In this final installment of a four-part series deconstructing how the U.S. political press hastened the movement towards a post-truth America, I explain why WikiLeaks matters and what that says about the failure of journalism during Election 2016.

[Background: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.]


Aggressive Reporting Is Not The Same As Journalism

In her Brookings article, Susan Glasser of Politico applauded the “aggressive reporting” done by the media during Election 2016:

If ever there were a campaign that called for aggressive reporting, this one did, and it produced terrific examples of investigative, public service-minded journalism at its best.

[…]

Between Trump’s long and checkered business past, his habit of serial lying, his voluminous and contradictory tweets, and his revision of even his own biography, there was lots to work with. No one can say that Trump was elected without the press telling us all about his checkered past. Or about Hillary Clinton’s for that matter; her potential conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation, six-figure Wall Street speeches, and a secret email server were, in my view, rightfully scrutinized by the media. It’s just the kind of stuff we got into journalism to do.

As I discussed in previous parts of this series, the Clinton email story and the Clinton Foundation stories were classic examples of the media wrongly equating “aggressive reporting” with journalism. What “aggressive reporting” amounted to in many of these stories was not much more than stenography and copy/paste reproduction of email snippets or propagating he-said, she-said claims. There was little attempt in many cases to forcefully separate innuendo from reality, to present all the relevant facts based on due diligence, and to include relevant context to make sure that audiences accurately understood the facts as well as their significance.

The wrong belief that “aggressive reporting” — sometimes referred to as “adversarial journalism” — is automatically equivalent to “good journalism” is not unique to the mainstream media (MSM). Alternative media outlets often suffer from the same delusion. However, the disproportionate influence exerted by the MSM makes their bad practices far more impactful.

One of the consequences of this type of “journalism” is that the public loses its ability to tell the difference between stories of great significance from those that are the opposite. Let me repeat what Prof. Thomas Patterson said, in discussing the results of the Election 2016 media coverage study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center:

Negative news has partisan consequences. Given that journalists bash both sides, it might be thought the impact would be neutral. It’s not. For one thing, indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.

False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting. When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.

To delve a bit deeper into this topic, I will use a major election story — WikiLeaks — to illustrate how “aggressive reporting” can systematically mislead the public. It is a story that Glasser conveniently forgot to mention, given Politico covered it using a permanent live blog dedicated to the topic.

WikiLeaks, Russia, and Why It Mattered

1. WikiLeaks and the Russian Hack

WikiLeaks is a foreign organization that has spread many false stories, doxxed millions of innocent people, and openly targeted Hillary Clinton for defeat in 2016 — to the point where even some of their longtime supporters started to criticize them. In 2016, WikiLeaks released large numbers of illegally hacked emails of DNC employees and Clinton campaign aides over a period of many months, deliberately timed to start just before the Democratic National Convention and ending around Election Day. The hacking, and the emails that were released, had nothing whatsoever to do with Clinton’s private email server that housed her work emails during her tenure at the State Department. The analysis of private experts and numerous U.S. intelligence agencies indicates that Russian intelligence and the Russian government were behind the hacks.

This graphic by the New York Times outlines the current understanding of how those hacked documents made it to the public:

2. Russia’s End Game

Russia has been funding anti-Democratic hackers and activists to spread disinformation campaigns across the globe for a long time. Their goals are to destabilize Western democracies, ideally replace them with pro-Putin far right nationalist governments, and solidify Russia’s power and influence across the world. WikiLeaks has often been helped by Russia and serves as a great vehicle for Russia to achieve their ends.

Here is well-known Russian democracy activist and former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov explaining how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “global propaganda” machinery operates:

3. WikiLeaks’ Motive #1: Suppress the Pro-Clinton Vote

A key motive for WikiLeaks was to target supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to make them wrongly believe the falsehood that the DNC and the Clinton campaign had corruptly rigged the primary in favor of Clinton. In fact, some Sanders supporters unveiled a pro-WikiLeaks banner during the Democratic National Convention — exactly the kind of division that WikiLeaks was looking to foment.

