Buzzfeed's "Pissgate" story about President-elect Trump is arguably fake news. Trump might even have a case against the popular millennial news site for defamation. But Trump supporters should probably check their outrage: It's a bit hypocritical.
First, Buzzfeed has overnight arguably expanded the definition of "fake news" with its publication of a controversial 35-page document with information about ties between the Russian government and Trump.
Buzzfeed didn't bother independently verifying the "leaked" information, which responsible journalists do, especially when it comes to allegations as explosive as those in the dossier. In an era when information moves at the speed of a tweet, getting the story out first has apparently become more important than getting it right.
Buzzfeed basically told readers, "Here's the info, you decide whether it's real."
To be exact, Buzzfeed prefaced its story with: "A dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, alleges Russia has compromising information on Trump. The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors."
The claims include allegations that while at a Moscow hotel, Trump hired a pair of prostitutes to "perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him." Trump swiftly denied the report on Twitter, posting: "FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!"
The document's origins and veracity remain unclear. But there is mounting speculation that Buzzfeed may have fallen victim to a prank.
As a journalism professor, I think this story arguably falls into the "fake news" category. At the very least, it's irresponsible journalism.
Some people will argue that this incident doesn't fit the colloquial definition of fake news because it's not invented out of thin air, but instead merely unsubstantiated information. But how is this different than the so-called "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory circulating around the web? Because Buzzfeed is a professional news organization it must be journalism? That's circular reasoning.
Even the New York Times analogized what Buzzfeed did to fake news, writing "Buzzfeed's decision" involved "the use of unsubstantiated information from anonymous sources, a practice that fueled some of the so-called fake news — false rumors passed off as legitimate journalism."
As a lawyer, I think Trump has grounds for a libel lawsuit against Buzzfeed if he can prove the allegations are false.
The most challenging element for him to prove to win a libel suit may be that it seriously damaged his reputation. Given all the damaging revelations in the election, that may prove to be a challenge.
That said, I do think some Trump supporters' outrage over this is a bit sanctimonious. Many of them ran with literally every unverified conspiracy theory during the election. Now, all of a sudden, they realize they are actually advocates for truth and fairness in journalism and have serious issues with unsubstantiated reports?
This hypocrisy is part of a larger problem. Increasingly, both liberals and conservatives seem to call out bad behavior only if their political opponents run afoul. For example, Democrats attack Trump nominee Monica Crowley for her alleged plagiarism, but conveniently ignore that Vice President Joe Biden did the same thing, or vice versa for Republicans.
Whether it's fake news or plagiarism, we should be consistent in our condemnation.
Mark Grabowski is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a journalism professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.