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Top BuzzFeed Editor On Unverified Dossier: Media Didn't Trust Readers To Weigh Claims

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to talk just a bit more about that dossier compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was, as we just talked about, working for the American political research firm Fusion GPS. It's been a year since BuzzFeed made the controversial decision to publish it. To review, it's 35 pages long, and it contains eye-catching and occasionally salacious information, some still unverified. But taken together, it pointed to an effort by high-ranking officials in Russia to develop a relationship with the Trump campaign.

BuzzFeed's decision to publish the document raised concerns about journalistic ethics, and it sparked an angry reaction from then President-elect Trump. More recently, President Trump's personal lawyer has filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed. Last week, BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times defending the decision to publish it. And he's with us on the line now from New York. Ben Smith, thanks so much for being with us.

BEN SMITH: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the substance and then we can sort of talk about what came after the repercussions thereof. You say that the most important thing about publishing this dossier is that it's helped people understand the actions of President Trump and his administration. How so?

SMITH: I would say not just President Trump and his administration but really of the entire American political-intelligence-journalistic elite over the last year. You know, this was - and that was true the day we published it. Harry Reid had written an open letter to Jim Comey that referred in sort of a coded way to the dossier. Senator John McCain had handed it over to the FBI. And the top intelligence officials in the country had briefed then-President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on it. And all of these sort of actors were making decisions based on what they knew about this document. And at that point, you know, basically everyone other than the American people was in on this.

MARTIN: There are still parts of the dossier that have not, at least to this point, been verified independently, even after a year of reporting and investigation on this. But you still say that this indicates that this was kind of a blockbuster. I wanted to know if you could amplify your thinking about that.

SMITH: Well, we were very clear at the time that the dossier had not been verified. And we did not present it as something that, you know, we had reported, although we had been working, as had many journalists, to stand up or knock down specific parts. Since then, elements of it have been corroborated - for instance, these disguised payments to Paul Manafort, who has been indicted. Other parts have not been corroborated. It is just very hard to imagine how you would understand what has happened politically in America, how you would understand just in the last couple of weeks, Senator Grassley and Senator Feinstein having this bitter battle over a closed intelligence hearing if you were not permitted to know the substance that they were fighting over.

MARTIN: And over the course of the year, as we said, apart from the lawsuit, what reaction have you got? Do you continue to get reaction?

SMITH: The overwhelming reaction from our audience has been to say that they don't understand why other media outlets didn't think that they could handle, that, you know, that the people who read us - students, lawyers, waiters, whatever profession you're in - that they would - that while we journalists could handle seeing a document that made shocking allegations that was unverified, we could hold those facts in our head, understand that these were allegations. I think people in our audience don't like the idea that other media outlets didn't trust them to weigh that and felt that they had to essentially conceal it from their audience for fear that it would perhaps scald their eyes out or something.

MARTIN: That's Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed. The piece he wrote titled "I'm Proud We Published The Trump-Russia Dossier" was published in The New York Times on January 9. Ben Smith is joining us from New York. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEMIR'S "AILLEURS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.