NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday used BuzzFeed’s controversial publication of unverified memos prepared by a former British intelligence operative to try to discredit the press and deflect unanswered questions about his relationship with Russia.
Speaking in his first press conference since the election, Trump called BuzzFeed’s report “fake news” and “phony stuff.”
Trump also used BuzzFeed’s decision to publish to fault CNN for a verified and substantiated report revealing that a two-page synopsis of those memos had been included as an annex in the classified materials presented last week to Trump and to President Obama.
“That fake news was written about primarily by one group and one television station,” Trump said, referring to BuzzFeed and CNN, respectively.
Trump later said that CNN had gone “out of their way” to build up the report from BuzzFeed, which he called “a failing pile of garbage.”
Refusing to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump said “your network is terrible” and called it “fake news.” Minutes later, though, he took a question from another CNN reporter, Jeremy Diamond.
Sean Spicer, the president-elect’s incoming press secretary, was even more outspoken in his criticism of the BuzzFeed report, and incorrectly dismissed the news outlet as “a left-wing blog.”
“I want to bring your attention to a few points on the report that was published in BuzzFeed last night,” Spicer said at the beginning of the press conference. “It’s frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible for a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign to drop highly salacious and flat-out false information on the internet just days before he takes the oath of office.”
Spicer also claimed that CNN had picked up the unsubstantiated claims against Trump, which is not true. CNN accurately reported that Trump had been presented with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him, but has not included unverified details from those memos in its reporting.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence also criticized the news media for publishing what he called “fake news” and said the American people “are sick and tired of it.”
In a statement following the press conference, CNN stressed the differences between its decision to publish and BuzzFeed’s.
“CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than Buzzfeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos,” the statement read. “The Trump team knows this. They are using Buzzfeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations. We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week. We made it clear that we were not publishing any of the details of the 35-page document because we have not corroborated the report’s allegations. Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting, we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.”
On air, CNN’s Jake Tapper also suggested that BuzzFeed’s report had hurt CNN’s efforts at responsible journalism.
“Sean Spicer… suggested that both BuzzFeed and CNN published this dossier full of uncorroborated rumors. That’s not true. That’s false. CNN never did that,” he said. “When Mr. Trump went after our own Jim Acosta saying he’s fake news and he isn’t going to call on him, what I suspect we are seeing here is an attempt to discredit legitimate, responsible attempts to report on this incoming administration with irresponsible journalism — that hurts us all.”
Trump, Pence and Spicer’s repeated accusations of “fake news” highlight how a term that began with a specific definition — content produced with the express intention of deceiving people — is increasingly being used by members of the Trump transition team to dismiss any reporting that they don’t like.
BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the unverified memos had set off a fierce debate on Tuesday night about the ethics of the decision and the responsibilities of journalists.
“BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government,” BuzzFeed said in text accompanying the memos.
The publication of the memos was immediately criticized by other journalists, including some who were concerned that BuzzFeed’s decision to run the unverified documents would give Trump an opening to dismiss all questions about this information entirely.
“Don’t know about ethics, but now Trump has easy out,” tweeted Mark Horowitz, a veteran journalist who has worked at The New York Times. “Respond fiercely to sketchy BuzzFeed leak, not serious CNN story.”
“On Twitter, unverified info in a memo is crowding out this quite solid reporting by CNN,” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait observed.