When Journalists Align With Thieves
The press is mining the dirty work of Russian hackers for gossipy inside-beltway accounts.
By Steven Levy
Oct 17 2016
On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C. police caught five men breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel-apartment-office complex. “The five men had been dressed in business suits and all had worn Playtex surgical gloves,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein described in their famous book. “Police had seized a walkie-talkie, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35-millimeter cameras, two lock picks, pen-size tear-gas guns, and bugging devices that apparently were capable of picking up both telephone and room conversations.”
In 2016, Donald Trump did not need to dispatch burglars to loot the Democratic National Committee and use the information to his advantage. He had Gmail, the Russians, WikiLeaks, and the New York Times. In the two major document dumps so far, thousands of private emails that were stolen by hackers and provided to Julian Assange’s organization have been published on the internet for the perusal of all.
First came a serverload of mail from the Committee itself; then more recently, on October 8, came a wholesale delivery of the contents of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox. If the US intelligence agency’s conclusions are to be believed, Vladimir Putin and his government did the hacking, apparently in an attempt to tilt the American election. The perpetrators were counting on the US media to feast on this purloined corpus, sucking the meat from the bones of every email.
Feast they did. Since the leak dropped, the Times, the Washington Post, and numerous other publications and blogs have been mining the emails for stories. This is perfectly legal. As long as journalists don’t do the stealing themselves, they are solidly allowed to publish what thieves expose, especially if, as in this case, the contents are available to all.
In 1972, journalists helped bring down a president by exposing the theft of political information. In 2016, it’s a presidential campaign urging us to gloss over the source of emails and just report what’s in them, preferably in the most unflattering light. Indeed, it’s not the theft that’s taken center stage, but rather the contents of the emails, as journalists focus on getting maximum mileage by shifting through the loot as if the DNC’s collected ephemera were the Pentagon Papers. And they are not.
Which leads me to wonder: is the exploitation of stolen personal emails a moral act? By diving into this corpus to expose anything unseemly or embarrassing, reporters may be, however unwillingly, participating in a scheme by a foreign power to mess with our election. Still, news is news, and it’s arguably a higher calling than concerns about privacy. (At least that’s what we journalists would argue!) By her refusal to share transcripts of her high-paid speeches to Wall Street firms, Hillary Clinton had already ignited efforts to find out what the heck she said to those fat cats. So it seems, well, seemly, that news organizations would leap at the unfortunate emails in which Podesta and colleagues did the work for journalists by pulling out the most uncomfortable portions of her appearances.
But then came a secondary wave. Taking advantage of WikiLeaks’s easy searchfunction, journalists went deep into the emails. On October 10, the New York Times ran two more stories drawn from the release. One article mined a series of exchangesthat suggested tension between the Clinton campaign and the mayor of New York. The other used the emails to document the not-terribly-earthshattering revelation that the Clinton campaign was having difficulty honing its message.
Both stories were inside-politics subjects that, without the juicy immediacy of information never intended to be public, might have been the kind of dry stories that run deep in the paper. But in this case, the stories wrote themselves because the reporters had emails stolen from Russian hackers. I’m guessing that they got better placement in the paper and more attention online because of the easy scoops.