BY PETER SCHEER–Among the many “firsts” of the current election cycle is the disconcerting spectacle of a foreign adversary successfully manipulating the American news media.
I’m referring, of course, to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. After government cybersleuths, at his direction, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computer network and the email inbox of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Putin made the savvy decision to launder this digital cache through Wikileaks.
In the history of PR strategies, this one stands out.
Not only was Putin confident that Julian Assange and colleagues would immediately publish the proceeds of Russia’s cyberattack, but he understood that “leaking” the documents in this way assured that mainstream media in America, in reporting on the leaked documents, would focus on their content—and their implications for the presidential election—-rather than the extraordinary source of the leak.
Imagine if Russian intelligence agencies, rather than giving the hacked emails to Wikileaks, had given them directly to the New York Times or the Washington Post. The reporters and editors of those (or other) news organizations would have thought long and hard about how to proceed.
They would have worried, and rightly so, about taking on the role of de facto propagandist for a US adversary apparently intent on interfering in, and influencing the outcome of, America’s choice of a President. They might not have published at all. At minimum they would have been extremely circumspect in their reporting.
By laundering the documents through Wikileaks, however, Putin freed the media from what would have been a thorny ethical dilemma. By the time the hacked documents were accessible to mainstream media, they were already in the public domain—their contents clearly newsworthy, relevant to voters, and certain to be the subject of articles by competitors.
Sure, the documents’ provenance was also a story, but it wasn’t the story. It was a distant second to stories about what Hillary had to say in her off-the-record and highly paid talks to investment bankers on Wall Street, or about communications between DNC and Clinton campaign staffers on countering Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy.
In short, Putin played the media and he played it brilliantly. This is a matter of concern, to put it mildly. Hopefully, it will not be overlooked in the post mortems to be written on the 2016 election.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of FAC.