Friday, January 13, 2017
By LEONARD DOWNIE JR.
If there was any doubt, the uproar this week over BuzzFeed’s publication of unverified allegations about President-elect Donald J. Trump made clear that the gatekeeper role once played by major news media organizations has vanished in the digital age.
This poses a deep danger for legitimate, aggressive journalism, especially from the president-elect, who has been consistent in his heavy-handed demonization of any and all media whenever he dislikes critical but accurate stories about him.
BuzzFeed’s irresponsible decision to publish a seamy and wholly unsubstantiated research dossier about Mr. Trump by a former British spy gave him the opportunity to attack not only BuzzFeed but also CNN, which had reported accurately about the document’s existence but, properly, had declined to reveal its unverified contents. By conflating the conduct of the two news organizations as examples of the growing menace of malicious, digitally spread “fake news,” he undermined the vigorous, accurate journalism that is necessary to hold him and his incoming administration accountable.
The dossier published by BuzzFeed was originally intended as “opposition research” against Mr. Trump. There’s nothing unusual about this; political campaigns routinely investigate the background of their opponents to identify vulnerabilities. This information is often passed quietly to reporters in hopes that a damaging article will result. What was surprising in this case was that the allegations against Mr. Trump, none of them verified, ended up on a highly popular news website.
During the time I was managing editor and then executive editor of The Washington Post, from 1984 until 2008, plenty of allegations flowed into our newsroom about candidates for local and state offices, Congress and the presidency. They involved everything from corruption to conflicts of interest to sex lives. Quite often, we knew they also had been circulated among other news organizations and were the subject of widespread gossip in Washington, as was the case with the Trump dossier.
In many cases, we found after exhaustive reporting that the allegations were false or unverifiable. My rule was that we would publish only what could be verified, even if we suspected it was true or thought someone else might publish it anyway. Most of our competitors followed the same professional and ethical standards, and they still do.
This was also the case with the Trump dossier, which was an open secret among reporters in Washington. Many news organizations tried and failed to verify its contents and declined to publish anything about it. That changed when CNN accurately reported that a classified report summarizing the dossier had been given by intelligence officials to President Obama, Mr. Trump and congressional leaders. Then BuzzFeed posted the entire dossier, even while telling readers that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”
This led Mr. Trump on Wednesday to call BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage” and denounce CNN as a “terrible organization” and “fake news.” This is a dangerous road that Mr. Trump is heading down, mashing together, in a sweeping complaint, CNN’s conscientious approach with Buzzfeed’s ill-considered action.
At a time when the president-elect is trying to make major political changes in a deeply divided country, he is encouraging the public not to believe reporting by responsible news organizations that are striving to hold the government accountable. He did the same thing during his campaign, rallying his followers against the “dishonest media” while at the same time feeding news organizations and the public distorted and unproven allegations about his opponents.
Too many members of the incoming administration and Congress have been following Mr. Trump’s lead, attacking factual news reporting. How would they and their constituents benefit if no one believes news coverage of what they say and do? After Jan. 20, will President Trump realize that he has a leadership responsibility to change his tone and approach, even when his ego is bruised?
Of course, the responsibility is not only Mr. Trump’s. The news media must separate in the public mind responsible journalism from recklessly inaccurate and purposely false information disguised as news for profit or influence by charlatans. Raging against attacks by Mr. Trump and his allies on “the mainstream media” will not suffice. The news media must double down on fair but aggressive news coverage, including scrutinizing the practices of those who don’t have the same standards.
The United States has expressed concern over the disappearance of five Pakistani anti-Taliban activists and bloggers who mysteriously went missing last week, incidents that have triggered an outcry from human right groups.
Dozens of activists rallied in the port city of Karachi for the second time late on Thursday, demanding the five men be accounted for. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. is taking the disappearances "very seriously" and will "continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan."
Toner also welcomed a statement by Pakistan's interior ministry, which asked police to step up efforts to find the missing. Among the five are university professor Salman Haider, known for criticizing the Taliban and the government over its alleged inaction against militants, and Shiite activist Samar Abbas, who heads the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan.
No militant group has so far claimed abducting the activists and no government department or intelligence agency has said it detained or arrested any one of the five.
Activist Syed Talib Abbas said on Friday that none of the missing men have been found so far.
Haider's brother Zeeshan Haider said the family had not had any contact with him since he sent a text message to his wife's mobile phone last Friday, asking her to go to a roadside on Islamabad's outskirts and collect his car, which was found there.
