For all the recent focus on the social media campaigns Russia waged during the 2016 election, it’s surprising that more attention hasn’t been paid to what was arguably a much more effective aspect of the influence operation: the hacking and release of Democratic National Committee emails.
In one high-profile 2016 media postmortem, The New York Times came to a startling conclusion. “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and [Clinton campaign chairman John] Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence,” the paper wrote.
In fact, the emails were a media obsession, driven by bad habits the press has adopted in recent years. As coverage of the 2020 campaign begins, we look back at what went wrong in 2016 and how reporters can resolve to do better in the new year.
During the final five weeks of the 2016 campaign, evening and prime-time cable news aired nearly 250 segments about the DNC and Podesta emails. Broadcast TV news didn’t fare so well, either, running 25 segments. Five of the country’s top newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) published a combined 96 articles on the topic during that same span. Though President Donald Trump insists that the emails had “absolutely no effect on the outcome” of the election -- which isn’t exactly quantifiable either way -- it’s worth noting that he thought they were enough of a selling point that he mentioned them 164 times during the final month of the campaign.
If you're in possession of sensitive documents you want to leak, and you want to inflict maximal damage on a candidate, the recipe for injuring their campaign is obvious: Don't let the “wound” close. Keep dripping out emails, knowing perfectly well that a) the media will report that a new batch of emails has been leaked, and b) that very few people will actually take the trouble to read them, but will notice that time is not healing the thing, and the bleeding continues, cycle after cycle after cycle.
The damage, however, was extraordinary. WikiLeaks' slow-release approach forced journalists to cover each batch as new “revelations,” even when there wasn't much to actually cover. Having learned through bitter experience that few Americans would bother to actually read them, WikiLeaks sprinkled emails into the news cycle and gave Americans the impression of a campaign wound so deep it couldn't heal. While Donald Trump rapid-cycled through scandals that seemed not to stick because they were so quickly displaced by fresh ones, “the emails” lingered in the public eye.
The only reason Assange’s curated, slow-burn release strategy worked to its intended effect was that American media were eager to lap up the new information, reporting the anodyne as well as the legitimately newsworthy. This created a cloud of suggested scandal which hovered through Election Day.
If news organizations fail to honestly evaluate their flaws and implement changes ahead of 2020, they’ll be responsible for the spread of more misinformation.
Self-criticism is difficult, but it is also necessary. On December 15, 2016, two days after the aforementioned Times report, the paper published another article on the emails, but this one collected quotes from editors across the country defending the coverage.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet is quoted:
“I get the argument that the standards should be different if the stuff is stolen and that should influence the decision,’’ he said in an interview. “But in the end, I think that we have an obligation to report what we can about important people and important events. There’s just no question that the email exchanges inside the Democratic Party were newsworthy.”
Setting aside the question of whether it’s ethical to publish information illegally obtained by a hostile foreign power -- there are certainly strong arguments to be made on both sides -- there’s the bigger question of how media should cover that material and what qualifies as newsworthy. Sometimes a risotto recipe is just a risotto recipe, you know?
In the case of the DNC emails, the mere existence of leaked emails was treated as a scandal in itself. For the most part, the emails were the kinds of things you might find if you could scroll through any large organization’s communications: petty arguments, office politics, the airing of personal grievances, and so on. While some revealed small-scale scandals, such as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile sharing topics to be covered at a CNN town hall with the Clinton campaign, most of it just didn’t live up to the hype -- and oh, there was a lot of hype.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks would often publish out-of-context information intended to make it seem as though something nefarious was happening behind the scenes at the DNC. Yes, the emails were real, but they often didn’t say what WikiLeaks suggested they did.
Hindsight is always 20/20, at least eventually.
In July 2018, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple checked back in on the subject of email coverage, interviewing news outlets about “whether they regretted reporting on the email leaks.” With a bit more distance from the election, there was room for a more honest and less defensive evaluation from media executives. One quote from his article that caught my eye came from the Times’ Baquet. The contrast between this and his December 2016 opinion was stark. Here’s what he said (emphasis mine):
First off, we didn’t know then what we know now. 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.
The stories that came from the emails were newsworthy. Not only Donna Brazile’s question sharing, but the details of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, speeches she had declined to make public. Imagine if we had chosen not to publish those emails at the time, interesting details about a presidential candidate in the middle of an election. That would have been a political act. Of course one cringes reading the details of the indictment. But one of the imperfections of journalism is that you have to publish based on what you know at the time.
