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Editorial: Sessions, BuzzFeed controversy prove Trump dangerous to a free press

President-elect Donald Trump will become the 45th president on Jan. 20.|Gary Hershorn/Zuma Press/TNS

President-elect Donald Trump will become the 45th president on Jan. 20.|Gary Hershorn/Zuma Press/TNS



President-elect Donald Trump will become the 45th president on Jan. 20.|Gary Hershorn/Zuma Press/TNS

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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The past several days have been more than a little unnerving for many, but especially for American journalists.

In Washington, D.C., Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., vehemently denied he would use the office of attorney general to remove the legal rights of  women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and most prominently black Americans. But one group he refused to make such promises for has seen its fair share of scapegoating in last year’s presidential contest: the nation’s journalists.

When asked straightforwardly whether his Department of Justice would “put reporters in jail for doing their job,” the Alabama senator replied that he “wasn’t sure,” and briefly floated a conspiracy theory that journalists might act as “a mechanism through which unlawful intelligence is obtained,” a dangerous idea echoed later this week by Sessions’ boss, Trump.

At a press conference yesterday, the man who will inhabit the White House in a matter of days exploded at a reporter from CNN, calling his network “fake news” and refusing to take his question. Besides being the latest spate in a long-term feud between Trump and the news network, the outburst was in reference to an unverified story CNN originally broke that BuzzFeed later picked up and significantly expanded upon that Russia possessed compromising information about the reality TV star.

In short, CNN’s report acknowledged that senior intelligence officials presented Trump with classified materials detailing Russian actors with compromising “personal and financial” information about the businessman. Shockingly, BuzzFeed chose to publish the content of these classified materials without verifying them first.

What CNN did was important. What BuzzFeed did was undoubtedly irresponsible. Newspapers from the Guardian to the Washington Post condemned the online outlet’s leak as “ridiculous” and unethical. In a letter from BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith defending the post, he says the news organization has “always erred on the side of publishing,” whereas typical news outlets have always erred on the side of extreme caution.

As the Washington Post editorial points out, BuzzFeed’s method of journalism seems to be throwing out information and letting the readers sort it out for themselves. But we are living — and writing — in a time when the readers, especially online readers, can’t seem to discern the fake from the real, and that’s exactly the issue.

What BuzzFeed did, by not substantiating these claims before publishing them, was give Trump the ability to push the accusations off as “fake news” and point the finger back at the media — which is exactly what he did.  

This is incredibly unfortunate, but it is well within BuzzFeed’s right. Just as we support the news organization’s unfaltering stance in the face of a man who is quite possibly one of the greatest threats to press freedoms in this country’s history, we also retain the right to criticize BuzzFeed’s journalist ethics, or lack thereof.

But we need to stop looking where Trump points his finger and turn back to the matter at hand. The documents exist, and we need to examine them.

According to Vanessa Gezari of the Columbia Journalism Review, major outlets like Mother Jones have known about these potentially earth-shattering documents for months but sat on them. While we might disagree with the method BuzzFeed chose to take in revealing these documents, we couldn’t agree more strongly with their intentions to get to the bottom of a story that could be fatal to our democracy.

Trump’s reaction, lumping the CNN report and the BuzzFeed leak into one, doesn’t bode well for serious and civically responsible journalism in the upcoming years. And as easy as it is to criticize the media, we should be terrified to see a President who clearly has no respect for its purpose.

Donald Trump’s vitriolic attack on CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference Wednesday should be terrifying. He has reclaimed the term “fake news” to mean “news that doesn’t make Donald Trump look good” and used it to drive attention away from what should be serious concerns about his ability to lead.

A DOJ that evidently doesn’t care about freedom of the press makes that threat even worse.

A bad day for the journalism business is a bad day for the country as a whole, and we’ve had a lot this week.

Whatever happens over the next four years, we can’t keep having days like these.

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Editorial: Sessions, BuzzFeed controversy prove Trump dangerous to a free press