Of Course the NY Times Should Have Reported on the Hacked Clinton Emails

In an adapted excerpt of her new book "Chasing Hillary" published in the New York Times, the paper's political reporter Amy Chozick flirts with the idea that maybe the media never should have covered the hacked DNC and Clinton campaign emails during the 2016 election.

Here's how she describes the decision to cover the John Podesta emails the day they were published by WikiLeaks:

Editors and reporters huddled to discuss how to handle the emails. Everyone agreed that since the emails were already out there — and of importance to voters — it was The Times’s job to "confirm" and "contextualize" them. I didn’t argue that it appeared the emails were stolen by a hostile foreign government that had staged an attack on our electoral system. I didn’t push to hold off on publishing them until we could have a less harried discussion. I didn’t raise the possibility that we’d become puppets in Vladimir Putin’s master plan. I chose the byline.

Later when naming the mysterious and amorphous forces that in Clinton's view would "never allow" her to be president, Chozick cites herself:

They were Fake News drummed up by Vladimir Putin’s digital army. They were shadowy hackers who stole her campaign chairman’s emails hoping to weaken our democracy with Mr. Podesta’s risotto recipe. And they were The Times and me and all the other journalists who covered those stolen emails.

Chozick never overtly comes out and says it was wrong for her and the Times to cover the hacked emails, but she is not particularly subtle about hinting that it was. Countless Clinton partisans have advanced this argument, but it's distressing to see a journalist supporting it. If the Times had knowingly chosen to ignore publicly available information about the leading presidential candidate, it would've been journalistic malpractice of the highest order.

(For the record, I have not read Chozick's entire book, so I do not know if she backtracks or contextualizes her thoughts elsewhere in it. But given that she printed this excerpt in advance and under her byline, I think it's fair to say it probably accurately represents her views.)

To begin with, the days in which the nation's newspapers of record served as gatekeepers to which news the public would and would not consume are over. If Chozick had not reported on the hacked emails, I would've. If I hadn't, a dozen other conservative or Bernie Bro journalists would've. If every journalist in the world stayed mum, Trump surrogates and ordinary people on Twitter would've spread them.

One way or another, this story was going to reach the public. The only question was whether they'd enjoy the benefits of reporters providing context and dispassionate analysis, or whether they'd be forced to rely on the losers who thought every email was about a pizza restaurant sex ring. I'm glad Chozick did an excellent job providing us the former.

What does Chozick think the Times should have done when the revelations in the emails started to have real world political consequences? It's difficult to imagine a piece on the firing of Donna Brazile or the White House pushing back against the revelation that Obama was aware that Clinton was using a private email server that in no way alludes to the content of the Podesta emails. If the Times had initially refused to cover the emails, it would've gone as well as the Huffington Post's initial refusal to cover Trump in their politics section. Eventually, reality wins.

But let's entertain the larger argument that it was unethical for the Times to publish the emails, given that they were stolen and part of a Russian influence campaign. If so, that journalistic standard has managed to elude both the Grey Lady and nearly every other paper of note for decades.

As far back as the Pentagon Papers, there has been a general agreement that it's ethical for papers to publish documents of public importance that have been unlawfully obtained, as long as reporters do not actively encourage lawbreaking. In practice this has most often meant publishing stories based on leaks, but long before the Podesta emails the media applied the same standard to hacked emails as well.

The Times in particular has published stories based on hacked emails from Sony executives, former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA director John Brennan, Internet security business HBGary Federal, the intelligence firm Stratfor, the sister of George W. Bush, and Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal. The case of the Sony email hack is illuminating, given that the U.S. government was quite vocal that it was likely perpetrated by the North Korean government, and Chozick's snark about Podesta's risotto aside, the content of those emails was obviously of far less national importance.

Likewise, the concerns about the Times "becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence" is amusing to those of us who have loudly and consistently pointed out that WikiLeaks has long been a de facto instrument of Russia. Even after Julian Assange literally became a Russian state employee, the Times had no qualms covering illegally leaked documents released by WikiLeaks that were damaging to the U.S. and its relationship with NATO allies.

Consistently, the Times has weighed the public's right to know about publicly available documents against ethical concerns about relying on malicious foreign actors or stolen data. Consistently, they've landed on the side of informing the public. If after publishing all those stories the Times had suddenly done a 180 when a Democratic presidential candidate was implicated, they would've been outing themselves as partisans.

An enemy of the United States hacked the infrastructure of one of its two major political parties in an attempt to swing an election. This was scandalous, and the Times is at the forefront of those doing great reporting on the issue. But there's no need for journalists to self-flagellate for the crime of doing our jobs.