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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Media Just Passed a Test It Failed Four Years Ago

Election Day is a few weeks away, which means it’s October surprise season. On Wednesday morning, the New York Post, a conservative tabloid, published emails allegedly taken from a laptop that belonged to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. The story left major unanswered questions about both the authenticity of the emails and the method by which they were obtained. The episode presented the rest of the media with a test—and with its first big chance to prove it has learned some lessons since 2016.

The alleged Biden laptop situation calls to mind the notorious Wikileaks dump of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails in October 2016. The press went wild with those materials, which were later determined to have been given to Wikileaks by state-backed Russian hackers. The air of controversy the emails generated likely contributed to Clinton’s loss to Trump.

This time, however, the reaction has been more cautious. The provenance of the supposed Hunter Biden files as described by the Post—a convoluted route that involves Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, and a computer repair shop in Delaware—is suspect enough that Facebook and Twitter both eventually suppressed the story on their platforms. Facebook limited its distribution early in the day, apparently to give fact checkers time to weigh in before it went viral, while Twitter banned it outright, pointing to the likelihood that the information was actually hacked, as well as the fact that it includes Hunter Biden’s personal contact information. Mainstream news organizations, meanwhile, held off on covering the story.

In an interview a few days before the 2016 election, Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer and the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, expressed cautious support for news organizations covering the emails. (The Russia link had not yet been proven.) A few weeks ago, I reached out to ask him how his views on treating hacked or stolen materials have changed since then. Our conversation happened to be scheduled for yesterday afternoon. Thanks to the mainstream media blackout, Coll hadn’t heard of the New York Post story by the time we spoke. I filled him in on the details. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

WIRED: Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post have this story on their homepage. Do you think they're taking the right approach?

Steve Coll: Based on what you describe, news judgment in a circumstance like this first depends on the reliability of the information. So a good editor, anyway, or a producer for a television network, wouldn't retransmit information that they don’t independently believe to be true. So first, is it a hoax? Have you satisfied yourself about that?

But that's not the end of the story. Even if you feel that these are authentic documents, I increasingly think that a lesson of the big hacks that have generated news cycles over the last five to eight years, including new cycles on the eve of elections, is that editors and producers have to ask more than whether the documents are authentic or newsworthy or in the public interest. I think they also need to scrutinize that chain of custody and the provenance of the documents before making a final judgement about how to present them to the public or whether to present them to the public. There is and should remain a strong “bias to publish,” as they sometimes used to say. But publishing requires completeness, if you're trying to be responsible about it. And completeness requires some transparency about the origins of material where that’s possible.

And in this case, you would have to say, “according to whom?” Some computer store owner received a computer that he later identified as Hunter Biden’s. You would have a fair amount of reporting to do just to make transparent what the chain of custody was of this evidence. And I think one lesson of 2016 is, you do have a duty to try to make transparent what the chain of decisionmaking is around a hack that you're now going to use as news material.

Speaking of 2016, I wanted to read you something that Garrett Graff just recently wrote for WIRED. He wrote, “The American news media owes John Podesta an apology. The political media did almost everything wrong in covering the theft-and-leak of his private emails amid the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign.” Do you agree with that assessment?

Yes. I'm not sure about all the absolutes in it, but I do think that the Podesta emails were mishandled in a number of ways. Most importantly, there wasn't anywhere near enough transparency to the audiences of the news organizations that decided to use them, and go big with them, about what was known and unknown about the motivation behind the disclosure and the hack. And whether the very news coverage that was being presented to audiences might itself have been the object of an operation carried out either by private parties with political interests or governments abroad.

Facebook and Twitter have decided to suppress the spread of this particular story. But conservative outlets are covering it, Republican politicians are expressing outrage. Donald Trump has yet to weigh in as of this conversation, but it will come. [Trump has by now tweeted extensively about the issue and devoted a good deal of his Wednesday night rally to it.] And so it’s hard to imagine the likes of the Times or the Washington Post ignoring the story, or the meta-controversy around it, indefinitely. So what's the right way to approach that? And to make everything about myself: Am I amplifying it by publishing this conversation?

The typical answer to your question is, just because someone else publishes it, that's not a reason for us to call it news. Just because something has become part of the news cycle, because other news organizations have made judgments we wouldn't make, that doesn't mean that we are off the hook for our own judgments. That's the principled position that a lot of news organizations, at least traditional ones, would start out with in a situation like this. But it’s rarely sustained if the media ecosystem amplifies a piece of information, authentic or not, to a point where it starts to have effects on the political speech of candidates, on the strategies of campaigns—not just on the news cycle, but now in the material world.