Here is how WikiLeaks worked:

  • First, they published hacked emails that deceptively looked damaging to those who had no time to research the emails or the full context behind them.
  • Second, specific words, phrases, or sentences were taken out of context and highlighted to falsely make the content seem nefarious or corrupt.
  • Third, they enlisted a very willing, compliant press corps to distribute their propaganda in the form of misleading headlines, social media posts, and stories.
  • Fourth, when challenged, they used the argument that the emails were “not fake” — a tactic that compliant media organizations reinforced by claiming that anything not fake was “newsworthy.”

One simple example of how emails from WikiLeaks were used to deceive the public is the use of controversial quotes from random people in the emails, many not even working for or affiliated with the Clinton campaign, in order to falsely imply that Clinton wrote or agreed with those words. I captured dozens of other examples of how the public was deceived using these and other techniques — specifically by misrepresenting, lying about, or misleading the public about Clinton and her campaign. The overall objective was to deceive Sanders supporters and make them angry enough to abandon Clinton in the general election. It was also to flood the public with deceptive claims in order to, as Kasparov said, “annihilate truth”:

WikiLeaks’ goal would be achieved if some Sanders supporters decided to not vote at all on the presidential ballot, to vote for a third party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, to write in Sanders’ name, or possibly even vote for Trump. Needless to say, despite WikiLeaks’ history of lies and doxxing millions of innocent people, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were warmly embraced by Jill Stein. In the end, Clinton lost just enough votes from young people (Sanders’ strongest base), especially to third-party candidates, that it made a material difference to her in swing states like PA, MI, and WI — and handed the electoral college to Trump. It is more than likely that tens of thousands of voters in numerous states were swayed by propaganda tied to WikiLeaks and voted for third parties — or did not vote at all on the Presidential ballot — instead of choosing Clinton.

4. WikiLeaks’ Motive #2: Boost the Pro-Trump Vote

An additional motive for WikiLeaks was to make independents and Republicans choose Trump. Given most Trump voters were voting in opposition to Clinton, making Clinton seem terrible in comparison to Trump was important. Naturally, WikiLeaks supporters on the right used deceptive phrases and clips from some of the hacked emails to manufacture numerous falsehoods about Clinton’s policy positions (e.g., on trade, immigration, ISIS), alleged corruption, and more. Needless to say, the MSM and some alternative-left media played an important role in helping some of WikiLeaks’ dissemination as well — primarily in cases where quotes or documents were considered “not fake.”

5. Trump Campaign Connections

There is a very important similarity between the WikiLeaks/Russia intervention through 2016 and the FBI/James Comey intervention against Clinton that occurred in late October 2016. As I discussed in Part 3, there is solid evidence that the Trump campaign had direct links inside the FBI and knew about Comey’s action a couple of days beforehand:

Not only that, there were contemporaneous reports that rogue, anti-Clinton FBI agents were behind Comey’s action — which, if true, would imply a naked, partisan attempt by U.S. government employees to prevent Clinton from winning. There was also strong evidence of direct collusion between some anti-Clinton FBI agents and the Trump campaign via Rudy GiulianiTaken together, there was more than adequate evidence to view this as a serious “dirty tricks” operation that violated historical Justice Department precedent.

