I remember the day I first realized that the political news industry was radically changing.
I hated it.
It was early 2002. I had faxed a news advisory, a “tip sheet” in public relations parlance, on behalf of a New York assemblyman. Tip sheets are used to alert news desks about upcoming events. They’re for scheduling purposes only — at least they used to be.
The following morning I awoke to find, in surprising detail, a story on the front page of The New York Sun outlining what the assemblyman planned to say a few hours hence. My client and I were bewildered, and not altogether pleased. The Sun story, while much appreciated, would almost certainly cause New York’s larger daily newspapers to boycott our event, which they did. And why not? They had been scooped.
I politely called the young reporter who had written the story. He suggested we meet for lunch. He was new to New York political journalism, having just finished a stint for The Wall Street Journal Europe, and I looked forward to our sit-down.
His name was Ben Smith.
Smith was about 25 at the time; being 13 years his senior, I planned to clue him in over turkey clubs, in a big-brotherly way, on the unspoken rules of political journalism, particularly where media advisories were concerned. But it was I who was schooled that day, though I didn’t realize how much at the time.
Smith, an exceedingly well-mannered and straightforward Yale University graduate, politely explained that the established rules of journalism were hogwash. The world was moving faster now, and where exactly did it say that he had to delay information freely given to him in deference to outdated niceties? His job was to get readers the most accurate information possible as quickly as he could provide it. If that meant working late into the night to flesh out details from an un-embargoed news advisory, so be it.
It was tough to argue with his logic, though it still felt like cheating to me at the time. My tip sheets got stingier.
Soon thereafter, Smith began launching a series of game-changing political blogs. First came The Politicker. Within weeks it was a must read — multiple times a day — for anyone in New York politics. No sooner had it flourished than Smith was off to launch a new venture, a Daily-News-backed blog called The Daily Politics. It quickly supplanted The Politicker as the must read site. Then came Room Eight, another hit. He was among the first journalists to launch a daily, interview podcast. Everything Smith touched succeeded.
Smith’s blogs changed the way political news was created in New York. Leaks to his sites, and later others, led to larger news outlets biting on stories. Leaks to blogs meant the chance of changing a story over the course of a day, something previously unimaginable. Daily political communications, for better or worse, became a fight for the day’s narrative — and this was before social media.
Smith was later enlisted to help kick-start a fledgling Washington startup called Politico. It hasn’t done badly. Then, famously, he was appointed editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed, the global media giant.
I mention all this, of course, because Smith is embroiled in a national controversy over whether BuzzFeed should have published this week a dubious dossier compiled by an ex-British intelligence officer on President-elect Donald Trump’s alleged relationship with and past activities in Russia. The document, which included highly salacious and hard-to-believe material, had been kicking around Washington and U.S. newsrooms for months. U.S. intelligence agents reportedly had just provided an addendum on the memo to President Obama and President-elect Trump in an intelligence briefing, arguably making it news. It was certainly close-enough-for-hand-grenade news.
BuzzFeed went with it. It published the dossier, but with clear caveats, noting “serious reason to doubt the allegations.” But BuzzFeed would “err on the side of publishing,” as is its practice, Smith would later write, and leave it up to the American public to make up their own minds.
Smith’s decision is sparking fierce debate among U.S. journalists. Did BuzzFeed break unwritten rules? Or is journalism a different animal today, as Smith argues. “Publishing this dossier is how we see the job of reporters in 2017,” he said.
In a world of WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and highly partisan journalism, Smith’s decision was a reasonable one. And it raises a seminal question: Can the public be trusted with raw, unverified information if it’s truly newsworthy? Like it or not, in a digital age, it might just have to be. It may even make us more discerning in time.
It’s hard to predict where U.S. journalism is headed. But what’s absolutely predictable is that 40-year-old Ben Smith will remain smack in the middle of deciding it. He hasn’t lost his touch for pushing out the envelope.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.