It's sort of, the point at which a story that you think is not newsworthy generates consequences in the world that are themselves newsworthy, which you can’t cover without reference to the underlying not-newsworthy news.

Right. That is it. And I guess what I'm saying is, that’s structural. There is no way to prevent that from happening in this news ecosystem. Unless the information that catalyzes such a cycle is of genuinely no interest.

[By Wednesday evening, major mainstream outlets including the The New York Times and Washington Post had covered the story. The Times focused on the social media platforms’ response, while the Post led with the role of Giuliani and Bannon.]

I wanted to ask you also about how the press has covered the pandemic. One challenge that I've noticed as somebody who has contributed to WIRED’s coverage is that there have been times when even the public health authorities have gotten things pretty badly wrong. The CDC initially said not to wear masks; the WHO long refused to acknowledge airborne transmission. And in both cases, I think we journalists figured out what was right before the official position evolved. What are we supposed to do in that situation—where the government is not trustworthy and public health officials, even if well intentioned, are getting things wrong?

Well, I think the framework is a very comfortable one for journalism, because it's asking questions of powerful institutions and individuals, questioning their assertions and reporting on the pathway to their very important decisions, and documenting dissent—credible dissent—and conducting independent inquiry to the extent that it's possible in parallel to the line of investigation and decisionmaking that the government pursues. So I feel like that's right down the middle of what journalism should be doing when the government has power. Where it gets tricky in the pandemic is that, in order to carry out that function about the coronavirus, journalists would require a degree of expertise that they don't generally possess. So expert journalism became even more important; computational and data journalism, just to be able to clarify, create data visualizations that would allow broad audiences to see patterns that were emerging in the pandemic; science journalism specialists who could really dig in with scientists—who were themselves struggling for insights and disagreeing, as they will and should do in the scientific method—about what the preponderance of the evidence showed.

A lot of media institutions, even more traditional ones, have gotten noticeably more comfortable making judgments or interpretations in the context of reporting. I think about both the blunt reporting on the White House's failure on Covid, but also a lot of reporting on race and racism, especially over the summer. Do you agree that this shift has happened? And if so, how much of it do you think is specific to the Trump presidency? And how much do you think will last, even if he loses in November?

That's a great question. It’s definitely happening. And where exactly it's going to land, I think, is as interesting a question as journalism as a field has confronted maybe since the '60s, when there was also a big argument in the field about what constituted the best journalism. Looking back on that period, one thing you would say about it is that there emerged many journalisms, and I think that's what we're seeing now. Which was perhaps the inevitable result of the world wide web and the busting up of the quasi-monopoly possession of distribution by newspapers and major networks. Now you have these many interpretations of what the point of view in a story should be.

I do think, though, that there's another thing going on, which is structural and which will shape where we land after Trump. Which is that, as a result of the economic disruption to the newspaper industry and to television, you have news organizations that are driving for economic reasons toward subscription models. And the implication of a subscription model is that you need to matter enough in the lives of your audiences to attract their financial investment, and it incents an intensity of affiliation between audience and publication that I think encourages tribalization, or a sense of alignment in ideology or perspective or point of view. It doesn't really matter whether you think the Times’ point of view is the correct one and overdue. It is a change from where the Times positioned itself in relationship to its audience.


It’s not different in category from the intensity of affiliation that the owners of Fox News have tried to develop with their audience. You know, Fox News is a powerful economic business, even though its median viewer is north of 60 years old and unattractive to advertisers. Why is that? It's because there is a passionate affiliation between Fox News and its audience that is unbreakable. That forces cable, and now streaming distributors of television, to pay extra to have Fox News on their system, because their audiences, though small and old, demand it. This premium pricing around emotional relationships between news publishers and audiences is intensifying. It's happening both with the Times and with Fox News—in slightly different business environments, but it's the same. So you have technological disruption, you have economic disruption, you have a new set of economic incentives. And I think this is not going to reverse.

There will still be room for the Reuters and AP model of self-consciously neutral coverage. There always was, back in the 19th century, when the AP was born, a reason to be one neutral voice that can provide facts to diverse ideological journalisms. And so they're not going to go away. But I think these other journalisms, with a much stronger point of view, are not going to go away with Trump. I think they will continue. We're going to end up a little bit more like Europe, with major news organizations that are more clearly aligned with political parties or political movements. That's the way the country was for a lot of the 19th century, and so it’s not entirely new.

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