Likewise, the Trump campaign had direct connections to WikiLeaks (not to mention Russia) and knew about WikiLeaks’ plans in advance:

Moreover, Trump directly urged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails:

Trump also openly said he loved WikiLeaks:

Others in the Trump’s circle, like Monica Crowley, were likewise suggesting Russia should hack Clinton:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/809527892459790339

Many Trump supporting Republicans also argued that the Russian hack was a good thing:

No wonder Trump has shown no interest in taking the Russian hacking seriously. Instead, he continues to challenge the conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies, an unprecedented act for a president-elect that also nicely aligns with the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stands to benefit the most if the U.S. intelligence community is sidelined by the incoming President:

The big picture here is that two historically unprecedented major interventions occurred against only one candidate (Clinton) during Election 2016. One was domestic in nature (FBI/Comey) and the other was international (WikiLeaks/Russia). Alarmingly, advance notice of both interventions was available to the Trump campaign — i.e., the opponent of the person against whom the interventions were directed. Most of the media’s reaction was, instead, to blatantly, deceptively, and falsely weaponize those interventions against Clinton.

What is worse, when there was evidence prior to the election indicating Russia was intervening to help Trump win, that information was suppressed in a key New York Times article, citing the FBI:

Instead, private gossip and out-of-context claims were prioritized over the larger story:

6. The Parallels with ClimateGate

Election 2016 was not the first time that a shady foreign organization had targeted U.S. persons in a massive disinformation operation (dezinformatsiya in Russian). What WikiLeaks did was in fact no different from what anonymous hackers did in 2009 and 2011 to try to defame and falsely discredit internationally respected climate scientists, shortly before U.N. Climate Change Conferences. The resulting fake scandal was given the name “ClimateGate” by many climate deniers. The motivations, foreign (Russian) connections, strategy and tactics — between what was done in 2009/2011 and in 2016 — had a significant number of similarities.

7. Reliance on Media Malpractice

Despite all of that publicly available history, many in the media simply did not care. They proceeded to apply their so-called “aggressive reporting” as willful participants — i.e., pawns — in a well-planned, large-scale disinformation op linked closely to the Russian government.

Even setting aside the serious ethical issues with participating in such an effort, or the far more damaging effects on politics and democracy, as the respected journalist Zeynep Tufecki outlined, it was fascinating to see critiques of inaccurate media coverage on WikiLeaks being met with the justification that the emails were “not fake” and therefore “newsworthy.” Others laughably claimed that the media was pro-Clinton and did a lot of debunking in real time. In reality, many of us simply ran out of time chronicling the huge number of false or deceptive stories generated using “not fake” emails released by WikiLeaks.

8. How Deceptive Propaganda Spreads

To understand how a propaganda operation like WikiLeaks works, we can use one prominent example which made considerable news: The case of Donna Brazile, member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). According to one of the illegally hacked emails released by WikiLeaks, Brazile allegedly passed on a debate question to the Clinton campaign before a Democratic Primary debate in Michigan with Sanders. Trump and the GOP latched on to this email to attack Clinton and the Democratic party.

Brazile was neither the head of the DNC at the time, nor was her forwarding an email “illegal” — but it was undoubtedly wrong. However, much of the context around that incident was largely ignored by many in the media in order to create the false impression that the Clinton campaign somehow benefited unfairly from Brazile’s email. Worse, this email was used widely to feed the fake propaganda about how the Democratic primary was allegedly “rigged” in favor of Clinton by the DNC. In reality, here are facts that most people never heard about:

(a) The question that Brazile allegedly circulated was about how Clinton would help people affected by the lead poisoning in Flint, MI. Yet, this was a question Clinton had already been asked numerous times before. Not only had she answered the question before, she had also worked actively to get help to Flint residents long before this question was sent to her campaign by Brazile.

(b) The debate scheduled for the day after the email was sent was in Flint, MI — where both candidates already knew this exact question was going to come up quite prominently.

(c) Shortly after that debate, Sanders went on to win the Michigan primary by +1.5 percent even though pre-election polls showed him trailing in MI by ~18 percent!

(d) Clinton’s campaign could easily have advanced a baseless claim that the MI primary was “rigged” in favor of Sanders, given the massive discrepancy with pre-election polls, but to their lasting credit they never did.

