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Opinion | Kathleen Hall Jamieson

What should the press learn from its use of Russian hacked content?

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‘The Mueller Report proves journalists were right” read a April 19 headline in Slate. “If some of the revelations in Robert S. Mueller III’s redacted report sound familiar,” noted a New York Times’ subtitle, “it’s because many of them were previously published by The New York Times and other news outlets.” Meanwhile, CNN’s Reliable Sources, touted the fact that CNN, The Washington Post, and the New York Times were cited 203 times in the report.

While self-congratulation has its place, it should not displace self-examination. Because it hid the identity of the reporters in question, one passage in the Mueller report may not draw the level of newsroom discussion that it deserves. “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,” it read.

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Importantly the Russian contacts with these unnamed journalists occurred in July and September — before the Oct. 7 joint statement by the director of national intelligence and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security that the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic accounts. Nonetheless, the Russian-press nexus flagged by Mueller raises the question, What should the press learn from its use of Russian hacked content in 2016?

The question is an important one because press amplification of the Russian-hacked content is a probable explanation for the October 2016 erosion in the public perception that Hillary Clinton was qualified to be president. Among the press lapses at play during that period were inadequate disclosure of sources and sundering hacked statements from context.

The failure to adequately disclose was on display as early as summer 2016, when Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who was herself the object of a 2015 Russian smear campaign for her writings about the Russian invasion of Crimea, cautioned about it. Most “of those covering this story, especially on television, aren’t interested in the nature of the hackers, and they aren’t asking why the Russians apparently chose to pass the e-mails on to WikiLeaks at this particular moment, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention,” she wrote, “They are focusing instead on the content of what were meant to be private e-mails.” Unsurprisingly, then, the press largely sidelined the statement by national intelligence and Homeland Security that the Russians were behind the hacking. In the subsequent news coverage and in the final two debates, the illegal Russian provenance of the stolen content was all but ignored by journalists.

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In the process, instead of casting the purloined Democratic communications as “stolen,” “hacked,” or “illegally gotten” the go-to label for reporters was “leaked. ” At the same time, rather than sourcing them either to Russian operatives or to fugitive from justice Julian Assange, they were credited to his organization, WikiLeaks.

To assess the impact, let me offer a thought experiment. Suppose instead of declaring “We’ve learned from WikiLeaks, that you said this,” in the third debate, moderator Chris Wallace had said, “We’ve learned from WikiLeaks, which is an organization created by Clinton-antagonist Julian Assange, an operative she sought to prosecute for disclosing classified government documents.” Or alternatively, “My next question is based on stolen Democratic materials, whose accuracy we have been unable to verify, gotten by Russian hackers through cyber-theft.” Had such characterizations been top of mind, I suspect that reporters would have been more careful in their use of the pirated content and viewers more prone to ask, “Why would the Russians and Assange want to defeat the Democratic nominee?”

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One injudicious use occurred when reporters joined the Republican nominee, Breitbart News, and Rush Limbaugh in asserting that, in a hacked segment of a closed-door speech, Clinton had unequivocally supported “open trade and open borders.” Instead, what she had said was, “My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”

Over 71 million viewers never heard the second part of that sentence when, in the final presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked her to “clear up your position on this issue because . . . we’ve learned from WikiLeaks, that you said this. And I want to quote. ‘My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.’ ” Because news reports and Wallace’s question both assumed that in private Clinton supported open trade and open borders, her protest that those words were out of context sounded disingenuous.

Importantly, “open borders” organized Trump’s central appeals into one resonant phrase that signaled: immigrants crossing our national boundaries to rape, murder, suppress wages, and steal jobs; trade policies that transformed working-class dreams into a nightmare; and terrorists threading their way toward a next 9/ 11. In short, a central Republican indictment of the Democratic nominee was legitimized by the problematic press use of Russian-stolen content. In “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President,” I show that those who viewed the third debate were more likely than those who didn’t to conclude that Clinton said one thing in public and another in private, an inference that predicts a reduced likelihood of projecting a vote for her. So too does the drop in her perceived competence.

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To ensure that past is not prologue, the nation’s news outlets would do well to promulgate policies regarding use of hacked materials that confirm that they will examine stolen, leaked material with care, tell their audiences whether it has been independently verified, and disclose relevant information about its origins. Doing so would not only prevent decision-making on the fly but also would warn aspiring hackers that future theft-and-release will not be rewarded in 2020 and beyond in the ways in which it was in 2016.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.”