Editorial: Good reasons to doubt this Trump tale

The nature of information that constitutes news is being changed by the digital age, not entirely for the better. Websites can prosper by publishing information that reputable news services would not, unless they can verify it in some way. Websites such as Buzzfeed, which published a grossly damaging tale from an intelligence dossier on the US President-elect, Donald Trump, this week, claim to be serving the public interest.

Explaining his decision, Buzzfeed's editor said he published so that: "Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government".

He conceded: "There is serious reason to doubt the allegations" but offered the justification that "we have always erred on the side of publishing".

That statement turns one of the fundamental tenets of traditional journalism on its head.

One of the first rules young journalists learn is: "when in doubt, leave out." To "err on the side of publishing" is to risk being a willing conduit for deliberate, false and damaging disinformation.

On what basis are receivers of a story such as this supposed to "make up their own minds"? Most will believe it or not, depending on whether they want to believe it. Those who do not want to believe it, probably have difficulty putting it out of their minds. That is the insidious damage disinformation can do.

Since there are websites willing to become careless conduits for this sort of material, we all need to develop mental filters for it. In this case we need to ask ourselves questions such as, how easy would it be for an intelligence agency to make up this story and put it around the highest levels of government for leverage over an incoming President?

The answer: very easy.

Why might it do that? In its own defence, possibly, since it equates its wellbeing with the national interest. If it is a foreign intelligence agency, it might be manufacturing an instrument of blackmail against the leader of a foreign power.

All of that is sheer conjecture of course, and unworthy of publication except as an antidote to a tale that cannot be corroborated. It also worth noting, where "intelligence" is the source of something such as this, that the material was not compiled for public release.

"Intelligence" sounds more solid and reliable than it often is or needs to be. State intelligence is not prepared with the expectation it will face public scrutiny. It is written for officials who would know its nature and treat it with a grain of salt until they can assess its veracity. So should we all.

Trump has absolutely denied the story in the dossier and he deserves to be believed. Natural justice gives him the benefit of the doubt.

He might not have given the same justice to Hillary Clinton in the election campaign, and might have been slow to believe intelligence reports of Russian attempts to influence the campaign, but those are not valid reasons to doubt him.

He deserves the benefit of doubt because he is a human being facing an accusation only he can know to be false.

Ultimately we owe it to ourselves to build mental defences to salacious information that even its publishers doubt. Otherwise we are going to be fooled.

- NZ Herald

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