Lawyers, Guns & Money is one of my favorite blogs because you don’t spend a lot of time wondering what the premises of their posts are. Here’s one that I missed the first time around: The Russian Hacks Were Effective Because of Terrible Reporting Practices. LGM’s Scott Lemieux quotes James Risen’s account of Russian interference in the 2016 election:
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.
Do note that The Intercept is the outlet publishing Risen’s story; he’s not randomly calling out one publication. This leads to Lemieux’s broader point:
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.
There’s a fundamental tension of interests here: on the one hand, you have almost a collective action problem. The constant leaking of DNC and Podesta emails went on for months, and every day was a new opportunity to cover an ongoing story for an insatiable public. If the Washington Post (or The Intercept) just decided not to cover any of it, the news is still out there and being covered by everyone else. Really, these email leaks were fundamentally newsworthy—for more reasons than we understood at the time—and it’s the job of the press to report the news. It’s absurd to suggest that the press would just… ignore them. On the other hand, the breathless coverage carried a lot of water for foreign intellligence operators.
What Lemieux ultimately suggests is coverage that spends more time examining the motives of the leakers, and less time pretending the emails revealed some material misconduct by the DNC and Podesta.
The 2018 midterm elections are just about 240 days away. If the federal government doesn’t take affirmative steps to discourage foreign meddling this time around, it’s easy to imagine there will be a lot of strategically leaked emails in the news. Here’s hoping the press handles the do-over better than in 2016.