The story BuzzFeed doesn’t want you to read
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said, “Without a free press, there can be no free society.”
Freedom of the press is central to the democratic experiment and our last, best line of defense against those in power who threaten the rule of law. But in recent years we have drifted a long way from those days when that press played an integral role in the battle for freedom.
Today, when anyone can spread gossip and false information without consequence, and online and entertainment media companies disguise themselves as “news organizations”, we must ask a fundamental question: Who is watching the watchdogs?
Far from the watchdogs they once were, too many members of today’s tabloid and entertainment media ignore traditional journalistic ethics, values and standards. Too often, in the hyper-competitive, celebrity-driven and political charged environment that currently exists, they fail to verify facts and vet sources, and are permitted to present predetermined stories supporting an agenda or outcome they believe will sow the most outrage and engagement with their target audiences whether true or not.
For this reason, I am now suing BuzzFeed following a premeditated and malicious campaign against me and my life’s work.
In a series of articles this year, BuzzFeed falsely accused me of abusing my position and making inappropriate advances toward employees and event attendees as well as berating abuse victims at my seminars. Those stories were filled with falsehoods and many people actively spoke out against BuzzFeed in the immediate aftermath. For example, BuzzFeed inaccurately labeled two of their sources as “victims” when the truth is both came forward publicly to say they were not “victims” and refuted BuzzFeed’s false reporting. Further, more than two dozen witnesses issued sworn statements disputing the accuracy of BuzzFeed’s reporting and others have expressed serious concerns about the Buzzfeed reporters’ conduct during interviews.
In its first article, BuzzFeed cited an account of a former personal assistant, Ms. Rittase. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Rittase publicly repudiated the story:
“The only accurate part of what BuzzFeed said about me in their article about Tony Robbins is that Tony’s work truly impacted me and my family for the better. His work was transformational for our relationship and our life. BuzzFeed told me they wanted to talk to me so I could provide balance to their story as a positive perspective and then they twisted my words in a negative way. My interactions with Tony were always respectful, professional and appropriate.”
The same BuzzFeed article stated that “Robbins has unleashed expletive-laden tirades on survivors of rape and domestic violence” and then proceeded to selectively string together pieces of an intervention between myself and an event attendee to create a narrative untethered to facts and reality. When the woman involved in this intervention read the article, she was stunned by the gross distortion between what she read and her real-life experience. She set the record straight when she posted a video on her YouTube channel vehemently refuting BuzzFeed’s reports as false and completely inaccurate. She courageously shared how the life-changing experience at the event positively impacted her life, stating:
“BuzzFeed just basically continues to try to use pieces of the intervention out of context to make their point — the point that they want to make regardless of my experience.” So enraged by BuzzFeed’s complete disregard for the truth, this woman filed a lawsuit implicating BuzzFeed and one of its sources for destructive conduct and a violation of her privacy rights.
But, BuzzFeed didn’t stop there. They reloaded their drivel gun and tried again.
They published a subsequent article alleging that I “Punish Followers by Making Them Drink Unidentified Brown Liquid.” My team responded to this ridiculous claim and shared the recipe and a video of what actually occurs. Unsurprisingly, Buzzfeed did not acknowledge key facts we shared since that would have ruined their narrative that I was somehow doing something injurious to my attendees.
It is no wonder that the Pew Research Center cites Buzzfeed as “the least trusted news source,” dead last in a field of 36 media outlets.
Today, BuzzFeed published another article riddled with falsehoods, concerning an alleged incident from 1985, 34 years ago when I was 25 years old. (I turn 60 in just a few months).
Throughout BuzzFeed’s campaign against me, numerous people have called in reports of being harassed and pressured by Buzzfeed reporters and being asked to confirm false and inaccurate stories about me. In the lead up to the latest story, a caller specifically said that a BuzzFeed reporter shared a version of a story with him and asked him to confirm the details she shared. He called us because he felt she had an agenda, was driving a preconceived narrative and trying to manipulate him into confirming the story she told him. Instead of asking him questions about what he believed to be true, the reporter repeatedly asked him to confirm accounts of her version of the story, even though he was not directly involved.
Apparently, this tactic is well developed. During a fireside chat involving one of the BuzzFeed reporters who attacked me, she and a former journalist discuss some of the tactics she used to get sources to “open up” when covering Russia and terrorists. The BuzzFeed reporter explained that she would present a source with information and then ask them to simply confirm or deny it — a tactic research has shown can reshape people’s recollections of what actually happened in reality, particularly when dealing with an alleged event from many years before.
Current research on the topic of memories is clear that there are different ways memories can be influenced and distorted. One well understood technique involves presenting people with suggested information that they are then prone to incorporate into their own thoughts, thus potentially leaving them with false memories of what occurred.
While the democratic rule of law affords each of us due process, a fair trial, and lawful standards for the proper introduction of evidence, the same rules unfortunately don’t hold true in today’s wild west of digital information sharing and rampant “fake news”.
BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief was quoted in a Columbia Journalism Review article titled, “Who Cares If It’s True?” arguing that he and his organization reject “formalistic rules like ‘you have to have two sources to go with something.’ “It’s easy to get nine sources to say the same thing and still get it wrong. I prefer to rely on smart reporters and on Twitter.” BuzzFeed’s own news standards and ethics guidelines even argue that on certain topics “there aren’t two sides to every story.”
Taking such a position can carry consequences.
Just this year, one of the Buzzfeed reporters involved in writing stories about me, and the tabloid’s Editor-in-Chief were named in a separate lawsuit and alleged to have “purposely, consistently, with motive and agenda (having) omitted critical facts they were privy to before publishing the articles such that they knew they were not publishing the truth.” This lawsuit also charges that BuzzFeed, as an organization, “consistently ‘cherry picked’ and intentionally omitted evidence” that didn’t support their already-determined story.
More and more people are coming to see the media not as referees but as active players in the larger game of agenda pushing. Credible media demand transparency, but online tabloid media disguising themselves as “news organizations” too often remain secretive about their sources, techniques and their own agendas. The result: people are turning away from journalism and questioning its once-important role as society’s trusted watchdog. One day, the honorable craft of journalism will return to reporting fact-based news, not assassinating targets for entertainment purposes and clickable audience building to drive revenue.
Until this happens, I simply ask: “Who will watch the watchdogs?”