Pakistan's government has been under pressure since the activists disappeared, and the parliament has demanded an investigation. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali khan promised the families of missing men that all efforts would be made to find them.
Benjamin Ismail, the Asia-Pacific head at Reporters Without Borders, on Friday said the disappearances were "shocking and extremely worrying" and urged authorities to determine the motives and bring those behind them to justice.
The National Commission for Human Rights of Pakistan (NCHRP) has urged the Interior Ministry to locate five rights activists and bloggers who have been missing since last week.
NCHRP Chairman Chaudhary Muhammad Shafique told RFE/RL on January 13 that his organization submitted a request to the ministry on January 12, as dozens of activists rallied in the city of Karachi in support of the missing.
"We are trying through our independent investigation to determine what happened.... So far, there are many misconceptions and mysteries going on and nobody is in the position to determine who the real perpetrators are," Muhammad Shafique said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on January 12 that Washington was taking the disappearances "very seriously" and will "continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan."
The five missing men include university professor Salman Haider, known for criticizing the Taliban and the government over its alleged inaction against militants, and Shi'ite activist Samar Abbas, who heads the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan.
Pakistan's government has been under pressure since the activists disappeared, and the parliament has demanded an investigation.
Former federal minister Faisal Saleh Hayat yesterday said a clear vision and active politics of PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to revive the party on the basic ideology of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had inspired him to rejoin the party.
“We will always stand by Bilawal Bhutto as he has promised to fill the gap created by the death of Benazir Bhutto,” Faisal Saleh told media persons at the residence of Shakeela Rashid, PPP leader and widow of former senior minister of the Bhutto cabinet, Sheikh Rashid. He visited Shakeela Rashid’s residence along with another PPP former minister Khalid Ahmad Khan Kharel.
Faisal Saleh Hayat had left PPP after the 2002 elections, had formed a splinter under the nomenclature of PPP-Patriots and had joined PML-Q to enable it to form government at the centre under Pervez Musharraf.
Faisal Saleh met PPP-P President Asif Ali Zardari and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto last week along with Khalid Ahmad Kharel to reach an ‘understanding’ with them to rejoin the party. Makhdoom of Shah Jewena shrine had a long association with PPP, which deepened after the return of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in April 1986 during the era of General Ziaul Haq. He was also made a minster in the Benazir government after 1988 elections.
A formal announcement regarding the return of Faisal Saleh Hayat and Khalid Ahmad Khan Kharel to PPP will be made at the residence of the latter in Kamalia in the presence of PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto who is due to lead a rally from Lahore to Faisalabad division on January 19.
To a question on punishment to Pervez Musharraf for his November 3, 2007 PCO and incarceration of the superior court judges, Faisal categorically said it must not be done. A high-treason trial only against Musharraf was not right.
When asked about the present Panama case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children, he said, without prejudice to the apex court hearing, in his opinion it had become a case of self-evidence after the prime minister and his children had admitted ownership of the offshore companies and foreign properties, adding their statements were hugely antithetical. He said the case was bringing a bad name to the country at the international level after the PM’s family had been named in the offshore companies.
When asked about failure to trace the assassinators of Benazir Bhutto, he regretted PPP and PML-Q during their tenures had failed to do so. Faisal put the onus on the sitting PML-N government to do the job and expose the killers of Benazir Bhutto, discharging their obligations under the Charter of Democracy (CoD).
When asked why he had ditched the PPP in 2002 and joined Q-League, he gave a brief and circuitous reply that the party had given up its motto of ‘resistance against the forces of status quo’.
About the allegations he levelled against former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf regarding misappropriations in the rental power plants, Faisal said he still stood by these charges.
Answering a question about Imran’s politics, he said Khan had played a good role in the opposition, adding he needed to learn more in politics.
Answering another question, Faisal Saleh said PML-Q President Ch Shujaat Hussain had met him with an offer to join his party, but he was reaching understanding with PPP, so he did not make commitment to him.
Faisal Saleh said PPP at present was in a dire need to revive its basic ideology to get back its workers and activate them. He said the process in the provinces, particularly in Punjab, to revive the party has begun and the future belonged to PPP. Under the leadership of Bilawal, PPP needed to give a roadmap for is revival as it was in 70s. He revealed a number of other leaders were poised to rejoin PPP.