[OP-ED]: Donald Trump and BuzzFeed are locked in a lovers’ quarrel
Donald Trump and BuzzFeed are bickering. Consider it a lovers’ quarrel. These two were made for each other.
The president-elect recently used his first news conference since the election to label the 10-year-old website -- which has reporters around the globe and has been valued at more than $800 million -- “a failing pile of garbage.” Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary and communications director, set the stage for the assault by calling BuzzFeed “a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign.”
BuzzFeed ran afoul of Trump World by publishing a juicy dossier compiled by an ex-British spy. The file alleges that the Russians have enough incriminating material -- including the unverified claim that Trump spent time with prostitutes in Moscow -- to blackmail him.
Let’s pause there. Trump can’t be blackmailed. That’s because, in order to be vulnerable to extortion, one has to have some shame and self-respect.
And it’s obvious from what we know about Trump’s boorish treatment of women -- and how he reacted to various cringe-worthy accusations during the campaign -- that he doesn’t have an ounce of shame in him. You can’t blackmail someone who isn’t at all bothered that much of the country, and the world, thinks that he’s a louse, a liar and a lowlife.
But BuzzFeed didn’t just publish the story. It went so far as to post the complete dossier, even while acknowledging that its contents were unverified and contained factual errors.
This sort of thing is virtually unheard of in our line of work. It’s Journalism 101: You don’t publish information that you know to be suspect. That smells a lot like libel. Why, if an institution did such a thing, people might conclude that the people running it were out to get someone at all costs.
But don’t let their differences blind you to the similarities. What Trump is to politics, BuzzFeed is to the media: Half-innovator, half-provocateur. Both of these swashbuckling, shoot-from-the-hip trailblazers thirst for attention, love to shake things up, and couldn’t care less about the way things have been done. They are also both skilled at making enemies of the establishment in their respective professions. But they’re also pretty good at developing legions of followers.
Trump defeated a Democratic opponent who was heavily funded and overwhelmingly favored, and even had much of the media in her corner. He pulled off this magic trick by winning over voters who had previously supported Barack Obama and raiding what were thought to be Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
BuzzFeed -- which has been described by its founder and chief executive, Jonah Peretti, as “a media company for the social world” -- is a darling of Wall Street investors who are betting that traditional newspapers are running out of ink and a favorite among college-aged readers who don’t mind funny cat videos mixed in with stories about international affairs.
Both Trump and BuzzFeed seek immediate feedback in response to their antics. The politician is obsessed with tweets; the website craves clicks.
In addition, each knows what it’s like to see competitors read from your script, and then hypocritically try to distance themselves.
Trump watched his Republican primary opponents piggyback on his discussion of the immigration issue to impress the GOP base, and then try to sprint back to the center and convince Latinos that the party wasn’t vilifying them -- when, of course, it was.
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith was recently scolded by Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” for running an unverified story even while Stelter tried to downplay the fact that CNN actually reported the story before BuzzFeed did, albeit without attaching the dossier.
Spicer and Trump caught that, which is why they attacked BuzzFeed in the same breath.
Most news outlets -- including The Washington Post, NBC News and others -- showed due diligence by refraining from running the original story without verifying it, and that was the right thing to do. But CNN, where I was once a contributor, wants to have it both ways -- rushing to be first and going after clicks, and then sanctimoniously taking cover when things get hot.
Which brings us to the last thing that Trump and BuzzFeed have in common: They both bring out the worst in others.