Signs and wonders! You probably thought you’d never see the mainstream news media lining up to defend Donald Trump, but here they are rushing to condemn BuzzFeed’s publication of a 35-page dossier of totally unverified allegations about the president-elect, including some supposed incidents that are not fit to print in a family media newsletter.
The dossier was ostensibly published by BuzzFeed as proof, or rather rumor, that Trump has close ties with shady Russian interests. Further, that Russian intelligence did indeed intervene to influence the 2016 presidential election on Trump’s behalf.
Part of the story consists of a putative trove of compromising information on Trump, supposedly compiled by Russian intelligence, which might give the Kremlin leverage over the president-elect.
The dossier makes for “salacious” reading, to use the polite term of art, what with prostitutes in hotel rooms and all kinds of other, um, stuff. The only problem, as a number of mainstream news organizations have pointed out, is that there isn’t a single scrap of evidence for any of it – at least not that’s presented in the dossier itself.
The actual provenance of the document, the sources of the individual accusations, and finally the descriptions of the incidents themselves, are pretty much the definition of hearsay.
BuzzFeed attributed the dossier to an unnamed former British intelligence official who has, the story goes, retired from MI6 to run a private intelligence gathering company. That definitely sounds trustworthy to me – after all, other unnamed spooks vouched for his integrity!
The identities of this private spy’s sources are also undisclosed, which means that we are well into the weeds here.
BuzzFeed justified publishing the dossier on the basis that U.S. intelligence officials presented summaries of the dossier to both President Obama and president-elect Trump. But so what? Simply presenting a summary of the claims is hardly an endorsement of them, especially in view of the vagaries of “intelligence.”
Is it possible that Russia’s spies are so sloppy as to let their precious, painstakingly gathered dirt on Trump leak – thereby sacrificing their “leverage” over him – before he even takes office? Sure, I guess.
Is it also possible the whole thing is a big disinformation campaign cooked up by Russian intelligence, peddling false information to damage the incoming president? Seems plausible. Hey, could it be a bunch of sensational lies fabricated by third parties to, you know, make money? Also yes!
Are there even more possible scenarios? Why, of course! By the way, which way is up?
The point: There is probably no way for intelligence officials, let alone ordinary people, to know whether there is anything to any of it – putting us right back in the epistemological quandary presented by “fake news,” namely, the impossibility of assessing the truth value of claims presented by or depending on unknown intermediaries.
So, here’s the short version: somebody said something uncomplimentary about Donald Trump.
Forgive me if I don’t hold the presses.