In the five weeks before the November 8 presidential election, evening cable and broadcast news, major newspapers, and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows combined to flood the media landscape with coverage of hacked emails released by Wikileaks, according to an analysis by Media Matters.
After its July release of emails that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee, Wikileaks released a daily stream of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta starting in early October.
Between October 4 and November 8, weekday evening cable news aired a combined 247 segments either about the emails or featuring significant discussion of them; evening broadcast news and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows aired a combined 25 segments; and five of the country’s most-circulated daily newspapers -- Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- published a combined 96 articles about the emails released by Wikileaks in their print editions.
Following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the U.S. intelligence community released a report with its assessment that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” The assessment, which represents the view of the 16 federal intelligence agencies, concluded “with high confidence” that as part of this effort, “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.”
In response to mounting evidence that Russia sought to swing the election in Trump’s favor, in part through allegedly releasing hacked emails through channels like Wikileaks, Trump and his allies have in recent months downplayed the impact of the hacks. Trump, who has repeatedly sought to de-emphasize Russia’s alleged role in the election-related hacking to begin with, has also argued that the hacks had “absolutely no effect on the outcome” of the election. As ThinkProgress noted, “This was not the view of candidate Trump, who talked about Wikileaks and the content of the emails it released at least 164 times in last month of the campaign.”
And Trump wasn’t alone.
Media Matters’ review shows that news media treated the emails released by Wikileaks a major news story in the lead-up to the election. (It’s important to note that this is only a quantitative study; Media Matters did not attempt to assess the quality of articles and news segments about the hacked emails. A segment or article criticizing coverage of the emails or highlighting suspicions about Russia’s potential involvement was counted the same as a segment or article breathlessly promoting the contents of the hacked emails.)
Data-driven news site Fivethirtyeight.com determined that the hacked emails released by Wikileaks were “almost exclusively an October story. Over 72 percent of people who searched for Wikileaks from June onward did so during October or the first week of November. Interest really got going with [Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief] Julian Assange’s press conference on Oct. 4.” We reviewed transcripts and articles beginning on October 4, when Assange first announced during a press conference that Wikileaks would release additional information pertaining to the election, through November 8, Election Day.
Evening cable news -- defined as shows airing weekdays from 5 p.m. through 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC -- devoted massive coverage to the Wikileaks story, with Fox leading the way. In total, Fox News aired 173 segments over the course of the period studied. Fox also aired teasers 64 times to keep audiences hooked throughout broadcasts. The hacked emails were also mentioned in passing by a guest, correspondent, or host 137 times during additional segments about other topics.
Fox’s coverage was a near-daily obsession for its evening news hosts. Four of the six programs in the study ran at least one segment every weekday or nearly every weekday between October 7 and November 7. Special Report with Bret Baier ran segments every weekday between October 7 and November 4; On the Record with Brit Hume ran segments every weekday between October 7 and November 7; The Kelly File ran segments on all but four weekdays between October 7 and November 7 (and on those four days, Wikileaks was still mentioned in passing at least once); and Hannity ran segments nearly every weekday between October 7 and November 7 (excluding October 10 and 20, the latter of which featured at least one mention of the story).
CNN aired the second most Wikileaks coverage, with 57 segments teased to audiences 21 times and an additional 75 mentions during segments about other topics. MSNBC aired only 17 segments teased six times and tallied 23 mentions during additional segments. (MSNBC’s 6 p.m. hour, which at the time aired With All Due Respect, was not available in Nexis and was therefore excluded from this analysis).
On broadcast network news, the numbers are smaller, but over the course of the period studied, the networks each aired a significant number of segments on their evening news programs and Sunday morning political talk shows. ABC programs World News Tonight and This Week with George Stephanopoulos devoted the most coverage to the Wikileaks emails, with 10 segments and five mentions during additional segments combined. CBS’ Evening News and Face the Nation with John Dickerson followed, with nine segments and three mentions during additional segments combined. NBC’s Nightly News and Meet the Press with Chuck Todd aired just six segments and 12 mentions during additional segments combined.
The five major newspapers we studied each published numerous articles in their print editions (we did not include online coverage) about the Wikileaks emails in the month before the election, but three stood out from the rest. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal each published 27 articles about the emails and mentioned them in 26 and 10 other articles, respectively. The Washington Post was the third paper in this group with 26 articles about the Wikileaks emails published and mentions in 14 additional articles.
