Last night the president gave his farewell address — a soaring call to arms or a craven attempt to rewrite the past, depending on which network you watched.
Meanwhile, the Internet was exploding.
That Trump dossier!
The allegations that surfaced about the president-elect's ties to Russia, personal and political, are unverified and extraordinarily salacious, which means for now, we're not publishing details here. But after CNN reported at dinner time that President Obama and President-elect Trump had been briefed on the allegations — without specifying what they were — Buzzfeed did publish details.
All of them. The entire 35-page dossier, reportedly compiled by a former British spy turned anti-Trump opposition researcher.
The Internet did the rest.
Yesterday afternoon, I took on the Trump beat. I pitched it as sort of an exploration of America in the age of Trump — how will this presidency affect us, here in Philly and out there across the country? The answer to that question is, in a lot of ways, uncertain, and that not-knowing was at the crux of a lot of my early story ideas.
That uncertainty isn't just limited to policy — to what Trump and a Republican Congress might do for housing, or healthcare, or religious freedom. We've been moving through uncharted territory since the primaries. The rulebook for how to run a campaign is gone. So is the one for how to interpret polling, or how to talk to voters, or how to report on a presidential candidate.
So: Here I am, writing about an explosive, damaging document without actually writing about it. There's not really a rulebook for this, either. There's an enormous debate about to occur over whether Buzzfeed should have published the dossier — you could feel the think pieces shuddering to life in the first line of that document. But last night, the more pressing debate for newsrooms was not "Should this have been published?" It was "What do we do with this?"
Publish, and you risk the injury of being wrong. You risk giving every howling egg on Twitter an example to point to when, months and years down the line, they call a story of yours the dreaded "fake news." (Our president-elect is at a press conference as I write this, refusing to take a question from a CNN reporter, saying "You are fake news.")
Don't publish, and you risk incurring another kind of disdain: that you're out of touch, that you're overly cautious, that you're ignoring the story of the century. There are some journalists that will never risk the former, and some that will risk everything to avoid the latter. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle.
Newsrooms do still have rules, and you could see it in the way the big ones covered this story. The New York Times and the Washington Post focused on the fact that Obama and Trump had been briefed on the dossier. Buzzfeed said they generally err on the side of publishing — that they were allowing Americans to come to a decision on the allegations themselves.
Of course, the vast majority of Americans aren't journalists with high-level intelligence sources who might be able to confirm the veracity of the dossier. The vast majority of journalists don't have high-level intelligence sources in this country, let alone in Russia, which is why I am writing a weird meditation on the liminal space that the media, and the country, find themselves in, instead of telling you whether the thing is real or not.
There are so many stories to be found in this liminal space, though — in the healthcare provider wondering what an Obamacare repeal would mean, in the coal miner hoping Trump will deliver on his promises, in the women planning to march on Washington next week. And there will be more in the weeks and months and years to come as Trump and the Republican Congress set about the business of governing. It's the kind of story that defines a country — with all the messiness and uncertainty and second-guessing and high-stakes debates that come with it. I'm ready to start telling it.
Let me hear from you.