New York Times says it was 'a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence'

Buried deep in The New York Times' mammoth investigation into Russia's attempt to sway the election through hacking is a noteworthy show of humility.

Near the story's conclusion, The Times acknowledges that, along with other American news organizations, it spread information extracted from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign by Russian intelligence:

Though Mr. Assange did not say so, WikiLeaks’ best defense may be the conduct of the mainstream American media. Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.

Mr. Putin, a student of martial arts, had turned two institutions at the core of American democracy — political campaigns and independent media — to his own ends. The media’s appetite for the hacked material, and its focus on the gossipy content instead of the Russian source, disturbed some of those whose personal emails were being reposted across the web.

Later, The Times quotes Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, as saying she "could not believe that reporters were covering" the hacks.

During the election, many wondered whether journalists were justified in publishing information obtained by hackers. By publishing newsworthy information, were they complicit in a shadowy campaign to influence the election?

In analyzing her own newsroom's coverage of the emails, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen recommended that her colleagues "tread very cautiously" while not ignoring the story altogether:

I believe most of NPR's disclaimers so far have been very clear and admirable. Memmott called the situation "awkward," which may not be satisfying to some listeners and readers, but it is an accurate reflection, in my opinion, of the dilemma that journalists are facing in this case.

And here's where New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd came down on the issue:

And then there is the unease that comes with feeling used by a foreign superpower. How does the paper avoid becoming an amplifier for a plot that needs the media to work? How does it verify the accuracy of several thousand illegally obtained emails? And most critically, what has it done to try to establish whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russian intelligence, as Clinton suggests?

Considering the journalistic swamp, The Times acquitted itself well on some of these questions. Editors restrained themselves from publishing every email, avoiding the reckless decisions of that some news outlets made. And The Times made reasonable attempts to determine the accuracy of the emails — though when solid verification couldn’t be had, it went with its gut.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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