Toward the end of its extensive dive into the Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the New York Times included this potent little sentence:
Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and [Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John] Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.
That's a strong charge. And political scientist Norman Ornstein agrees. Shortly after The Washington Post reported Friday on the CIA's assessment that Russia deliberately tried to elect Donald Trump as president, Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, crystallized an emerging media criticism:
He continued on Saturday:
This isn't the first time the media has been accused of blowing the 2016 election, of course — nor will it be the last. We got it from all sides this year. Trump supporters (and Trump) thought we were too tough on him, and even many non-Trump supporters thought we were biased. Clinton supporters thought we were too willing to air Trump's comments uncritically, focused on frivolous things and vastly overemphasized the private email server she used while secretary of state.
Accordingly, evolution has required that we journalists develop a thick skin. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss criticism out of hand. And this is a particularly interesting journalistic question — with massive stakes — that I thought about quite a bit at the time.
The DNC and Podesta hacks weren't the only high-profile political ones this year; there was also former secretary of state Colin L. Powell. In all three situations, there were the emails, just sitting there, ready to provide the kind of behind-the-scenes dirt we generally get only secondhand from anonymous sources. How could we not be curious?
Of course, had those same emails been provided directly to a journalist rather than uploaded to a searchable online database, they probably would have been vetted much more carefully. But that's not the world we were operating in. Uploading them to the Web for everyone to see creates a sense of competition among journalists — and a sense that it's already out there and can't be ignored. (Just because we don't report it doesn't mean people won't see it — they'll just see it without the benefit of context, fact-checking or reaction.) It's a thoroughly new dilemma we had to deal with in real time, and it's ripe for the brand of criticism Ornstein dispensed.
Of course, Ornstein's tweets have the benefit of hindsight. At the time, it wasn't clear where the emails came from. Trump still says he isn't sure; the CIA and the FBI agree that Russia probably was responsible, although they differ on whether it was clearly meant to benefit Trump.
The questions are: What if we don't immediately know where the emails came from? Do we ignore hacked emails until we can determine their origins? Do we ignore them completely, regardless of origin? And even if many of us agree to either approach, do we all agree to hold off together? How do we formalize that process? And what if some outlets decline to join us?
The simplest solution probably would be a blanket ban on publicizing any hacked emails, but again, that would be easier said than done, and the information would still be out there for anybody to disseminate — again, without fact-checking and proper context. That's a recipe for plenty of additional misinformation after an election already plagued by “fake news.”
Critics would say that caution is the watchword and that we should hold off on publishing anything we're uncertain about — even if it means we get beat. The longtime journalism maxim is that you get it right before you get it first.
But in this situation, the choice wasn't between getting it right and getting it first; it was between getting it first and playing to the potential agenda of an anonymous source — a source who could have been an adversarial world power such as Russia or a more nefarious source or just some random hacker. Everything in those emails may be accurate, but it adds a whole new element to the journalistic equation. It's unlikely that many of us, after all, have been presented with information obtained by a foreign government. Usually, it's at least from American sources.
And even if we acknowledge that there are some sources we definitely don't want to aid, where do we draw the line? If hacked emails from Russia aren't okay, what about hacked emails from a Trump supporter in New Jersey? Or from an American ally who might be pointing out something unflattering about our government? Almost everyone who leaks information to the media has an ax to grind, after all. From there, it's a judgment call as to whether the value of reporting the information is high enough.
To that point: The information from the Podesta emails and the DNC certainly didn't help Clinton, but none of it was the kind of smoking gun that clearly sunk her candidacy. In fact, there was a time when the Podesta emails were barely registering because of a certain hot-mic video featuring Trump and Billy Bush. Trump even complained about the lack of WikiLeaks coverage at one point.
But they were certainly a part of the campaign in the final weeks, dribbling out information that reinforced perceptions of Clinton as an overly secretive candidate without true convictions and whose top aides and allies were exasperated with her. And if the CIA's conclusion is accurate, that's what Russia wanted.
If you're looking for the answers to all of these questions, you won't find them here; people are free to have their own opinions and to make their arguments. The point is that it wouldn't be easy to implement a remedy even if we all agreed on what that remedy was. Information is infinitely easier to spread than ever before, and the media is confronted with either ignoring it or doing its best to contextualize it and providing an important filter.
I'm skeptical that the emails could truly have been ignored, and I think the situation is much more complicated than some critics pretend it is. But it's a debate we're sure to confront again.