRIAN STELTER: But first, the question on everyone's mind: is it true? We've all been talking about this story. It's the Buzzfeed story that came out Thursday night that said President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. With a clear-cut impeachable offense being alleged, the story went everywhere within a matter of minutes. But then on Friday night, Robert Mueller did something incredibly rare. Something his office almost never does. His office issued a lawyerly response seemingly knocking down the story saying, “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.” Very precise, but significant.

(…)

STELTER: Here for their first sit-down interview Buzzfeed’s investigative reporter Anthony Cormier and Editor-and-Chief Ben Smith. Gentlemen, thanks for coming on I appreciate it.

BEN SMITH: Thank you for having us on. We're happy to talk about this story. I'm glad you began with the question of the truth of the allegations because ultimately, this is a media show, we're here to talk about process, we're happy to talk about that.

But, on your air, just an hour ago Rudy Giuliani gave this extraordinary classic Rudy Giuliani interview where Jake Tapper asked him about that central question. Did Donald Trump talk to Michael Cohen about his testimony? Rudy Giuliani's answer to that was, “so what?”

(…)

11:03:39 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: Do you have any new evidence since Thursday night that supports your story?

CORMIER: I have further confirmation that this is right. We’re being told stand our ground. That this is –that our reporting will be borne to be accurate. And we’re 100 percent behind it.

STELTER: Who is telling you that?

CORMIER: I'm not going to talk about my sources. I got to be honest with you. This morning, Rudy Giuliani seemed to signal that there’s going to be a leak investigation. This is a really significant matter and in order to protect our sources and not put them in any risk, we're not going to talk about the sourcing.

(…)

CORMIER: I can't talk about the timing of when we've spoken to people but, I can tell you that yes, indeed. The same sources we used in that story are standing behind it, as are we.

(…)

11:04:52 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: You're saying Cohen told the special counsel. That's been a matter of debate. Did Cohen really tell the special counsel this information? That's one of the details Mueller seems to be objecting to. You still both stand by that.

SMITH: We're eager to understand which characterizations Mueller is talking about there. And obviously, we take that incredibly seriously.

(…)

11:06:08 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: Jason [Leopold]'s past has been scrutinized, including by CNN, in recent days because he was accused of making up stories 15-plus years ago. Do you have any concerns about his credibility permanently?

SMITH: I have no concerns about his credibility. As soon as this story was published, people started pointing to it – a real mistake he made and owned – we’re talking 20 years ago.

STELTER: Right, he said by his own admission, he's had a checkered past.

SMITH: We're talking a long time ago. Slightly more recent -- in the slightly more recent past, we're talking the last 10, 15 years. He's America's leading expert in the use of the Freedom of Information Act, he's been invited by CNN to train your team on use of the Freedom of Information Act.

(…)

11:09:00 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: Let's take a look at what Buzzfeed did to request comment from Special Counsel. Buzzfeed has provided these email’s I’m going to share. This first e-mail is from Jason Leopold, co-author of the story, sent to the Special Counsel's Office at 1:50 p.m. on Thursday. It says, “Peter, Hope all is well. Anthony and I have a story coming up stating that Cohen was directed by Trump himself to lie to Congress about his negotiations related to the Trump Moscow project. Assume no comment from you but just wanted to check. Best, Jason.”

Ben, to me, this is a shockingly casual way to ask for comment for such a serious story. To you think that was an appropriate and sufficient way to ask for comment?

SMITH: Peter – the spokesperson for the Special Council told The Washington Post I believe yesterday -- or people close to him on background, if we had asked differently, he would have given us more information. We absolutely -- that was not -- we were reaching out to get information. That's why you reach out.

(…)

STELTER: But come on, one paragraph?! That’s a dereliction of duty to send a three sentence email for comment!

SMITH: I think Jason can speak to this more. We have broken a series of the biggest stories about the Special Counsel's investigation.

(…)

STELTER: When I'm sending an e-mail to Buzzfeed spokes people, when I’m about to write about you, it's a bullet point long e-mail, everything that's going to be included. I want to make sure everything has been checked first. Why didn't Jason do that?

SMITH: Again, I'm -- Carr has now said he would have responded in more detail if he had more detail. He could have said that two minutes later. Right? He could have said, “That's quite a statement, tell me more”. He did not, he said, “we'll decline to comment”.

(…)

11:13:34 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: Sometimes I write stories and say I have a number of sources. I actually have more than that but I can't reveal how many I have. Is that what you’re saying happened in this case? You had more than two sources.

SMITH: It would -- I think you say what you say in the story and you stand by what you say in the story. I would say, that once something reporters sometimes do is they describe someone as senior law enforcement official and the fudge that. And these senior administration official characterizations can be shady and sometimes that identity is revealed and you want to say, come on. And I just do want to say in this story, in this case, these are very narrow, very strong descriptors.

(…)

STELTER: So what's going on then? What’s going on? Is there a fight between the Special Counsel's Office and Southern District of New York and one set of prosecutors are saying one thing and the others are saying another? S that’s what’s going on?

CORMIER: We don’t know. We're actively figuring that out. We're trying to figure how to parse this statement from the Mueller team.

(…)

STELTER: A lot of reporters look at the Special Counsel's statement and say, he issued a flat denial. It's written in a legal way but they're challenging the premise of your story. What does that feel like as a reporter?

CORMIER: Never great but I'm solid. My sources are solid. This reporting is accurate.

STELTER: So, the people who are saying heads should roll at Buzzfeed, you're hurting the news business as a whole. What do you say?

CORMIER: I've been a reporter for 20 years.

(…)

11:16:58 a.m. Eastern

STELTER: Let me just ask you about documents like the dossier. Anthony you said on CNN on Friday you had not seen the documents you describe in the story. Jason Leopold said on MSNBC, “we’ve seen documents.” Can you explain that to us?

CORMIER: Yeah, I can't really get into like the details there. Really, at this point because of the calls for a leak investigation and the sort of sensitivity around that matter, we really can't go any further at all in order not to jeopardize our sources. We make a commitment to them and we’re going to honor that commitment.

(…)

11:17:47 a.m. Eastern

[Clip from Saturday Night Live]

STELTER: Buzzfeed's reputation on the line. How do you react?

SMITH: I mean, that's a wonderful joke. As you know, it's a joke they've been making for seven years.

STELTER: It's a dated joke because Buzzfeed has had a news division for almost a decade now.

SMITH: I mean, no doubt we’ll be sending gifs of that segment around internally around tomorrow. That’s a good joke. It's a joke that we love and embrace. Buzzfeed obviously includes a very, very wide range of media, including very silly entertainment. And I think unquestionably very, very serious journalism.

(…)

11:21:13 a.m. Eastern

CORMIER: No, I really appreciate you having us on. We're here to talk about our work. I'm glad to do it. You know, it's been two years. We've broken some of the biggest parts of this story. Again, I'd like to go back to the fundamental, sort of, part of it. During the heat of a presidential campaign, a candidate said he had no business dealings with Russia. …

(…)

STELTER: I greatly appreciate both of you being here and being transparent. I think it helps viewers understand how these stories happen. How they work.

NBDaily Media Bias Debate Bias by Omission Labeling Political Scandals Trump-Russia probe Online Media BuzzFeed Cable Television CNN Reliable Sources Video Ben Smith Brian Stelter Donald Trump

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