When the Justice Department this past Friday announced its indictment against 12 Russians for allegedly hacking into the Democratic National Committee and other entities, it included this caveat: “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity or knew they were communicating with Russian intelligence officers. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the vote count or changed the outcome of the 2016 election.”
That’s not to say that other folks didn’t find some stateside culprits. Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, had this to say:
Quite an allegation, that. Though the Erik Wemple Blog cannot testify as to the glee with which journalists reported on stolen emails, there’s no question that the numbers were plentiful. The basics are by now familiar to anyone who closely followed the 2016 presidential election: In the months leading up to the election, thousands upon thousands of emails and documents from the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta surfaced on the Internet. Sites such as DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks hosted the stashes, through which anyone could rummage via keyword searches.
The thieves had become the world’s most prodigious assignment editors. Just before the Democratic National Convention in July, about 20,000 WikiLeaks emails from the DNC showed party officials playing favorites in the primary showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. That story played prominently all over the media.
Even then, the hand of Russia wasn’t hard to find in the releases. After all, The Post reported in mid-June — more than a month before all the Clinton-Sanders-DNC revelations — that Russian government hackers had snaked their way into DNC systems. It was just a matter of time before people discovered what they’d found.
And if disarray had been the goal of the hackers, they scored a quick victory. Just days after the hack was released, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced her resignation.
The ladling of email helpings to a voracious press proceeded throughout the campaign. On Oct. 7, for example, WikiLeaks dropped a batch of Podesta emails just as the “Access Hollywood” tape fiasco was bearing down on the Trump campaign. From that release sprung the saga of then-CNN contributor (and later interim DNC chair) Donna Brazile sharing primary debate questions with the Clinton campaign.
One sophisticated student of media habits took note of the plume. “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 then-President Barack Obama at his year-end news conference in 2016. “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.”
In the spirit of Obama’s appeal and Tanden’s sizzling opinions, the Erik Wemple Blog polled a number of news organizations about whether they regretted reporting on the email leaks, whether they’d reexamined their approach in light of the recent indictment. We lay them out here:
BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith (via email):
This is something we’ve thought about a lot.
We were aware of and discussed this issue at the time, and it’s complex. We thought that it was important to cover the hack itself aggressively – it was obviously, then as now, a more important story than any particular email. We try in general to keep an unusually high bar for newsworthiness when we’re using hacked material, and always to put it in context. In this case, we didn’t scramble to cover each leaked document, and we made sure that we always wrote about this material as part of an apparent Russian intelligence operation, as was clear even at the time.
When we decdied that a leaked document did clear that high bar for being genuinely revelatory news —for instance in the leak of the content of Clinton’s Goldman speeches — this was the third paragraph of our story: (https://www.buzzfeed.com/rubycramer/wikileaks-appears-to-release-hillary-clintons-paid-speech-tr?utm_term=.eiazE993d7#.kngRjYYKEB) : “John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, was the latest victim in a wave of hacks on key figures in Democratic politics and the political establishment in what administration officials say is an effort by Russia to undermine the election.”
We subsequently formalized this approach by adding this to our standards guide:
• Hacked material: We should be particularly attentive with hacked material to treat the intention of the hacker as a major part of the story, and to maintain a high bar for news value and context of potentially embarrassing personal information that is being weaponized.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet (via email):
First off, we didn’t know then what we know now. Obviously the origins of the emails are a far bigger story than what was contained in them. But we didn’t know that at the time.
The stories that came from the emails were newsworthy. Not only Donna Brazile’s question sharing, but the details of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, speeches she had declined to make public. Imagine if we had chosen not to publish those emails at the time, interesting details about a presidential candidate in the middle of an election. That would have been a political act. Of course one cringes reading the details of the indictment. But one of the imperfections of journalism is that you have to publish based on what you know at the time.
Geoffrey Ingersoll, managing editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation at the time of the hacks, now editor in chief of the Daily Caller (via email):
I did have my own guys refer to wikileaks as a “psuedo arm of Russian intelligence” and [Julian] Assange as a “psuedo spox” on most mentions. We were very aggressive qualifying. Still, we picked up the emails….I was just discussing today with natsec friends Chris Wallace’s sit down with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. We were torn. There’s no way Putin doesn’t take it as a prop win. But does an American journalist really pass up an opportunity to question Putin?