USA Today published 11 articles about the Wikileaks emails and mentioned them in three other articles while Los Angeles Times ran just five stories and mentioned the Wikileaks emails in only seven other articles.
As was the case with Trump, conservative media figures who hyped and encouraged reporting on hacked emails quickly adjusted their views on the significance of the hacked emails during the presidential transition period. After touting the release of the stolen emails, credulously reporting on numerous illegally obtained emails published by Wikileaks, encouraging Trump to “just read” the stolen emails at campaign rallies, advising Trump to “study Wikileaks,” and repeatedly providing a platform for Assange to promote the publication of the stolen emails, right-wing media figures downplayed the influence the disclosure of the emails had on the 2016 campaign. Taking the lead from Trump's transition team, some right-wing media figures then argued that “no one can articulate or specify in any way that” the publication of the private emails “affected the outcome of our election.”
Although right-wing media figures have claimed that there is “no indication that” the publication of the private emails “affected the election,” the breathless reporting on the contents of the Wikileaks disclosures by media outlets played into the hands of the Russian government’s “influence efforts to … amplif[y] stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of Wikileaks in the election campaign,” according to the intelligence community’s report. Days after the first trove of private emails was published by Wikileaks, a group of former top national security officials and outside experts warned “the press … to be cautious in the use of allegedly ‘leaked’ information,” which “follows a well-known Russian playbook.”
The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum summarized the strategy in an interview with Slate months before the first disclosure of Podesta’s personal emails:
I didn’t think about the United States because I thought the United States is too big, American politics isn’t moved by these smaller amounts of money the way that Czech politics are or Polish politics are. But I hadn’t thought through the idea that of course through hacking, which is something they’re famously very good at, that they could try and disrupt a campaign. And of course the pattern of this is something we’ve seen before: There’s a big leak, it’s right on an important political moment, it affects the way people think about the campaign, and of course instead of focusing on who did the leak and who’s interest it’s in, everyone focuses on the details, what’s in the emails, what did so-and-so write to so-and-so on Dec. 27, and that’s all that gets reported.
The press could have seen this coming. On the August 24, 2016, edition of The Kelly File, then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly interviewed Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, who used the platform to hype the “material” Wikileaks planned to publish, and announced it would be released in “several batches.” Kelly asked Assange if he thought the information in his “possession could be a game changer in the US election.” Assange said the effectiveness of the release “depends on how it catches fire in the public and in the media.”
Media Matters reviewed the Nexis database for news transcripts and articles that mentioned Julian Assange or Wikileaks approximately within the same paragraph as variations on any of the following terms: Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Committee, DNC, or John Podesta. We included cable news networks’ weekday evening programming (5:00 p.m. through 11:00 p.m.) on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC; the evening news shows (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News) and Sunday morning political talk shows (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation with John Dickerson, and NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd) on ABC, CBS, and NBC; and five of the most-circulated daily print newspapers: Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. (MSNBC’s 6:00 p.m. hour, which hosted With All Due Respect was not available in Nexis and was therefore excluded from the analysis).
Data-driven news analysis website Fivethrityeight.com determined the hacked emails released by Wikileaks “was almost exclusively an October story. Over 72 percent of people who searched for Wikileaks from June onward did so during October or the first week of November. Interest really got going with Julian Assange’s press conference on Oct. 4.” Therefore, we reviewed articles beginning on October 4, 2016, when Assange first announced during a press conference that Wikileaks would release additional information pertaining to the election, through November 8, 2016, Election Day.
For television, we coded as “segments” news segments where the hacked emails released by Wikileaks were the stated topic of discussion, and we also coded as “segments” when signification discussion about the hacked emails from Wikileaks occurred during segments with a different initially stated topic or during multi-topic segments. We defined significant discussion as at least two or more speakers discussing the hacked emails to one another during the course of the segment. We determined the start of a segment to be when the show’s host introduced either the topic or guests and determined the end of a segment to be when the show’s host concluded discussion or bid farewell to the show’s guests.
We coded as “mentions” comments made by a speaker about the hacked emails without any other speaker in the segment engaging. We coded as “teasers” introductions by the host of upcoming segments on the hacked emails where the segment in question did not immediately follow.
For print, we coded as “articles” news stories and opinion pieces where the hacked emails were mentioned in the headline or the lead of the story or article. If the hacked emails were used as a piece of evidence within a larger story or used to provide context, those were coded as “mentions within an article.”