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“It’s Over”: How the WikiLeaks Emails Were Handled

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This detail from Amy Chozick’s story is just confirming something we could already have inferred, but I think it’s important to have it on the record:

A few weeks before Election Day, I was stuck in my cubicle poring over John Podesta’s emails. I wanted to be on the road. “I just feel like the election isn’t happening in my cubicle,” I said. “But it’s over,” an editor replied, reminding me that the Times’s Upshot election model gave Mrs. Clinton a 93 percent chance of winning. The ominous “they” who would keep the glass ceiling intact didn’t look that powerful then.

There are two related points here that are important. First, as we knew, is that the decision was made to cover Clinton as the president-elect, as editors misread the polling data through the lens of conventional wisdom and played a role in creating a self-defeating prophecy. The second detail is that poring over the trivia in John Podesta’s inbox wasn’t Chozick’s choice, and also meant that she wasn’t on the road covering what Clinton was saying. Presumably, the fact that one side had a bunch of hacked emails strategically released and the other side didn’t contributed to the latter candidate getting more policy coverage although the former candidate was offering a lot more policy detail. It’s also worth noting that the stories generated from the hacked emails are the kind of stories that generally appear in campaign postmortem books like Chozick’s, not stories in the weeks before the election. You might find Clinton’s strategies for beating Joe Biden in the primaries and Chelsea Clinton’s thoughts on the campaign more or less interesting, but it’s not exactly critical information for the voters in October. They’re the kind of stories you’d more likely run about a president or recently defeated candidate than during the end of a campaign, and were it not for Wikileaks (as Chozick suggests) they wouldn’t mostly wouldn’t have been reported at the time.

I think Nick Confessore is a very fine reporter and I hope he chooses to discuss his choices in a non-280 character format. But as many people have noted, his thread presenting an alternative view is not very convincing. A lot of the argument rebuts the proposition that hacked emails should never be published, a point I think very few people would argue. So let’s concede that there isn’t a bright line rule against doing stories on hacked emails, and that some level of coverage was inevitable and some of the stories were generally newsworthy. There are still more interesting questions here — about what role privacy questions played in balancing interests, about opportunity costs, about the context in which stories about even anodyne emails take on in a context in which “Clinton emails” stories are dominating coverage that aren’t addressed. A couple of examples. First, here’s a Confessore hypothetical question to critics of the stories:

I mean, sure, but the news value of tax returns that Trump is violating norms to hide is very obvious. Here’s the kinds of stories that were published about Clinton:

Some of this is plausibly newsworthy, and interests differ, but all of it is pretty minor campaign inside-baseball. A more symmetrical hypothetical –“What if the North Koreans hacked the Trump campaign and showed difficulty in crafting a message and factionalism among the staff?” — would be a lot less powerful. Certainly my reaction would be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And it’s hard to get a sense from this that much weight was placed on the privacy interests at stake or in the problem that Chozick discusses — that the emails were leaked by ratfuckers to advance the interests of one campaign. If the emails revealed serious misconduct by Clinton or information of major substantive importance the agenda of the leakers would be moot, with this kind of stuff it’s a lot less obvious that the right balance was struck.

The other issue is that the narratives set by Wikileaks are clearly influencing how the material is presented, even now:

Two charges are being conflated here. The emails certainly establish that some members of the establishment weren’t crazy about the anti-establishment candidate, which as Sanders himself said is the ultimate cat-likes-tummy-rubs story. If the emails established that the DNC made “efforts to sabotage his campaign” this would be major news. But they just don’t. Literally the strongest evidence of an anti-Sanders conspiracy from the emails is a finance guy raising a dumb, offensive suggestion about Sanders that is ignored and produces no action. The DNC did not materially act against Sanders — but the framing of the emails created this impression, and the damaging narrative is still alive.

This won’t be the last time hackers try to influence an election. And I think it’s hard to argue with Chozick’s conclusion that in the heat of the campaign they were not handled very well. Logically, if emails are obtained illegally and strategically distributed to favor one candidate, extra care should be taken to ensure that stories are newsworthy and that the spin of the people distributing the emails is examined critically. Instead, perversely, the privacy issue was turned on its head: the fact that information was obtained illegally made trivia seem newsworthy.

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