Grand Theft Journalism
By Tom Kuntz, Editor, RealClearInvestigations
January 05, 2017
Welcome to journalism's age of theft. Or, more precisely, participation in grand digital larceny.
Journalists have long dealt in stolen material. The modern highpoint was probably the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, the low point the phone hacks of people in tragic circumstances by minions of Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World.
But what is happening now is different -- and far more troubling than tabloid sleaze.
As the scale and velocity of stolen information increases, purloined digital material is becoming a staple of modern newsrooms. Physical impediments are largely gone: Instead of hoping for the rare unmarked envelope slipped over the transom, prestigious outfits including the New York Times and ProPublica offer detailed advice on sending electronic leaks their way. Think encrypted data-dumps via smartphone tap.
Last year's explosive WikiLeaks and "Panama Papers" revelations, as well as the prizes showered on journalists who worked with Edward Snowden, raise the question of whether the pursuit of journalistic glory in the digital era means becoming routinely complicit in, and even actively encouraging, illegal breaches of privacy, proprietary information and national security.
Put another way, journalism sometimes looks like it's the wheelman at a robbery. News outlets are taking digital skulduggery and running with it even as it covers hacking as one of the biggest and most destructive crimes of the Information Age.
This is especially concerning when the sources of the information are not just traditional good-guy whistleblowers, but unseen state actors and rogue outfits pursuing nefarious or at best unclear agendas.
Consider those two big stories from 2016: The emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democratic Party officials; and revelations about the shady ways of offshore banking gleaned from an enormous stolen digital trove dubbed the Panama Papers, and sifted by hundreds of reporters worldwide in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Few would argue that there wasn't a public interest in most if not all of the main disclosures from these thefts. Both shed light on secrets that powerful organizations and individuals had worked to keep hidden. In much of the world, such revelations enjoy robust free-speech protections.
But collateral issues raise concerns. If, as is widely alleged, agents of the Russian government performed the hacking of Democrats' emails to sway the presidential election, the press needs to ask if it can have it both ways. Is it appropriate to publish knowing you may be a tool of a hostile foreign government and only later decry its perfidious intent?
Few questions are harder to answer. A basic journalistic instinct is to verify the information and then publish, even if you can't establish the source. But is that good enough in an age when authoritarian states like Russia and North Korea are or might be the sources? If Snowden was working for Russia, as some believe, should that change the decision to publish stories based on his leaks of American intelligence secrets?
(Let’s pause here to contemplate the irony of progressives who celebrate Snowden yet bay for Russia’s blood over election-year hacking activities – and those on the right suddenly warming to the previously loathed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for denying Russian involvement.)
Perhaps most troubling, why do news outlets seem to be, in many cases, tacitly encouraging even more hacking or other misdeeds by soliciting leaks on their websites? Are they suborning criminal activity?
Many have noted the risk to covert operatives abroad from intelligence leaks, but an emerging issue is routine damage to privacy from the disclosure of personal or proprietary information of almost no valid public interest. Most of the material in the hacked DNC emails did not expose high crimes or misdemeanors; it was just plain embarrassing, akin to loose locker-room talk. Was it fair to publish offhand private conversations of high-ranking officials? If that is in the public interest, then what isn’t?
Consider too the Panama Papers, and their overall innocuousness.
The 11.5 million documents stolen by an unidentified whistleblower from a Panama law firm -- 2,600 gigabytes of material, we’re told -- make the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers look like a 3x5 file card in the Library of Congress.
Twenty-six hundred gigabytes could equal, say, 260 million pages of printed text, by my estimate. Or – oh, say -- 212,245 copies of “War and Peace,” give or take a 1,225-page volume. Mind you, I’m no math whiz. But the Pentagon Papers would probably fit into the back seat of a taxicab with room to spare. You want to transport a printout of the Panama Papers? Better hail some C-130s.
So the trove is orders of magnitude larger than leaks of the past. That’s one thing. Yet most of it – though not all - was not even remotely incriminating; it mainly showed people working within the law to lower tax bills or otherwise pursue their financial self-interest.
Public figures being fair game, we learned of the "offshore dealings of the stars." Who knew celebrities in Britain like Simon Cowell and Stanley Kubrick might want to protect their assets from the grasping "Taxman" immortalized by the Beatles decades ago?
The producers of the stories were at pains to differentiate between blameless and shameful as they zeroed in on the bad apples of offshore finance. But the mundane nature of much of the material invites a comparison with the National Security Agency’s so-called “fishing expeditions” through phone metadata collection – the ones Snowden, civil libertarians, liberals and many journalists are fond of denouncing. What’s the difference between these two enterprises when it comes to being sensitive about privacy concerns?
As imminent digital data dumps zoom through the void and onto the laptop screen, fresh thinking seems in order on dealing with leakers, sourcing and privacy. As the editor of an investigative news organization happy to accept leaked material, I can feel the ground shifting beneath my keyboard.
But while mulling these new challenges, I’m finding guidance in words of wisdom long invoked by the late Fred W. Friendly, one of journalism’s towering figures. They were imparted to him by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. The trouble with journalists, he told Friendly, is that they "are all mixed up between what the Constitution gives you a right to publish and the right thing to do."
In a boat at sea one of the men began to bore a hole in the bottom of the boat. On being remonstrating with, he answered, "I am only boring under my own seat." "Yes," said his companions, "but when the sea rushes in we shall all be drowned with you."