Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
New York TimesÂ reporter Amy Chozickâs just-released memoir,Â Chasing Hillary, offers a detailed and direct admission that major media outlets played into Russian President Vladimir Putinâs hands by devoting obsessive coverage to hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s a striking acknowledgment, given how defensive theÂ TimesÂ and its campaign journalists have generally been about their work. But rather than writing off Chozick’s mea culpa as proof of personal weakness or a one-off error, journalists should take it as a warning. The 2016 election may have been the first time that journalists found themselves the tools of a foreign government aimed at undermining American democracy. It won’t be the last.
In a chapter titled âHow I Became an Unwitting Agent of Russian Intelligence,â Chozick, who spent a decade covering Hillary Clinton for theÂ TimesÂ andÂ The Wall Street Journal, recounts the October afternoon when WikiLeaks began releasing a new set of documents obtained from Clinton campaign chair John Podestaâs Gmail account. By then, journalists hadÂ reason to suspectÂ thatÂ hackersÂ working for Russian intelligence services were the source of the emails. Nonetheless, Chozick writes that she âchose the bylineâ rather than urging her editors to consider the possibility that the paper was being used by a hostile government. She was not alone — virtually every major publication devoted significant attention to the hacked emails.
Only after the election, whenÂ TimesÂ national security reportersÂ detailedÂ how the all-consuming reporting had aided the Russian plot, did Chozick come to grips with what she had done: â[N]othing hurt worse than my own colleagues calling me a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence. The worst part was they were right.â
TheÂ TimesÂ post-election bombshellÂ on the Russian hacking campaign that caused Chozick to reassess her actionsÂ startedÂ aÂ conversationÂ about howÂ journalists had treated the hacked emails,Â includingÂ inside theÂ Times. But those discussions yielded little consensus, withÂ leading newsroom figures, notably includingÂ TimesÂ executive editor Dean Baquet, arguing that their outlets had done nothing wrong.
âIf you get email correspondence of newsworthiness from any source, you have an obligation to publish it, assuming it’s true, which in this case it was. You have an obligation to publish it,â BaquetÂ saidÂ on NPR. âAnd if a powerful figure writes emails that are newsworthy, you’ve just got to publish them.â
Baquet presents a false choice between hiding vital information from the public and behaving exactly as media outlets did during the 2016 election — one thatÂ seemsÂ toÂ appealÂ to otherÂ TimesÂ political reporters. This formulation ignores a third option — that the failure wasnât that news outlets had published emails stolen by a hostile source, but that the scope of their coverage greatly exceeded the actual news value of the emails. The hacked email coverage is one of a series of cases in whichÂ poor editorial judgmentÂ led to an overwhelming focus on Clinton email-related purported scandals instead ofÂ pressing policy issues.
Thereâs a reason that critics of media coverage of the Russia-hacked emails fixate on theÂ revelation of Podestaâs risotto recipeÂ — itâs a perfect encapsulation of the sort ofÂ small-bore âscoopâ that journalists discoveredÂ when rooting through the documents that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign chair. There were valid stories in the lot, but none of them detailed the sort of illegal behavior or sinister scandal one might have expected from the tone and volume of the coverage. Instead, âThe dominant feature of the emails was their ordinariness,â as theÂ Timesâ David Leonhardt explained in a column last May.
Given how mundane the emails were, journalists should have given their content much less attention, while making the fact that they had been released as part of an effort by a hostile foreign government to sway the election an essential part of their reporting. Thatâs how French reporters would later treat the release of âspectacularly mundaneâ emails stolen from Emmanuel Macronâs 2017 campaign for president of France. Itâs also how theÂ Miami HeraldÂ treatedÂ hacked internal Democratic campaign documents — finding them “embarrassing” but unenlightening, the paper published only two articles about them, one of which highlighted in its first sentence that the documents seemed to have beenÂ obtained by Russian hackers.
âThe overhyped coverage of the hacked emails was the mediaâs worst mistake in 2016 â one sure to be repeated if not properly understood,â Leonhardt concluded a year ago. It wonât be long until we find out if journalists will repeat that failure. âThere should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,â Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsÂ testifiedÂ in February, one of theÂ numerousÂ national securityÂ expertsÂ to warn that Russian election meddling will continue.
Chozickâs memoir provides a new opportunity to consider their past errors and strive for a better process as the 2018 elections loom. Reporters wonât be âunwitting agent[s] of Russian intelligenceâ again — the next document dump intended to warp the democratic process will come after plenty of warnings. If major media outlets want to avoid becomingÂ wittingÂ agents of a foreign power, they need to consider what happened in 2016 and develop processes that make that less likely. And it would behoove them to tell their readers and viewers up front how they plan to cover stolen documents going forward.
Maybe then weâll be spared future attempts by reporters to explain why they always “chose the byline.â