It seems that Western democracies are now fated to become the target of foreign hackers when their elections roll around. At least, that will be the case in those democracies when it comes down to a candidate who favors confronting an expansionist and increasingly illiberal Russia and a candidate who does not. It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels between the exposure of Emmanuel Macron’s emails on Friday and the 2016 experience of Team Hillary Clinton. They deserve examination, but not nearly as much as does the reaction to it on the part of\ some of President Trump’s most strident critics.
“Do not get played the way the US press got played, gullibly falling into the trap set for it,” beseeched university professor and New York Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci. She begged media in France and around the world not to report on the content of Macron’s stolen emails, but to “Report aggressively on the fact there is a disinformation campaign. Report it as part of reporting on how the hack is political sabotage.”
“The only effective deterrent left is in [the] hands of the press: Do not cover the substance of emails. At all. Refuse on principle to take part,” wrote Brookings Fellow Susan Hennessey. “I’m not saying it’ll work. I’m saying that, at this point, it’s only conceivable way to prevent this from being a regular feature of elections.”
Upon Macron’s victory at the polls, The Nation columnist Gul Bukhari speculated that he had the French media’s prudent silence to thank. “[U]nlike the American media, French media did not report on the hacked emails,” she wrote. “Some lesson there?”
To all this, Politico‘s Jack Shafer replied by summarizing their complaint, albeit in a manner from which these self-styled defenders of democratic norms would perhaps recoil:”Can journalists categorically reject the idea that something should remain unpublished because it might delight a foreign power?” His answer was an emphatic “no.” Legally and morally, Shafer wrote, the American press is under no obligation to subordinate journalistic instincts to the Greater Good—which is, after all, a concept subject to interpretation.
In a country like France that lacks a First Amendment protection of press freedoms, reporting can and has been legislated against. The hacked emails were released just minutes before a legal ban on political communications and surveys prior to the opening of the polls came into effect. Moreover, the French Election Commission urged media outlets not to publish the emails because they could be considered “anything that could be considered electoral propaganda.” Those journalists who ignored this friendly admonition were warned that they could face criminal prosecution.
To their credit, Hennessy and others are not advocating a constitutional amendment that would redefine the parameters of acceptable political speech. Merely, they ask American media outlets to observe discretion. Not only is this a morally questionable directive, but one that fails to acknowledge some realities of this hack and Clinton’s email hacks that her defenders appear keen to ignore.
First, and perhaps most important, just because the French press ignored Macron’s emails doesn’t mean that French voters found them unavailable. The Russian-linked information clearinghouse WikiLeaks published those emails without properly vetting them, leading some entrepreneurial reporters to find some—the most controversial among them—lacked authenticity.The release of these hacked emails might not have changed the outcome of the French election; indeed, their publication and debunking might have made Macron a more sympathetic figure. By contrast, by shrouding them in mystery, the French government enhanced the controversy around their contents and might have confirmed the suspicions of the most conspiratorially minded.
A rather discomfiting fact with which Clinton’s defenders will one day have to reckon is that the emails released as a result of the hacking of her campaign and Democratic committees by likely Russian agents were pretty banal. Among the more “controversial” of Clinton-related emails confirmed that her team believed their candidate’s speeches to Goldman Sachs executives were problematic, despite their assurances to the contrary. Other emails revealed the campaign was unsure how to deal with Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline or whether to address the allegations in the book Clinton Cash or to attack the author. Some emails revealed that Team Clinton had approached Democrats to request that they demand Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy release his emails, as he had demanded of Clinton, to show how partisan that request was. They found no takers.
Most damaging for Clinton perhaps were the emails that revealed tensions within the Democratic Party’s ranks. From Clinton advisors nervously comparing their candidate to Jeb Bush, to sounding “pro-Keystone,” to former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation, to the imbroglio involving her successor Donna Brazile providing debate questions to Clinton ahead of a televised engagement, the scandals demonstrated how estranged the party’s leadership had become from its base. Despite Clinton’s polling advantages over her opponent, she failed to generate insurmountable turnout among low-propensity liberal voters outside coastal and urban enclaves just as John Kerry and Al Gore had failed before her. The internal divisions and lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among unlikely Democratic voters existed well before those emails were uncovered. The emails simply served to confirm a fact that those tensions already existed. As Shafer noted, this is all news and journalists have a professional obligation to cover it as such.
Nothing justifies the attack on the DNC and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The infiltration of those accounts was a crime. Yet the hack of Macron has revealed the extent to which the Democratic Party is committed to the notion everything is responsible for Clinton’s loss but Clinton. Yesterday, it was Jim Comey. The day before, we had American misogyny to blame. Of course, the unquantifiable impact that Russian meddling and the release of Clinton’s emails had on voters bears some blame. And media reporting on all of this threads the devious narrative together into a whole.
The simpler explanation is, as ever, more likely: Hillary Clinton was an irreparably damaged candidate leading a party at war with itself. No media blackout period would have saved the Democratic Party from reconciling that conflict eventually.