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 decision-making 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 a situation like this. But it’s rarely sustained if the media ecosystem amplifies a piece of information, authentic or not, to a certain 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 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?