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“It’s disconcerting when the president says stuff that isn’t true,” says Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. “Not that that’s unique to Donald Trump, but he certainly does it more shamelessly.”
It was Smith who authorized the publication in January of the notorious Russian dossier, which contains salacious and unsubstantiated intelligence on Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russia. The move earned him a rebuke from Trump, who at a press conference called BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage.” But Smith, 40, a veteran journalist who did stints at the New York Observer, the New York Daily News and Politico, has remained unapologetic. And with 240 million monthly page views, BuzzFeed is far from “failing.”
“We’ve seen this very intense outpouring from our audience,” he says. “People reading, but also trying to understand how can they help support journalism. And people are sending tips like I’ve never seen.”
Did you hear from the administration directly after BuzzFeed published the Russian dossier in full?
We heard from them directly [through] his press conference. I don’t have a relationship with Trump. I came up as New York City Hall reporter. And when I was doing stories for the Observer and the Daily News, he was a joke. In fact, at the Observer there was a rule that you couldn’t quote him because he was one of these overserved quote-machine types. So like it’s a Tuesday afternoon, you need another random quote for a feature and somebody would say, “Oh, you should call Donald Trump.” And eventually the editor was like, “Nope, no more Donald Trump quotes.” We stopped using them in ’99.
Where do you think this all goes, the fake news, enemy of the people rhetoric?
It’s who he is — he’s not going to change. In some ways his lies are often easier to debunk than his predecessors’ lies, which were often more complicated. Administrations have always been dishonest with the press at various times. Rarely is it this easy to poke holes in it.
How has Trump changed the way you approach the job?
I think that there’s a sense of crisis and that there is only one story in the world. That’s pretty energizing actually for reporters but also it focuses your mind a bit. For our frontline reporters it’s obviously totally consuming. On one hand he makes a lot of news; on the other hand, the administration has done almost nothing and we’re more than halfway through the first 100 days.
Do you think their efforts to delegitimize the press are working?
There’s been a decades-long campaign to convince conservatives that the media was a conspiracy against them. And that had some elements of truth in it; the media screws up all the time. But I do think he’s obviously capitalized on that, and for people who are really committed Fox News viewers or Breitbart readers, that’s music to their ears. He certainly is broadly focused on further eroding trust in American institutions, one of them is the media. But we have felt this very, very intense outpouring from our audience. People reading things but also trying to understand how can they help support journalism. People are sending tips like I’ve never seen.
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