The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sorry about the First Amendment, President Obama

President Obama departs after speaking with journalists during his last news conference of the year, at the White House on Friday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

President Obama has occasionally used his podium to assume the position of media-critic-in-chief. The guy regularly slams Fox News; he voiced concerns in September about the reporting on Donald Trump; and he has a fixation on fake news.

Moments ago, in his end-of-year press conference at the White House, Obama took direct aim at his audience: scores of mainstream media correspondents and cameras. The topic was the response of news organizations to a series of email hacks presented by WikiLeaks in the heat of the 2016 presidential election. In carefully timed increments, WikiLeaks posted databases of correspondence from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. These dumps weren’t dumps at all in one key respect — they were highly searchable, the better to aid an info-hungry media.

They launched an untold number of stories, and the president noticed. “I’m finding it a little curious that everybody acted surprised that it looked like this was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton, because you guys wrote about it every day,” said Obama. “Every single leak, about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage, so I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such moment with so much at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks.”

Further: “What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations, which as I’ve said publicly before were not particularly sophisticated?”

Easy: the First Amendment, that’s what. It’s one of the great mechanisms of accountability that could possibly be conceived: Our media organizations are held harmless for disseminating newsworthy information that may have been illegally obtained by other parties, whatever motives they may have. Glenn Greenwald and company didn’t score their Pulitzer Prize-winning scoops on the U.S. surveillance state by filing Freedom of Information Act requests; they got the information from Edward Snowden, who grabbed them from the systems to which he had access as a National Security Agency contractor. Nor was standard, officially sanctioned procedure at play when Chelsea Manning served up a trove of compelling documents to WikiLeaks. And Daniel Ellsberg was charged with theft and violating the Espionage Act for his leaks of the Pentagon Papers, though the case against him was eventually dismissed.

There’ll be no argument here that the leaks from the DNC and Podesta reached the level of public concern of the foregoing unauthorized transfers. For example, Podesta’s risotto recipe, which Obama noted in mocking the importance of these recent leaks. Perhaps the president doesn’t share the news judgment of Food & Wine, and Mother Jones — for all of which the revelations about arborio rice and liquid were newsworthy.

Putting aside the newsy stuff in the emails regarding the Clinton campaign’s cogitations about strategy and the DNC’s handling of the presidential primary, let’s consider merely what WikiLeaks revealed about media organizations. The primary story here related to how CNN and partner organizations run town-hall events and debates. Deep in the digital archive were emails showing that Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a DNC vice chair, passed along questions to the Clinton campaign before two CNN events in March 2016. Though CNN denied — pretty plausibly — that she secured these questions from the network’s hallowed debate-prep team, the breaches were nonetheless significant: Though opinions vary on many matters of journalism ethics, there’s quite a bit of agreement that political candidates shouldn’t get a heads-up on questions.

Were this an un-newsworthy tidbit, surely CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker would have dismissed all questions about it. Instead, he addressed it on more than one occasion, at one point characterizing the behavior as “disgusting.”

That wasn’t the extent of WikiLeaks’ grist for media reporters. Other emails showed a worrying degree of collaboration — some would say collusion — between reporters and Democratic operatives, not to mention insights from campaign officials on how they viewed media organizations, which could be relied upon for friendly treatment and on and on.

So: What looked to Obama like an “obsession” was more like a bunch of stories with built-in integrity: These were actual, live email conversations among very important Beltway types, despite various attempts to suggest that the documents could be doctored. It was just the sort of information that reporters commonly seek in FOIA requests once officials such as these graduate from a campaign to jobs in government.

Today The Post is reporting on a CIA-FBI consensus that Russia intervened in the election in part to assist the Trump campaign, via its hacks of the DNC and Podesta. That’s a troubling revelation, and clearly there are a number of media actors who feel conflicted about using the information that was presented on a platter worthy of Mr. Carson. “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence,” wrote the New York Times this week in a passage widely shared on social media.

Unfair? No question. WikiLeaks didn’t post corresponding emails from the Republican National Committee or from the Trump campaign. They would have been newsworthy as well, as would the emails of just about any organization of public concern. But on this front, the media is in an awkward and strangely helpless position. Though we may exploit all manner of documents presented to us, we may not implore foreign state actors to steal and leak in a fair and balanced manner. We’ll leave that sort of conduct to our president-elect.