When should private emails become the public’s business?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta talks to reporters on Oct. 5. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1972, a group of burglars working for the Republican Party broke into Democratic headquarters in the dead of night, searching for documents that might influence that year’s presidential election. Reporters from the Washington Post spent years unraveling the scandal, until at last it brought down the president who had concealed it.

Forty-four years later, a group of criminals, quite possibly working in concert with operatives from the Russian government, broke into the correspondence of Democratic campaign aides and began releasing troves of personal emails, in hopes of influencing this year’s presidential election.

This time, the Post and other news sites, including the New York Times and Politico, have gleefully begun to publish them, with some new gossipy detail every day.

In any normal election year, when we weren’t transfixed by the serial implosions of a beauty pageant magnate who’s talked about women as if they’re livestock, the decision to post these emails would lead to some very hard questions.

What are we doing here, exactly? And have we really thought through where it leads?

Here’s what we know. The U.S. government has said — and this is a pretty extraordinary statement — that a series of cyber-intrusions into various campaign arms of the Democratic Party this year appear to have been carried out by Russian hackers. The emails pilfered in these hacks have shown up on several sites, including WikiLeaks.

Here’s what else we know. At least two operatives who’ve worked for Donald Trump have connections inside the Russian government. And Roger Stone, a shadowy Republican operative who’s long been close to Trump, sent out ominous tweets this summer warning that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, was about to become embroiled in scandal.

And now this: Stolen email from Podesta’s Gmail account began showing up last week on WikiLeaks and other hacker sites. Because some readers seem to be confusing this stuff with the infamous State Department emails or with those taken from party committees, it is worth pointing out that these emails have nothing to do with official government business; they belong to a campaign strategist and come from his personal account.

Is there really some unholy alliance here between the Russians, the hackers and the Trump campaign? Probably, yeah, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The fact that these emails are stolen — even if by agents of a foreign government — doesn’t by itself mean they shouldn’t be published. Any reporter who tells you he or she hasn’t trafficked in ill-gotten information either is lying or isn’t a very good reporter.

I couldn’t count the number of times in my own career I’ve worked with confidential memos, mail or sealed grand jury testimony. Most whistleblowers, the most notable case being Edward Snowden, are breaking the law by stealing proprietary information, and without them there’s a lot we should know that we wouldn’t.

But the question you apply in these cases is pretty straightforward. Is there an overriding public interest that compels you to abet potential criminals and violate privacy?

Take, for instance, the recent disclosure of Trump’s partial tax return, which the Times (along with at least one other news outlet) received anonymously. That may very well have been stolen, too, and yet I would argue that there’s a clear imperative to publishing information that voters have a right to know and that every other nominee in modern history has voluntarily disclosed.

So what’s the compelling public interest here that justifies violating Podesta’s privacy and serving the purposes of foreign hackers?

Well, let’s see. So far we’ve learned that Clinton was nervously eyeing Elizabeth Warren. And that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was a minor irritant to the campaign. And that Neera Tanden, another Clinton adviser, once got mad at David Axelrod. And that Bill Clinton throws tantrums. And so on.

The big headline is: Campaign strategists often participate in discussions about campaign strategy, and sometimes they bicker like children. Also, courtesy of the New York Post, we’ve learned that a top aide at the Clinton Foundation may have been depressed, because everyone needed to know that.

Then there’s the stuff we might like to think we learned, but didn’t. Right-wing websites, for instance, have been crowing about an email in which Podesta writes that Clinton “hates everyday Americans.” What’s clear from the context, however, is that she hates the phrase “everyday Americans” — as we all should, really.

(In full disclosure, it appears I’ve popped up a few times in these emails too — once on the invitation list to a media gathering I chose not to attend, and again for a column that caught the campaign’s attention. It’s nice to be thought of.)

I’m not saying none of this is interesting to readers — or to me, for that matter. But you know, so are celebrity divorces and reality shows about storage bins. As Gary Hart put it in a prescient 1987 speech that I’ve written about before, “In public life, some things may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re important.”

I’m also not saying there wasn’t anything of real value in the emails. The excerpts from Clinton’s long-sought Goldman Sachs speeches, compiled internally by the campaign, were relevant to the larger debate. And as my colleagues Liz Goodwin and Michael Isikoff reported this week, an email from Clinton herself shows her accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding the Islamic State — a newsworthy admission from a former secretary of state.

But these leaks could easily have been reported in isolation, without dumping reams of unedited (and, not incidentally, unauthenticated) emails into the public square, and without writing breathless stories about who was slagging whom.

So why have we all rushed to outdo each other when it comes to publicly airing Podesta’s pilfered emails? (A lot of media did the same thing, just a few weeks ago, when it was Colin Powell’s embarrassing emails, so clearly it doesn’t have much to do with presidential politics.) My guess is there are a couple of reasons.

First, there’s just something about the Internet, even now, that makes us feel like everything belongs in the public domain, in the same way that Napster once succeeded because people felt like taking free music from a website wasn’t the same thing as stealing an album from a record store. It was, and it is.

If I stole Podesta’s utility bills from his mailbox — we used to live a block apart, so I could have — and brought them to my old editors at the Times, they’d have fired me. But somehow stolen email strikes everyone as a blow for transparency.

Second, it’s the competitive pressure of knowing that even if you don’t publish the material, someone else will. Other outlets will get all the credit and all the traffic, and no one’s going to stand up and congratulate you for holding the line on privacy. It’s a losing proposition.

Maybe in an editor’s chair, embroiled in complex and fast-moving events, I’d have made the same decisions. But in a few months, when this “Jackass” movie masquerading as a presidential campaign has finally come to an end, we’d do well, as an industry, to think more deeply about where to draw that line between pressing news and prurience in the age of hackers — if not for the public interest, then at least for our own.

Because sooner or later, you can be sure, it’ll be our private email, our candid notes to colleagues and friends and children, that end up plastered on digital billboards by some nefarious hacker with an agenda. I wonder how enthusiastically we’ll report it then.