When I was seriously considering a career in journalism, I got a surprising amount of pushback from my dad’s side of the family. They weren’t worried about the bad hours or the low pay. Instead, my dad and grandmother kept telling me stories about my great grandmother. She worked for the Democratic Party in New York City. For a while she also had a high ranking position in city government. Her position came with perks. Every Thanksgiving my dad told the story about how his grandmother was able to snag some of the best tickets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for him and the rest of the family!
My great-grandmother also had some influence over who the city hired for civil service positions. Grandma said “she was just helping good people from the neighborhood who were out of work.” The New York Times saw it differently. A reporter finished a story on corruption at City Hall. When my great-grandmother found out about the story, she had a small heart attack! She lived, but those dastardly investigative reporters from the Times ended her career. I never met my great-grandmother, but the rest of my family still celebrates her legacy. Her first name is the only name in the family to be passed down from one generation to another. When I started doing investigative journalism, my grandmother gave me a guilt trip like taking a side against the rest of my family.
During my time as an investigative reporter, I once received documents showing that Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory was missing “power generators” along with a wide list of other equipment. Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Two whistleblowers leaked documents showing a combination of unaccounted for equipment and personal purchases made with lab credit cards. In other words, some employees were using our tax dollars to buy themselves expensive grilling equipment. The whistleblowers blacked out any classified information then sent the documents to a government watchdog group, who sent them to any reporter who asked.
These whistleblowers show why journalists give anonymity in certain cases. Los Alamos found out who was leaking the documents and fired them. But investigative stories continued after I pointed other reporters to a suspiciously “coincidental” retirement of the University of California Vice President in charge of running the national laboratories. Once the scandal grew the whistleblowers were re-hired to help clean up the mess.
Reporters prefer having on the record sources, so a source that can only be anonymous should have access to more newsworthy information than on-the-record sources. If two events are equally newsworthy, the one that has on-the-record sources is far more valuable. However, a wide range of sources have realized they have unique access to information. They have the leverage to demand anonymity, even if they won’t get fired for speaking publicly. Sports may be even worse than politics in this regard. Art Briles’ agent is reportedly trying to plant rumors that high-profile schools are looking to hire Briles as football coach within a year of him being fired at Baylor for his part in a massive coverup of sexual assaults. Many reporters are perfectly willing to put Briles name in to a list of possible coaching hires, writing stories based completely on rumors and innuendo.
I’ve always had a pretty high standard for anonymous sources. I wanted them to provide documents, not just claims. During California’s 2002 statewide election I was put on a team to report live from the Democrats’ reception in a Los Angeles hotel. Democratic incumbent Grey Davis was deeply unpopular but many Californians saw him as the least bad option. Crowd reactions were incredibly dull and muted. What else could we expect from the lowest turnout election in state history? The night dragged on as Davis couldn’t build enough of a lead to go on stage and declare victory. (Davis won with 47.3 percent of the vote as over 10 percent of the voters went with a third party candidate. He was recalled a year later.)
I was incredibly bored covering this event, so after a while I started talking with two young men holding Corona bottles. They were right at the front of the room and actually hid the empty bottles under the stage. I didn’t see anyone else with bottled beer, so I asked where they got it. They said they got it from lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante. He was allegedly sharing beers with supporters and didn’t bother to check whether said supporters were of legal drinking age. I rolled my eyes a bit but kept talking to them. There was no way for me to verify whether these college kids were telling the truth. Even if they were, giving a beer to consenting 20 year old isn’t much of a scandal. It’s salacious. People are interested when I tell this story years later. But Bustamante’s behavior was not malicious and would not affect the public. It’s gossip, not news.
When I see headlines about hacked DNC e-mails, I usually just shrug. Here’s one headline currently on the Washington Post: “Hacked e-mails show anxiety about Clinton Candidacy.” The lead quote is “Right now I am petrified that Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating Trump.” I can see why people would think this is some sort of juicy tidbit. But campaign operatives wouldn’t be doing their job unless they tried to calculate the best general election opponent. If you have enough deeply committed operatives, one of them is going to send a panicked e-mail eventually. The New York Times ran a story a few days ago with the headline “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Leaked Emails Show.” The actual e-mails were surprisingly generic. Most campaigns have to work hard to calibrate their message to get the maximum number of voters.
Reading these stories reminded me of students who would do a lazy cut and paste from lecture slides instead of synthesizing the material. Take the Times‘ story. Is there any evidence that the Clinton camp’s struggles are somehow different than other campaigns? Are these leaks just a rare chance to see what political operatives do on a regular basis? It’s easy to copy and paste the salacious bits without giving much context. People will click on the story because it seems juicy. But the salacious bits are just empty calories. The meaty story is in explaining whether or not the Clinton camp is unusual.
A friend asked me whether journalists should treat these leaked e-mail stories differently because there is evidence these e-mails come from Russian hacking. I was with my dad when the big wave of e-mails about the Democratic National Committee were leaked days before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Which is more important: the head of the DNC tried to help Hillary Clinton or Russian hackers were trying to sew discord among Democrats? My dad canvassed for Bernie Sanders so he was outraged over the content of the e-mails. I recognized that a government hacking the e-mails of a foreign political party in order to embarrass them represents a new frontier in international conflict. Every election has endorsements and professional operatives favoring certain outcomes. We already knew Clinton had an unprecedented landslide of insider endorsements. The specter of foreign hacking is new.
My father and I agreed to disagree on which story angle was more important. I was pretty sure he was being manipulated by foreign hackers. He didn’t really care if he was being manipulated, because he was already so convinced that Clinton was a poor choice for the Democrats. The bar for publishing these emails was already far too low. Most of these stories are salacious empty calories, regardless of how reporters got the information. There’s little corruption or malice, just embarrassing gossip. But people like reading gossip. Smart manipulators know this, whether they are foreign hackers or unscrupulous football executives. I’d treat the Wikileaks email stories differently because hacking, spying and cybersecurity are much more interesting and important stories.