BuzzFeed’s stumble is highest-profile misstep at a time when press is under greatest scrutiny

BuzzFeed News’s apparently mistaken story about Michael Cohen and President Trump is the highest-profile misstep yet for a news organization during a period of heightened and intense scrutiny of the press, as the special counsel’s office issued a thorough rebuke of the website’s story published Thursday.

Reporters at the Guardian, CNN, McClatchy News and other outlets have published disputed, suspect or uncorroborated stories about Trump and the investigation swirling around him since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began his probe 21 months ago. Each instance has elicited cries of “fake news” from the president and his supporters, stoking the claim that the mainstream media is biased and irresponsible.

But these disputed stories have tended to be about distinct events or actions; they were effectively clues rather than conclusions about Trump’s potential criminality.

BuzzFeed’s story on Thursday, written by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, was of a different nature and magnitude: It reported that prosecutors had detailed evidence that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s proposed office tower project in Moscow in 2016 — a direct accusation of presidential criminality. Democrats argued that would be an impeachable offense, if proved.

The big claim led to a big fall on Friday. In an extraordinary statement, Mueller’s office cast doubt on BuzzFeed’s report.

“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement said, challenging the central thrust of BuzzFeed’s explosive story — that Mueller’s team had detailed evidence of felonious acts by the president.

The fact that the normally buttoned-up special counsel’s office felt compelled to issue a statement suggests that the story’s conclusions were too baldly stated and too consequential to stay unchallenged. In effect, Mueller’s office seemed to be saying that BuzzFeed went too far and got some things wrong, though it did not say how or what.

In fact, what it didn’t say was important, too. It didn’t say Mueller had no evidence that Trump had sought to influence Cohen — just that BuzzFeed’s description of such statements was inaccurate. Nor did it spell out which reported statements were inaccurate and in what way. Further, it offered no details about how BuzzFeed had mischaracterized any evidence that Mueller has collected.

This gave the online news organization a small bit of daylight and some hope of vindication. In response to Mueller’s office, Editor Ben Smith issued a statement saying BuzzFeed stood by its story. He urged Mueller “to make clear what he’s disputing.”

The Washington Post’s reporting on Friday indicated that “the special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.”

BuzzFeed has been in the uncomfortable position of being alone on its Cohen story. No other news organization has confirmed or duplicated the story through its own reporting since BuzzFeed published it — typically a bad sign for the veracity of any reported allegation because scoops are often matched within hours when a major story breaks.

Under Smith’s tenure, BuzzFeed News has split from the main BuzzFeed site and become a source of serious investigative journalism and political reporting. Its series on assassinations of people opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year.

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