I know if Kim Jong Un offered a sit down with me at the DMZ, I would probably have to take it. Same goes for these emails, if they are true and damning, do we ignore them because of the messenger? How much swampy oppo research fuels journalism for the betterment of democracy? Probably a lot, I would guess. Similarly, the wider media put on a bigger show for this dossier — almost at face value Moscow-cooked [nonsense] — should they have demonstrated even more hesitance? Since the dossier wasn’t nearly as true as these emails at first blush?
I think that Putin, just from what I have learned about him as I reported on national security and geopolitics, plays for short term wins. He exploited a free press eager to have biases confirmed (on both sides), eager to break news no matter from where (speaking of capitalistic ambition in a free, democratic society), for a short term win.
But I think in the long term, these same perceived weaknesses — a free press that doesn’t end up dead for being mean to a president — actually serve to balance, rather than disrupt, our democracy. So I have faith, and I am without regret, because I know at least that I’m honest and my reporters are [with regard to] to the truth of the matter.
I think the only regret is for those who published those emails and still question the modus operandi behind them.
Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron (via email):
We were selective in publishing from the available emails. Our standard was whether they contained information genuinely relevant to voters. As in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack and other instances where we received material from sources with their own agendas, we sought to determine what was of legitimate public interest and to put that information in proper context. That is a difficult judgment to make, and we take our responsibilities seriously. Not publishing anything merely leaves a vacuum for others to fill, working with a lower standard or none at all. We published according to our standard, and we stand by our decision.
Ryan Grim, HuffPost Washington bureau chief during the 2016 campaign, now D.C. bureau chief for the Intercept (via phone):
We included in most of the stories at the time that they were likely the result of Russian hacks … I don’t quite understand the argument that you would ignore something newsworthy. … The excerpts from the [Clinton Wall Street] speeches were probably the most memorable things that surfaced. The irony is that was an own-goal from start to finish. The Clinton campaign certainly can complain that Russia hacked and dumped that material. But Russia didn’t force her to give the speeches and Russia didn’t force her to keep the speeches a secret. … Part of it was this principled opacity that the Clinton campaign had, that they just didn’t believe that there was any reason that the public should have this stuff.
Noah Shachtman, executive editor of Daily Beast during the 2016 campaign, now editor in chief (via phone):
We had a lot of discussions in the newsroom about whether we weren’t covering these emails enough … that other outlets were really paying a lot of attention to these emails and we weren’t. … We were very early to start reporting that this may have been a foreign intelligence operation, and so I know that definitely was one of the things that put a brake on going crazy over these emails. … For those of us that have been dealing with WikiLeaks and have seen their transition from anti-secrecy crusader to something else, we’ve become less inclined to just take whatever WikiLeaks dumps and run with it. We went really hard after the Sony hacks, and I think afterwards we had a lot of internal discussions about to what extent were we helping the North Koreans play their game. That, also, was on my mind.
You do have to tread carefully and you do have to think about who benefits. You have to think about whether you’re actually seeing the full picture or being given selected dribs and drabs, and so I think here that as a result, the newsworthiness had to be pretty f—— high.
This whole setup — the U.S. media taking hot information stolen by a foreign adversary — has indeed prompted some soul-searching. “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 in a December 2016 story on the Russian cyberwar. And New York Times reporter Amy Chozick titled a chapter of her campaign book “How I Became an Unwitting Agent of Russian Intelligence.” Politico’s Jack Shafer countered Chozick that the email dumps contained plenty of newsworthy stuff. “In reporting from the emails, the press drew a truer picture of candidate Clinton than she volunteered to the cameras and microphones,” wrote Shafer. “So what if the emails were stolen goods, delivered via the Russian government? That doesn’t necessarily contaminate the information contained in them or make journalists who reported from them accomplices to espionage.”
Just take the Brazile situation: Revelations about her question-sharing shed light not only on a top DNC official but also on the role of cable-news networks in choosing presidential candidates and the penetration of news organizations by partisan pundits. And we’re supposed to pass up such a story?
The Russia-WikiLeaks episode spotlights a U.S. media at once powerful and helpless. Powerful because we can write a staggering volume of stories on leaked documents. And helpless because we cannot suborn hackers to do their work in politically neutral ways.