A lot of that context was either omitted or downplayed in news stories about the Brazile email. The result was that voters — especially strong Sanders supporters who disliked Clinton — were further misled about the significance of that email. This was very similar to how hacked emails of climate scientists in 2009/2011 were reproduced in the media without full context, thereby creating a false perception of scandal. Back then, the goal was to make the American public wrongly believe that climate scientists were suppressing contrary research and that climate change was therefore not real.

That is not all.

(e) The Brazile email was one of a handful of other such emails of DNC members that were weaponized by WikiLeaks and their allies in the media to falsely imply that the DNC and Clinton corruptly “rigged” the Democratic primary. Yet, as other writers looked at those same emails — including ones that prompted some resignations in the DNC just before the Democratic convention — it became very clear that aside from some inappropriate private email exchanges, there was absolutely no “rigging” of any kind. In other words, a few people said some things to each other in private but did nothing to compromise any of the actual primaries or races in any way. How do we know? Well, from the actual election results.

(f) There were hardly any stories in the media pointing out that it was ONLY caucuses that were organized by the Democratic party and Sanders won most of them by huge double-digit margins. Any “rigging” by the DNC must have been extraordinarily incompetent for them to have allowed Sanders to win massive victories in the Democratic caucuses. In fact, when two states (NE and WA) held both caucuses and primaries, Sanders won the caucuses but Clinton won the primaries — but those primaries never counted for any delegates. Clinton never claimed those states were “rigged” against her.

It was well known that the undemocratic nature of low-turnout caucuses suppresses voter turnout, given Clinton had already been impacted by this in her 2008 campaign. Once again, in 2016, caucuses worked to Clinton’s disadvantage. Clinton could easily have argued that the DNC, by supporting caucuses in numerous states, “rigged” those races against Clinton — but to her credit she never did. In contrast, higher-turnout primaries were organized by state governments, not the DNC — and many more primaries were won by Clinton than by Sanders.

(g) Moreover, hardly any media organizations took the trouble to systematically debunk dozens of deceptive and false allegations about DNC “rigging,” advanced by a few pro-Sanders writers during the primary. A detailed analysis of all these myriad claims showed that the “rigging” allegations were grossly misleading and often simply false.

Regretfully, some of the “rigging” claims were fueled in part by dangerously irresponsible rhetoric against the DNC from Sanders and some of his top surrogates during the primary. What WikiLeaks, Trump, and the GOP did in the general election, aided by the media, was to pick up that rhetoric and falsely amplify them to dissuade Sanders voters from voting for Clinton.

The Brazile/DNC example gives you a small window into the massive, months-long, pro-Trump propaganda operation by WikiLeaks and Russia — and how the media’s notion of “aggressive reporting” led mostly to the amplification of the propaganda as opposed to debunking it. This directly exposed the complete hollowness of “aggressive reporting” and “adversarial journalism” — indeed, some of it bordered on yellow journalism. Writer Scott Lemieux summarized the media’s behavior thusly:

….We certainly know from the fact that the information targeted only one party, how it was sold, and what was excluded (as a commenter points out, no emails with oppo research on Trump) that Wikileaks was trying to throw the election to Trump. Not only do we know that now, it was blindingly obvious at the time.

Like the Comey scandal, this is really a media scandal. As Yglesias says, ‘Russian hackers could steal Podesta’s emails but it took an ideologically diverse set of American writers to misrepresent what they said…Whoever stole them for whatever reason, the vast bulk of the damage was done by irresponsible reporting not the hack per se.’ 100% correct.  And while the relentless hyping of inane trivia as if it was a major scandal is particularly irritating coming from media organs of the ostensible left, the relentless hyping of inane trivia as if it was a major scandal by media outlets like the Washington Post was surely much more consequential.

