No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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Making sense of the BuzzFeed bombshell — and what, if anything, went wrong

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.

Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution. A number of media observers have pointed out that no other news organization has been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting. That’s significant, of course. But no one has been able to knock it down, either.

So what is going on? Let me offer a speculative answer, based on the belief that Mueller’s office, BuzzFeed’s journalists, and their sources are all trying their best to tell the truth: everyone is right. BuzzFeed’s story is essentially accurate, but is flawed in some important way that hasn’t been explained. Mueller, worried that Trump might blow up the investigation, took advantage of those flaws to discredit the entire story. If that was Mueller’s intention, it worked, as Trump praised him after the statement was released.

In the past few days we’ve heard much about the famous mistake that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made when they were hammering away at the Watergate story for The Washington Post: They attributed an otherwise accurate account of corruption within the Nixon White House to grand jury testimony that did not exist. Their error was seen as so damaging that they offered their resignations.

“Look, reporters make mistakes. News organizations make mistakes. In Watergate, we made a mistake, a very serious mistake,” Bernstein said this past Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But, he continued, within days the Post was vindicated when it became clear that the information they had reported was true.

The parallels between BuzzFeed’s story and Woodward and Bernstein’s erroneous attribution, though, only go so far. I think a closer analogy involves James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after Trump had fired him as FBI director. Comey was asked about a Times story that had been published four months earlier claiming that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Comey replied that “in the main, it was not true.”

As with the BuzzFeed report, no details were offered as to what was wrong with the Times story. Here we are, more than a year and a half later, and we still don’t know what Comey was referring to. Was it the sourcing? The underlying facts? The Times article reporting on Comey’s complaint noted that there was considerable evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government even then. Today, of course, there is far more evidence, going all the way up to Trump’s extremely guilty campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

If we assume that the basic facts of BuzzFeed’s report are correct, then what might have gone wrong enough for Mueller to issue his extraordinary statement? Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculated that the information came not from the special counsel’s office but, rather, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The BuzzFeed story specifically cited the special counsel’s office, but Marshall pointed out that it’s not always clear who is doing what. “The SDNY is notoriously more porous to the press than the Special Counsel’s Office,” Marshall wrote. “So we have a kind of information that seems more likely to come out of New York and an office there that seems considerably more likely to leak.”

National security blogger Marcy Wheeler, while praising the BuzzFeed report in some respects, was also critical of it for making “an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.” She added: “The BuzzFeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”

The journalists who worked on the BuzzFeed story are first-rate. Jason Leopold, despite some serious ethical lapses early in his career, is a dogged investigative reporter who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Anthony Cormier, whose byline also appeared on the story, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016 when he was with the Tampa Bay Times. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is well regarded.

And yet there was one obvious shortcoming. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed’s outreach to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr for comment before publication was unacceptably vague: “Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.” When the story was published a short while later, the Post continued, “it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression.”

If BuzzFeed failed to give the special counsel’s office fair notice of what was coming, that would help explain the controversy that broke out after they hit “publish.” But it still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, BuzzFeed got wrong — or whether we’ll ever know.

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The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed 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. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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