Is it ethical for journalists to publish the stolen Clinton/DNC emails?

It’s time for the media to ask if it is ethical to keep publishing the contents of stolen emails, presumably hacked by Russian intelligence, and intended to swing the presidential election for Donald Trump.

In the last few days, we’ve had leaked (stolen) emails that purported to be the transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s speeches, and other emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

These aren’t the first stolen emails to be released. Earlier this year, we saw the publication of what are claimed to be nearly 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, and additional emails from the Clinton Foundation, among others.

The common thread in nearly all of the hacks is the intent to harm Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. This, and the fact that many of the hacks are now assumed to be the work of Russian intelligence, raises the question of whether US media and others should be helping to disseminate this stolen material.

1. But the information is newsworthy.

Yes, the information stolen from organizations and individuals associated with Hillary Clinton is certainly interesting. Also interesting would be files stolen from Hillary’s home or office, as would recordings from eavesdropping devices planted in her home, office and on her person. Would the media take such information and publish it?

2. Does intent matter?

The US government has now officially charged Russian intelligence with being behind many, and perhaps all, of these hacks. The Russian’s motive is to help Donald Trump win, and more generally to sow confusion surrounding the US elections. This raises two questions: 1) Should the media be wittingly doing the bidding of Russian intelligence; and 2) Is it ethical for the media to actively participate in a plan to swing the US election to one candidate.

While there would be ethical questions even were both candidates hacked, that would at least potentially level the playing field. In this case, the hacks are primarily against one candidate, and are intended to make that candidate lose at the ballot box. The fact that the stolen information is one-sided, and thus the media cannot be fair and equal in how its treats the information — there are no Trump emails to balance the Clinton emails — potentially raises a serious question of the overall fairness of the ongoing reporting.

3. Frequency of the leak.

There’s also something to be said about the frequency of the leaks. Perhaps — perhaps — one big leak might be newsworthy. But even were I to concede that point — and I don’t — this daily leaking of more stolen material is intended to disrupt the campaign coverage, continually throw Hillary off guard, and ultimately sway the voters to Trump.

It’s an interesting debate, since everyone leaks information to the media in an effort to help their candidate or cause. And if the information is newsworthy, the media runs with it. The difference in this case is that the information is stolen, and is part of a foreign intelligence operation to influence our election. That has to give the media additional pause.

4. Veracity of the stolen documents

Finally, who knows if any of these leaks are even real? I saw a leaked “Clinton speech” the other day that wasn’t even written in proper English. It was clear that a non-native speaker of English wrote the entire thing. So how does the media know whether any of these tens of thousands of documents are even real? Russian intelligence has likely buried a few particularly juicy, and utterly fake, pages inside those piles of stolen emails. How can the media possibly know what’s real and what isn’t?

And is it really fair to ask the Clinton campaign to sift through tens of thousands of pages of documents, one month before the election, to help the media verify what’s truth and what’s Russian dezinformatsiya? And for that matter, is it fair to publish the information simply because the campaign “had its chance” to deny the veracity and didn’t?

Eric Zorn with the Chicago Tribune weighed in on this issue as well:

Disseminating hacked email is abetting a crime in a way that offers encouragement and opportunity to future criminals.

And since there is strong suspicion that the Russians are WikiLeaks’ source for the DNC trove, that crime may be international espionage.

It would be a lot to ask any one news organization to skirt around a story this big on the dainty grounds of principle.

But it’s not too much to ask the mainstream media in general to think twice about being an eager conduit for stolen goods. And since there will be many more next times in the Era of the Big Leak, to at least agonize a bit before handing megaphones to the crooks.

I get that all of this is newsworthy. But this is not a normal leak of information. These are stolen documents, likely stolen by foreign intelligence operatives. And I’ll go one step further than Zorn: This is also an effort to disrupt, and throw the results of, our presidential election. That last point in particular gives me pause. And it ought to give our media the same.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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16 Responses to “Is it ethical for journalists to publish the stolen Clinton/DNC emails?”

  1. nicho says:

    Glad to see Ablog pushing the Clintonian diversion of “stolen.” Typical response of someone caught with their pants down. If you can’t refute the truth of what’s revealed, question the source. It’s like Trump questioning the character or looks of all the women accusing him of predatory behavior, What’s really funny is that all the Clintonists whining about “stolen documents” think Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers is a hero and praised newspapers for publishing those “stolen” documents. I guess it just depends on whose ox is being gored.

  2. packereyes says:

    no they are inconsequential to the election at this point. She has spent more time defending her service to this country and yet there is nothing illegal that she did.

  3. Phil in FLL says:

    It’s amusing that our resident Republican troll signs off with “Sayonara Democrat,” in view of the coming election results in which the Dems will take the White House, not to mention the gains in the Senate and House. I could more aptly say “Sayonara Republican troll.”

