Continuing a firm tradition of admitting no mistakes in the 2016 campaign season, and certainly offering up no apologies for glaring errors that were made, most news organizations have played down the pivotal and almost jovial role they played in marketing Russian hackers who stole Democratic National Committee emails during the last presidential election cycle. The collective shrug comes in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian election interference, which offered up even more details regarding the brazen act of foreign sabotage. It was a campaign dirty-trick operation that only worked because the media so willingly played along as they piled on Hillary Clinton and hyped the stolen DNC emails as hugely important.
With the media’s stubborn insistence that they did nothing wrong in eagerly amplifying the work of Russian hackers, the threat looms for a repeat in 2020—and it’s not just hypothetical. For the third time in three years, House Democrats have tried to get Republicans to support a pledge not to use hacked materials against opponents in 2020. And for the third time in three years, Republicans have refused.
And there’s this:
Vice President Mike Pence refuses to answer if 1) he regrets using hacked emails during the 2016 campaign & 2) if he pledges not to do so in the next presidential campaign. He walked away upon attempted follow-up. pic.twitter.com/l2TficTFn2
— Vaughn Hillyard (@VaughnHillyard) April 24, 2019
Incredibly, when pressed last week about whether they plan to change guidelines for how to treat stolen documents from foreign adversaries during an election season, most news outlets signaled that very little has changed for 2020, with CNN reporting that “Most of the news organizations that CNN Business contacted for this story did not reveal any sweeping changes to its rules about publishing hacked materials since the 2016 election.”
And make no mistake, the looming threat of hacks—and how the press plays them—poses a bigger threat to Democrats than it does to Republicans.
Fact: If it had been well-known in the summer of 2016 that Iranian operatives had hacked into Republican Party emails and were disseminating the contents in order to harm Trump’s campaign, it’s doubtful a single major news outlet in this country would have published the emails, let alone excitedly published them day after day. There’s just no way they would have wanted to draw the wrath of Trump and the right-wing noise machine, both of whom had already made press-bashing a central tenet of the campaign season. The idea that, in that scenario, news organizations would have publicly sided with agents of the Iranian government to try to sink a Republican’s White House campaign just isn’t believable. That speaks to the blatant double standard the press uses when dealing with Democrats and Republicans, and specifically when it comes to dealing with Democrats and a media bully like Trump.
In the wake of 2016, the simplistic media defense has been that the hacked Democratic emails were in the public realm and contained newsworthy information, and that therefore the decision to publish was an easy one. Set aside the idea that the press wildly overhyped the significance of the emails in order to juice up its coverage, which dragged on for weeks and months: The key to the 2016 saga was that the emails were stolen by a foreign adversary, which then used the willing U.S. media to carry out its attack on an American election and to help Trump win. And that’s the part of the equation the press remains unmoved on to this day.
The favorite excuse from editors and journalists has been that they didn’t know they were being used by the Russians in 2016, which is not at all believable. “We didn’t know then what we know now,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet claimed in 2018. “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.” Amy Chozick, who covered the Clinton campaign for the Times, later described herself as “an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence.”
“We didn’t know”? “Unwitting”? That’s nonsense. In June 2016, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee posted a public notice that concluded that the hack had been carried out by two groups associated with Russian intelligence. And in July 2016, top U.S. officials were confirming that Russians were behind the illegal attack on the DNC. Yet for months, lots of news outlets played dumb in order to cobble together some sort deniability, and in order to ignore the obvious question of whether they were actively helping a foreign adversary undermine an American election. (Answer: Yes, they were.)
Weeks after the election, David Lauter, the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, insisted, “The fact that [the emails are] coming from an unsavory source doesn’t mean that the information isn’t accurate.” That kind of cavalier attitude suddenly doesn’t sound so convincing in the wake of Mueller’s report and the extraordinary portrait it paints of Russian intelligence doing everything possible to wreck an American election and hoping the U.S. media would actively play along.
Note this passage from Mueller’s report: “GRU (the Russian intelligence agency) officers using the DCLeaks persona gave certain reporters early access to archives of leaked files by sending them links and passwords to pages on the dcleaks.com website that had not yet become public.”
What unfolded in 2016 was almost comically breathless coverage of the emails, even though those pushing the hacked material often conceded that none of the “emails has so far actually broken any fresh scandals about the woman on track to be the next president,” as Vox stressed in a 3,700-word email story in 2016. Vox simultaneously insisted the email revelations were “ugly” and assured readers they were “not going to sink Clinton’s campaign.” (Wrong on both accounts.)
And that’s a key. The press saw the emails as a way to torment Clinton, whom many in the media did not like. The ironclad assumption was that she was going to win in November 2016, so for lots of journalists the Russian operation became an entertaining way to make sure her victory was tainted—to make sure she limped across the finish line and was not celebrated as a historic figure. So it went all-in, boosting Russian hackers who were peddling emails that detailed mundane and often pointless revelations about the Clinton campaign. All of it was done under the bogus banner of “breaking news,” and the phony claim that the emails provided a stunning look inside the Democratic operation.
According to those news outlets, they’re prepared to do the same thing all over again in 2020.