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Witcover: BuzzFeed's 'scoop' opens press to more credibility challenges

Jules Witcover: BuzzFeed's debunked "scoop" opens the press to more credibility challenges.

A rare rebuff by the Justice Department's Special Counsel's Office to a BuzzFeed report on President Donald Trump -- calling it "not accurate" -- has raised the stakes in the president's war on the press as "the enemy of the people."

The spokesman for Robert Mueller's investigation into Mr. Trump's political and business activities chastised the digital media outlet for reporting that Mr. Trump had directed former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about dealings regarding prospective real estate business in Moscow.

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BuzzFeed's top editor has stood by the report, which cites "two federal law enforcement officials" as its sources. Other major news outlets like the New York Times and The Washington Post, which usually would seek to match or confirm such an important revelation, have not done so, pointedly raising doubts about the BuzzFeed report. Its editor has asked the Mueller team to say where it was wrong.

In all, the circumstance has provided ammunition to mainstream journalism critics, most notably Mr. Trump and his defenders, who allege that contemporary news organizations have become "fake news," manufactured to undermine the president.

Alongside the institutional journalism practiced by major newspapers and aggregators of news such as AP, United Press International and Reuters, digital newsgathering enterprises like BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPo have blossomed on the internet.

Their journalistic reach has been considerably broader and more inclusive, causing older mainstream journalism practitioners (including myself) to express concern they risk poisoning the well of credibility their profession had acquired by reporting "just the facts" all that time.

To be sure, allegations of quackery have often been leveled at newspaper tabloids and sensationalist broadcast and cable outlets whose political ideologies have run the gamut from ultra-conservative to ultraliberal. A cottage industry of intentional "fake news" manufactured by individuals dreaming up sensationalist garbage for cash also has surfaced.

But what we face today is Donald Trump's intensive and calculated campaign to undermine and thus discredit the legitimate and constitutionally protected freedom of publication under Article I, which declares "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Its strongest validation came 45 years ago in the Watergate scandal, in which young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of President Richard Nixon's corrupt cover-up of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee, leading to his resignation in disgrace.

In one instance, they made a mistake but quickly corrected it. Now a similar undertaking is seen in the Mueller investigation, heavily covered by the old institutional mainstream print and now electronic and digital sleuths.

They offer a range of ethical and reliable standards in holding to account a duly elected but highly controversial president who has sworn, as required in Article II, "to the best of my Ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Mr. Trump, in his war on the American press, is striking at the heart of the protected journalistic institution assigned in our democratic system to keep the public informed of the president's conduct of the nation's business.

Currently, that business is pointedly being interrupted and neglected by order of this president in quest of a political objective: forcing Congress to finance a southern border wall to advance his immigration policy. The price is being paid by 800,000 federal workers being denied their paychecks.

Meanwhile, elements of American journalism itself are on trial as its newest manifestations of truth-seeking are being challenged now by the governmental investigators of the president himself.

It is pertinent to note that the failure of The Times and The Post to match the BuzzFeed account reflects their own continued general credibility in assessing what the public can rely on as the probable truth. Mainstream journalism may have taken a hit, but it retains standing as the most reliable measure we have in this new climate era of "buzz" commingling with factual evidence.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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