Does this mean that the leaks shouldn’t have been reported on? No. But they should have been reported on with an appropriate skepticism given the obvious agenda behind them. To put it mildly, they weren’t. As with the Clinton Foundation stories, once reporters invested enough time they were unwilling to write stories that just said ‘we looked and there’s nothing here.’ And by carefully portioning out the emails to ensure a steady drip of stories, Wikileaks played the media beautifully. But reporters and editors have agency: they didn’t have to be the cat’s paw of what was at least a libertarian ratf***ing operation. They chose to.

Fake News

If you read all four parts of my series, you would have seen plenty of evidence for why I believe deceptive or false “legitimate news” — from mainstream media — is the biggest threat to American democracy. Most journalists are good people, but the rules governing modern journalism — such as an emphasis on speed and false balance/equivalence, a lack of focus on accuracy, mistaking access for significance, weaponizing transparency against some people and downplaying the opaqueness of bullies — have driven journalism into a deep ditch.

How did Politico’s Glasser address any of this? With a complete lack of self-awareness, and lamenting the rise of partisan and fake news outlets:

Pew found that nearly 50 percent of self-described conservatives now rely on a single news source, Fox, for political information they trust. As President Obama has famously observed, ‘If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either.’ As for the liberals, they trust only that they should never watch Fox, and have MSNBC and Media Matters and the remnants of the big boys to confirm their biases. And then there are the conspiracy-peddling Breitbarts and the overtly fake-news outlets of this overwhelming new world; untethered from even the pretense of fact-based reporting, their version of the campaign got more traffic on Facebook in the race’s final weeks than all the traditional news outlets combined.

That is what I call deflection. It is a somewhat more moderate form of the gaslighting by the Public Editor of the New York Times, Liz Spayd, best summarized by the title of this article:

NY Times Public Editor Says Problem With Paper’s Election Coverage Is It Was Too Mean To Trump Supporters

Here is why Glasser’s deflection is completely misleading.

(a) Few would deny that partisan media sometimes propagate misleading or false claims. Fake news is clearly a problem, as I have discussed. But the wealth of data from Election 2016 — some of it discussed in this four-part series — made it quite clear that what has been far more deadly to democracy is how mainstream media routinely deceive the public with misleading and false stories. These media outlets have the biggest reach and majorities of the public rely on them to provide them accurate information, which they are often not delivering. Matthew Yglesias at Vox summarized this appropriately:

Clinton’s problem was real news

While the Trump campaign was great for the fake news industry, the implication that fake news was critical to Trump’s electoral victory seems unsupported.

[…]

But it also seems clear that the impact of fake news, whatever it may have been, was minor compared with the impact — for good or for ill — of the traditional news media.

A team of researchers working for Gallup found that what Americans heard about Clinton during the campaign was overwhelmingly information related to emails. By contrast, they found, “Americans’ reports of what they have read, seen or heard about Donald Trump over this same period have been more varied and related to his campaign activities and statements.”

[…]

The stories about Clinton’s email server, the separate spate of stories about Clinton Foundation emails revealed through Freedom of Information Act requests, and the third spate of stories about emails stolen from John Podesta’s email account were not fake news.

They were very real stories that totally normal mainstream media organizations chose to make the focal point of their coverage of the 2016 campaign. This coverage, though extremely extensive, did an extraordinarily poor job of explaining the actual legal issue at stake in the server matter. Network television newscasts from ABC, NBC, and CBS chose to devote three times as much airtime to Clinton’s email server as they gave to all policy issues combined. The Associated Press ran a major investigative story into Clinton Foundation influence peddling that treated a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as evidence of an insidious pay-to-play scheme. The New York Times did a Clinton Foundation investigation that treated Bill Clinton successfully rescuing American hostages from North Korea as scandalous. The fact that public health experts believe the Clinton Foundation saved millions of lives, by contrast, played extremely little role in 2016 campaign coverage.