Baquet’s acknowledgement is important, but it still doesn’t suggest that he’d have done anything different at the time, leaving me wondering what will happen during future elections -- especially given the state of the media industry today.
The press serves an important role in democracy, but industry conditions have made that increasingly difficult.
While the handling of hacked emails was probably the most glaring mistake in 2016 election coverage, it was far from the only shortcoming in political media. For that, we may have the industry and its business model to blame.
According to Pew Research, more than one-third of U.S. newspapers laid off journalists between January 2017 and April 2018. In that same span, nearly one-quarter of the top digital news organizations did the same. Between 2008 and 2017, total newsroom employment has ticked down 23 percent, from 114,000 to 88,000 employees nationwide. It’s an industry in crisis, facing mounting struggles when it comes to monetizing its work. Staying afloat increasingly relies on traffic driven by social media, which means trying to game the various algorithms. Those algorithms tend to reward the emotionally charged and sensational, but not necessarily the true. As they adapted to survive, news outlets developed some extremely bad habits. Let’s resolve to break them now, especially as 2020 election coverage begins.
To break bad habits, we must first acknowledge what they are. Below, I’ve listed a few examples of common mistakes that journalists and news consumers alike should be able to easily identify:
- Leave outrage bait behind. If the only reason you’re saying something is that you think you’ll get a reaction out of others, or if you have to pull something so far out of context that it doesn’t even resemble the truth, you’re not really saying much at all.
- Avoid bad polling. If you ever see a poll that just happens to confirm your beliefs a little too much, take a second and look at the methodology. Who was polled? What was the polling method? Is it an outlier? How were the questions phrased? Bad polling goes hand-in-hand with the previous point about outrage bait. For instance, a recent poll suggested that there are people clamoring for a “gender-neutral Santa.” You may be shocked to learn that’s not the case, and that a single survey offered a multiple choice question about how you would modify Santa if you had to “modernize” him (such as giving him an iPhone, tattoos, making him skinnier, restyling his hair, and so on). There were also headlines claiming a poll shows 40 percent of college students are anti-free speech, and pieces about a bizarre poll that might not actually exist showing Kid Rock leading in a hypothetical election against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
- Bring back boring (and accurate) headlines. You have 280 characters on Twitter -- use them! The overwhelming majority of people who see a tweet or a headline will not click on it, but they may remember what it said. That’s why it’s so important to add necessary context. If you have to mislead readers to increase the number of clicks you receive, you’re probably not telling a very interesting story to begin with.
- Avoid rhetorical empty calories. If you find yourself using ambiguous buzzwords like “political correctness” or “identity politics,” consider swapping in another word or phrase to help make your point more clear to your audience. NPR recently combined bad polling and rhetorical empty calories when it asked respondents whether they consider political correctness a problem. Without defining the term, which is almost always used in a negative connotation, people unsurprisingly responded that yes, they did think political correctness was an issue.
- Not every local story or minor controversy needs to be blown up into a national news story. Did a couple of radio stations decide not to play “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in December? Sure. Is that a sign of some gigantic national trend worthy of our anger and outrage? Absolutely not. Keep an eye out for “trend” stories that seem to be based on just a handful of incidents.
- Remember that pundits aren’t representative of all people. People who get paid to talk about politics on TV (or at least invited to do so on a regular basis) tend to be there because they are, first and foremost, at least somewhat entertaining to watch. After all, what’s the fun in watching two people discuss the nuances of policy when you could draw more viewers by broadcasting a nightly shouting match between two people on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum?
- Conduct challenging, even confrontational, interviews. Reporters are tuned into political media, but a lot of readers might not be. Catching a clip of a congressional candidate on the local news or listening to someone explain the details of a policy proposal on a Sunday morning talk show might be some of the only background consumers get, so make it count! If someone tells a lie, correct them; if the interviewee veers off topic, steer the conversation back as quickly as you can.
One month after the 2016 election, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center released an analysis of campaign coverage. For people actually interested in learning about policy differences between candidates, the findings were especially disappointing. Forty-two percent of news stories from mid-August onward were dedicated to horserace-style coverage and punditry, and 17 percent centered on controversies. Just 10 percent were about policy, 4 percent on personal traits, and 3 percent devoted to the candidates’ leadership and experience qualifications.
“The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel,” reads one of the report’s most memorable lines. That needs to change.