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There is widespread discussion about fake news and biased news.

This implies, and it has hitherto been generally understood, that an essential characteristic of news is that it be true. Journalists are supposed to be in the truth business.

So BuzzFeed’s decision to knowingly publish a document Tuesday night that it had failed to verify, and which included what it acknowledged to be egregious errors, was an extraordinary one.

The document contained what purported to be details about the compromising financial and personal activities of President-elect Trump allegedly in the possession of Russia.

The news organization justified its decision to publish details that it knows may be false by claiming the document is already in the possession of other journalists and some senior officials.

BuzzFeed explained in its report that it printed, “the full document so that Americans [could] make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

This is a terrible standard to set.

Journalists are supposed to publish facts, not rumors. If something sounds amazing or too good to be true, it’s incumbent on reporters to verify the story before publishing it.

“Here, you figure it out,” is a new low standard for news media.

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If an unverified charge is damaging to a person’s reputation, then floating it publicly and saying “this may or may not be true” is not news reporting; it is spreading vicious gossip. When you’re aware that the source is unreliable, that compounds the sin.

In a telling detail, BuzzFeed apparently redacted a few words in the memo hours after publication. You can’t unsay something, especially in the age of the Internet. But this is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s 400 years since Lady Macbeth, with blood on her hands, wandered madly in the dark muttering, “what’s done cannot be undone.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was made aware of the documents last year. Instead of going public with the unconfirmed claims, he instead notified the FBI. Mother Jones’ David Corn said he, too, saw the dossier last year. He reported only what he could verify, meaning he painted in very broad strokes and avoided the more explicit allegations. Even former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who confesses proudly to having traduced the reputation of a previous presidential candidate with a clear lie, declined to repeat these latest unverified allegations about Trump, after he, too, saw the document that contained them last year.

Think about that. Reid, who famously stooped to slander Mitt Romney, handled the dossier more ethically than BuzzFeed’s editorial team.

Shortly before BuzzFeed went public, CNN also reported the existence of a document alleging Russia has compromising information on Trump. But CNN handled the story professionally and ethically, reporting only that President Obama and the president-elect had been briefed on a classified two-page synopsis alleging Russian operatives, “claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

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Unfortunately for CNN, its reporting is now being conflated with BuzzFeed’s, and both have been dismissed summarily by the president-elect and many of his supporters.

There’s a problem beyond the terrible standard set by a newsroom regurgitating unverified information and leaving it to readers to sort truth from falsehood. It’s that, like the boy who cried wolf, it will encourage a shrug the next time someone publishes a story alleging wrongdoing. And it allows Trump to shield himself from legitimate questions surrounding his ties to Russia.

“I think it’s a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information, I read the information outside of that meeting,” Trump said Wednesday at a press conference. “It’s all fake news, it’s phony stuff, it didn’t happen. It was gotten by opponents of ours.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, wrote amid media’s newfound concern for hoax reporting that, “Fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous, and spun-up stories will spread widely. Hoaxes will have higher production value.”

It’s a bold strategy, bemoaning the prevalence of fake news while publishing unverified allegations against the incoming president.

BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti said in a staff memo, “We are going to keep doing what we do best, which is deliver impactful journalism.” But the impact is on media credibility, which is badly dented by this heavy blow.

As fake news proliferates, and as even those sites that regard themselves as respectable publish stories with scant or non-existent verification, it becomes increasingly important that other organizations hew to older, higher standards and deliver news that readers can trust.

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