How should journalists treat stolen booty?

Questions of morality, reliability and honesty are and should always be raised by every journalist who sets out to do his or her work properly.

December 14, 2016 22:23
3 minute read.
JOHN PODESTA, chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, addresses the crowd at Cli

JOHN PODESTA, chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, addresses the crowd at Clinton’s election-night rally in New York.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Should journalists be held to the same moral and legal standards as ordinary mortals? If you don’t have a press pass, you know it is wrong to drive the posh car or wear the glittering diamond a thief brings you. Journalists, however, seem unaware that to profit from stolen property makes them accomplices to the crime.

According to, “Though each state has its own laws and terminology, all states and the federal government criminalize the receipt of stolen property.” Hacking information from a person’s email is as much a crime as stealing a car from their garage, the watch from their wrist, or the lunch from their backpack. Like hungry schoolchildren, American mainstream media feasted on the hacked emails of the Democratic National Convention last summer. They sucked on every candy of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’ indiscretion and put salt on the wounds of Bernie Sanders’ grieving fans. Everyone suspected then that the Russians were the brains behind the robbery and guessed that their ultimate goal was to steal the election from Hillary Clinton and give it to Donald Trump.

But everyone thought he was hopeless, and it was fun to torture Clinton, and even more fun to guess when the next big batch of stolen property would finally be distributed.

Finally the John Podesta giant goody bag was pilfered and dumped out for all to feast on, and every major and minor journalist and newscaster rushed to grab his or her tasty treat. They ignored Clinton’s, Podesta’s and Mook’s pleas to stay away from it, not eat or feed anyone any of it, especially not during the final and most important debate – the stolen goods were procured through an international crime, people! A few journalists of conscience recognized that they had a moral dilemma. “Let’s give some thought to a journalistic quandary: How should news organizations handle the leak of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails?” asked Kevin Drum in Mother Jones on October 12, 2016. “Under normal circumstance there would be nothing much to think about.

Once they’re out, they’re out. You trawl through them and print anything that seems newsworthy. Neat and simple.” This reasoning reminds me of my mother’s description of how hungry Romanians viewed the loaves of bread, sacks of flour and cans of lard the Germans left behind as they retreated from Bucharest before the Russian liberators invaded. Grab everything you can and use it before anyone else takes it.

According to Mr. Drum, the Podesta theft was an abnormal circumstance that required journalists to subject themselves to a higher moral reasoning process than usual.

“But consider the circumstances here. There’s evidence that the hack was directed by a foreign power trying to influence the US election,” Mr. Drum agonizes.

“The leak itself came from an organization that detests one of the candidates. And they’re playing a transparently too-clever-by-half game of trying to keep this in the news for weeks by parceling out the emails a few thousand at a time.... Should news organizations allow themselves to be used as pawns in this obvious effort to affect the presidential election? If they do, they can hardly pretend to be neutral channels of information. But if they don’t, they risk failing to report genuinely important news.”

After some serious soul searching, the earnest journalist comes up with a morally satisfying solution: grab the juiciest morsels and leave the crumbs for the birds.

“Just dial up the threshold for ‘newsworthiness’ a notch or two. You still ignore the obvious trifles, and you’d still report anything truly newsworthy or scandalous.

But for stuff in the gray middle, you’d lean against publication.”

I think Drum just described how he and his colleagues decided what booty to take and what to leave from the Podesta grand theft.

Two months later, though the bones have been picked clean the carcass remains. It was buried for a while, but now it’s been disinterred. Again our media can chew on the bones and lick their fingers all day.

The author is chair of the English Department at Touro College, Los Angeles and author of Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daugther

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