  4. Phil in FLL says:

    Nancy Pelosi has aptly described the collusion of Roger Stone and Putin’s government in the hacking of the DNC as an “electronic Watergate.” At the third debate, I’m hoping that Hillary asks what Trump knew about the hack coordinated by Putin and Roger Stone, and when he knew it:

  5. Phil in FLL says:

    Julian Assange’s links to Putin’s government are well known. Here are a two interesting ones (link here):

    In addition to briefly hosting his own talk show in 2012 on the Russian government-operated English-language cable and online news network RT — a network that according to a Politico Magazine report has taken an editorial stance supporting Donald Trump — it was Julian Assange himself who in 2013 led leaker Edward Snowden to seek asylum in Russia, rather than in Latin America, according to Assange’s own statements to the British press.

    As he has been seeking refuge from a rape charge (see below) in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Assange, according to Schindler, requested that his private security detail be provided by Russia’s secret police agency the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin was a KGB official.

  6. orogeny says:

    What gets me about this is the fact that there is no way to establish tone and intent in the emails. For example, I sent an email to my boss yesterday in which I said something to the effect of “There are times when I’d like to strangle some of the folks in that other department. They can be a real pain in the butt.” These are clients of mine that I actually like and respect a lot and my boss knows that I was just kidding and blowing off some steam. But, if that were stolen and released to people who weren’t aware of that relationship and my intent, the email could be twisted into something awful.

  7. dcinsider says:

    I don’t believe its unethical. The emails are apparently accurate. They are about a person seeking the presidency, where transparency is paramount.

    I support Hillary and loathe Trump, but if the situation were reversed I’m not entirely sure we’d be having this conversation at all.

  8. Bill_Perdue says:

    Republicans are just as bad as Democrats.

    Both refuse to pass ENDA.

    Both are run by border racists, union busters and Bill of Rights busters.

    And both are in a seemingly bottomless race to the bottom.

  9. Bill_Perdue says: The DNC and the Clinton campaign do not dispute them.

    The left is not going away. We’re going to continue to recruit the left leaning people betrayed by Sanders, union bureaucrats, Democrats and your Republican brothers and sisters.

    Sayonara, Democrat.

  10. Thored says:

    First of all, IF the Russians did hack this information, it would be extremely difficult to track the source. Just like they can change and release modified or fabricated information, the hackers can also modify and fabricate attribution of the hack. It is done all the time. Attribution in cyberspace is almost impossible with any accuracy.

    The big point being made with all of this is that the media is in the back pocket of the Democratic party.

    Kind of like the media editing the tape with the comments made by Trump so that no one got to see the part of the tape where Billy Bush goaded Trump into making the comments he made. Then they were going to hold off releasing the tape until it would create the greatest impact, but Billy Bush was openly bragging about the tape on the newsroom floor until it forced them to release it early.

  11. Dover Bill says:

    Imagine where this election would be right now if the RNC campaign had been hacked instead?

  12. d3clark says:

    No one? Really? How did you verify that? You make a blanket statement that is obviously false and then you try to judge whether the publication of the documents is ethical? Begone, troll.

  13. Bill_Perdue says:

    No one denies the veracity of the wikileaks material. Anything that injures the Democrats and Republicans is ethical given their racism, warmongering, refusal to pass ENDA, immigrant bashing and attacks on the Bill of Rights.

    It would be unethical not to publish them.

  14. goulo says:

    Security author Bruce Schneier recently wrote about this problem in a good essay “How Long Until Hackers Start Faking Leaked Documents? There’s nothing stopping attackers from manipulating the data they make public.”

    It’s one thing to have all of your dirty laundry aired in public for everyone to see. It’s another thing entirely for someone to throw in a few choice items that aren’t real.

    Imagine trying to explain to the press, eager to publish the worst of the details in the documents, that everything is accurate except this particular email. Or that particular memo. That the salary document is correct except that one entry. Or that the secret customer list posted up on WikiLeaks is correct except that there’s one inaccurate addition. It would be impossible. Who would believe you? No one. And you couldn’t prove it.

    It has long been easy to forge documents on the internet. It’s easy to create new ones, and modify old ones. It’s easy to change things like a document’s creation date, or a photograph’s location information. With a little more work, pdf files and images can be altered. These changes will be undetectable. In many ways, it’s surprising that this kind of manipulation hasn’t been seen before. My guess is that hackers who leak documents don’t have the secondary motives to make the data dumps worse than they already are, and nation-states have just gotten into the document leaking business.

  15. Houndentenor says:

    Most of the media today operate under tabloid, not journalistic standards.

  16. BeccaM says:

    When authenticity cannot be verified, it absolutely is unethical to publish the docs. That’s Journalism 101.

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