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The Russian Hacks Were Effective Because of Terrible Reporting Practices


James Risen’s first big piece on Russian ratfucking and Republican collusion is both worth reading and frustrating. He makes the regrettable decision to spend a lot of time discussing whether Trump is guilty of “treason,” which (at least in the legal, not colloquial sense, and Risen is discussing the former) he’s clearly not. This is the kind of move which can allow your critics to run out the clock by debating technicalities. And I hope it doesn’t end of obscuring the really important part of the argument:

There can be little doubt now that Russian intelligence officials were behind an effort to hack the DNC’s computers and steal emails and other information from aides to Hillary Clinton as a means of damaging her presidential campaign. Once they stole the correspondence, Russian intelligence officials used cutouts and fronts to launder the emails and get them into the bloodstream of the U.S. press. Russian intelligence also used fake social media accounts and other tools to create a global echo chamber both for stories about the emails and for anti-Clinton lies dressed up to look like news.

To their disgrace, editors and reporters at American news organizations greatly enhanced the Russian echo chamber, eagerly writing stories about Clinton and the Democratic Party based on the emails, while showing almost no interest during the presidential campaign in exactly how those emails came to be disclosed and distributed. The Intercept itself has faced such accusations. The hack was a much more important story than the content of the emails themselves, but that story was largely ignored because it was so easy for journalists to write about Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

This is a topic we’ve been discussing for a while — remember when Glenn was preemptively asserting that it was wrong to criticize Julian Assange or suggest he had any role in electing Trump? WHATEVER COULD EXPLAIN IT? — starting with Paul in the immediate aftermath of the election. But it remains very important going forward, because Russia and other pro-Trump forces aren’t going to stop trying to influence elections, and the Republican-controlled state sure as hell won’t try to stop them.

But hacks alone can’t influence elections. Media coverage of hacks can influence elections, and lessons from the 2016 campaign need to be learned:

  • Note that the leaks were released in a very careful strategic fashion, designed to to maximum political damage — for example, during the DNC, or the day of the Billy Bush tapes. This should have caused the media to be extremely skeptical about the way the leaks were framed and very careful not to advance the narratives of people obviously trying to ratfuck the elections. It didn’t — quite the opposite.
  • As Risen says, the hacks were generally reported the way the pro-Trump leakers wanted them reported — in both quality and quantity — although they revealed no significant or material misconduct. This doesn’t even seem to be controversial anymore — indeed, even some of the people most guilty of hyping this inane trivia are now conceding that this trivia was indeed inane, and indeed have tried to illogically use this to argue that because the underlying material was unimportant the coverage strongly implying that Clinton was the corrupt candidate didn’t actually matter.
  • Ans Risen also says, while they were being played like Mary Timony’s guitar, the media was missing the real story — the massive invasions of privacy by the pro-Trump ratfucking campaign itself. Indeed, as I’ve said before, far from the media using a higher standard to justify publishing reports based on illegal and privacy-invading hacks, the perverse effect of the hacks was to make otherwise not-newsworthy material by treated as if it was newsworthy.
  • This is really important going forward. It is neither feasible nor desirable to set a black-letter standard forbidding the coverage of leaked material. But it certainly is critical not to act as the useful idiots of bad actors. Before you report on a hack, make sure some important, material misconduct is involved. Be mindful of why this stuff is being leaked and what the agenda of the leakers is. The fact that something secret is being revealed doesn’t make it the Pentagon Papers.

All of this is the subset of a larger problem. Elections are literally life-and-death matters, but they’re not to the most influential people who cover them. From a nice apartment in Brooklyn or a mansion in Rio it can be pretty easy to use your platform to spend elections rubbing your thighs raw about email server management best practices or some DNC rando saying something dumb about Bernie that everyone else ignored. But it’s bad journalism, and it’s also immoral. You have a responsibility to act as if the results of the election might mean you lose access to healthcare or be forced to subsist on a box of cans of wadded beef and shelf-stable milk that may or may not be sent to your house. That doesn’t mean ignoring serious misconduct by anyone or not engaging in tough reporting. But it does mean informing your readers, not actively collaborating with people whose goal is to ensure that the public is critically misinformed.

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