Donald Trump just found out how it feels to be slandered by the powerful and he doesn’t like it.
After powering his way to the presidency with innuendo, slander, and lies, Trump was painted as a sexual pervert, corrupt businessman, and Russian pawn in an explosive dossier published by BuzzFeed.
None of the claims have been proven, as BuzzFeed noted at the time. Some, like a purported meeting between Trump’s attorney and the Russians, have been proven false since publication.
BuzzFeed was no doubt motivated to publish the dossier because it believed it was telling truth to power. But now Trump is using BuzzFeed’s decision to try to delegitimize the entire press as “fake news.” No one has done more to spread fake news than Trump, from promoting birther nonsense to retweeting false crime statistics to giving interviews to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
This provides an opportunity to cut through the sickening situational ethics of the past few months. If it was wrong when Trump used gossip to slander his enemies, then it’s wrong when journalists publish gossip that slanders Trump.
Gossip is the most appropriate term for damaging claims made by anonymous sources, unless and until they can be proven. And that’s the right word for what was spread when BuzzFeed published embarrassing and criminal allegations against Trump and several advisers made by sources of a former spy working as a political operative. In other words, news organzations didn't know who the reporter was or who his sources were.
Despite that, Buzzfeed's stated defense for publishing was that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations.”
That’s not journalism, it’s passing the buck. In fact, it’s more important to prove or disprove allegations when the public has already “made up their own minds.”
The truth isn’t subject to popular vote.
The allegations against Trump couldn’t be substantiated by any news organization—including The Daily Beast—after months of investigation, so that’s why we resisted publishing them, even after CNN reported on their existence Tuesday evening.
Claiming the allegations were newsworthy because they are “circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government” gives anyone in power permission to slime his opponents, anonymously, through the press. CNN did it the right way by reporting on the dossier’s existence and doubts about its veracity, without exposing specific allegations.
We have seen what happens when claims are raised to the level of facts, without vetting, because they are touted by the powerful: The weak are destroyed.
Senator Joe McCarthy did this to great effect while he hunted imaginary communists everywhere from the U.S. Army to CBS News. At his side was attorney Roy Cohn, who became the Trump family consigliere and taught young Donald how to fight, with the admonition to “never apologize, always attack.”
If Cohn were still alive, he would be beaming at his former protégé. After all, McCarthy never made it out of the Senate; Trump will move into the Oval Office in 10 days.
Of course the greatest irony is that Trump has finally gotten a taste of his own medicine.
When he prepared to run against Barack Obama six years ago, Trump said the president couldn’t prove he was born in America. When Obama produced his birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii, Trump said an “extremely credible source” told him it was fake.
When Ted Cruz threatened him in the primaries two years ago, Trump publicized a National Enquirer story claiming Cruz’s father helped assassinate JFK. “I have no idea whether it was right or not,” Trump said.
When Hillary Clinton stood between him and the White House last year, Trump said she “doesn’t have the stamina” to hold office, implying she was critically ill.
But perhaps the worst thing Trump said to get to the White House wasn’t against any candidate: it was against millions of Americans.
“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said in 2015, adding later, “there were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down.”
When asked about this specific claim of Trump’s, the editor of The Wall Street Journal said journalists should be “careful of about using the word ‘lie.’”
“‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false,” Gerald Baker told Meet the Press. “It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
Trump didn’t make this claim once, though. He repeated it, over and over, in the face of numerous investigations that failed to find any evidence that dozens, let alone thousands, of people were cheering mass murder.
When someone repeats something they are told is not supported by evidence or facts, it is a lie. In fact, it was worse than a lie: It was a slander against the more than 3 million Muslims living in America, implying that they are terrorist sympathizers.
The closest thing Trump found to evidence was a Washington Post report that people said others were “allegedly seen celebrating the attacks.” Serge Kovaleski wrote that story and in 2015 told me he tried to substantiate the claims then, but could not.
“We did a lot of shoe leather reporting in and around Jersey City and talked to a lot of residents and officials for the broader story. Much of that has, indeed, faded from memory. But I do not recall anyone saying there were thousands, or even hundreds, of people celebrating. That was not the case, as best as I can remember.”
Kovaleski didn’t say Trump was wrong, only that he couldn’t remember.
Trump’s response to this measured quote that didn’t line-up with his propaganda was to mock Kovaleski’s physical handicap as if he were mentally disabled.
Kovaleski told the truth—in spite of Trump’s power, in spite of growing popular opinion—because he is a good journalist.
Trump thanked the journalists who like Kovaleski tried to substantiate allegations (this time against Trump), but couldn’t and as a result didn’t publish them.
“I want to thank a lot of the news organizations for some of whom have not treated me very well over the years—a couple in particular—and they came out so strongly against that fake news…” he said at Wednesday’s press conference.
Trump only applauded reporters and editors for doing their jobs because it was to his benefit this time. He doesn’t care about truth, only power. But when there’s no discernible truth, all you’re left with is power, and that should be chilling to all journalists when the most powerful man in the world is also the enemy of the free press.