[…]

But it was real news from establishment outlets that made the difference in this campaign. It was CNN that decided to sideline its usual stable of conservative pundits in favor of a Trump-friendly roster of Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, and Corey Lewandowski. It was network television news that decided Clinton’s private email server was a more important thing to cover than the policy stakes in the 2016 election. It was the New York Times that decided to dedicate 100 percent of its above-the-fold space to articles about James Comey’s content-free letter updating Congress on the discovery of new evidence in the email case that turned out to amount to nothing.

This cartoon aptly describes the media’s behavior during Election 2016.

(b) Unlike “legitimate news” or “real news,” I have said for some time that it should be easy enough to develop tools to warn readers about fake news sites. Indeed, Facebook has just come out with some enhancements to support this effort. Likewise, the Washington Post has developed an innovative Chrome extension for Twitter that fact-checks Trump’s tweets. However, it is much more difficult to educate the public on the dozens of stories from the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets that seriously mislead readers into believing things that are plainly untrue.

(c) Often, fake news would be a harder sell in the absence of “legitimate news” that gives the fake news a veneer of plausibility. As was evident from a brief review of fake news during Election 2016, one of the reasons it resonated with conservatives is that some of those fake news stories built on top of myriad misleading stories about Clinton from legitimate news outlets. Moreover, when people in the media believe they have little responsibility in helping the public figure out the accuracy and significance of different “legitimate” stories, it makes the public cynical and assume that everything is equally bad. The natural result is something that Putin, Trump, and the GOP desperately want — an environment in which truth and facts become irrelevant.

Put simply, we can not solve the fake news problem effectively without solving the serious accuracy problems we have with real news.

Accountability Is Not For Us

Clearly, Glasser missed the obvious reason why many of the people most active in politics are increasingly drawn to partisan or ideological news sources: A strong lack of trust in the accuracy of mainstream media coverage. She wrongly concluded that there was no accountability moment in the election because she ignored that the impact of the media’s campaign coverage was to make it easier for Trump to defeat Clinton. In her concern over the lack of an accountability moment for Trump, it is ironic that she showed no interest whatsoever in holding her own profession accountable for their disastrous coverage through the election.

She is not alone in this. Indeed, it is intriguing that many in the U.S. media repeatedly claim the right to hold politicians accountable — but demonstrate no serious interest in ever holding themselves accountable. No wonder the U.S. increasingly resembles a banana republic.

Calls for media accountability will likely fall on deaf ears in many cases. Some of these media outlets are owned by large companies who directly benefited from giving Trump billions of dollars worth of free air-time, or signing deals to transmit Trump’s fabrications and propaganda unfiltered. This is why, for example, Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, said that Trump was good for business.

The profit motive is also evident from the hundreds of millions of dollars in ads that candidates often have to run in order to erase the distortion of their character and positions by the media themselves. This is a pernicious incentive model in the media world because it is completely to the media’s advantage to distort the public’s view of political candidates by not focusing on accuracy so that they can attract lucrative advertising from those same political candidates whose positions or character they distorted. This is partly why the CEO of Time Warner, Jeff Bewkes, falsely claimed that the Democrats — with their focus on campaign finance reform — were a much bigger threat to the press than Trump:

In other words, fixing the rampant media malpractice requires not just a willingness in the media to be accountable for their mistakes. It requires changing their model of journalism in a way that does not significantly impact the bottom line for their business, which is something executives at some of these media groups are likely to be concerned by. That is a daunting challenge for those who are trying to reform the media, but a huge amount of public pressure could work.

However, the public first needs to become aware of how their favorite mainstream media outlets seriously distort the public’s perceptions of candidates they supported. That has been the primary objective of this four-part series — to raise awareness and to point out that a “post-truth” America came to be primarily because of mainstream media, not because of fake news.

If you are interested in learning more about my recommendations on media reform, follow me on Twitter, where I will continue to talk about this important issue.


T.R. Ramachandran is a blogger on politics, policy and media, a longtime veteran of the tech industry and co-founder of Kanvz. You can follow his latest work on Twitter @yottapoint or on the web at electionado.com.