Readers often ask us how the Observer’s editorial board arrives at its opinions, and whether we all agree on everything. This week brought an enlightening example to answer that question.
Board members often agree on the core of an editorial and differ only on the details. Sometimes, though, we see key aspects differently and have to see if we can come to consensus.
This week, interim associate editor Issac Bailey wrote a draft of an editorial that argued that the media fell short of their own high standards during the 2016 presidential campaign and should assess their performance so as to do better next time. With hacking on the rise, he argued, the media need to think about whether they published Russian-hacked information without adequate scrutiny. The media were also quick to write about James Comey’s reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, he said, though there was no proof anything new had emerged that would suggest she had done something wrong.
That led to an email exchange involving Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten, Associate Editor Peter St. Onge and Bailey, who was in Myrtle Beach. The exchange helps illuminate how the editorial board chews on issues before publishing. Here are just a few excerpts from that conversation:
St. Onge: “You said the media wasn’t as careful as it should have been with the late Comey news about emails. In your eyes, how could media have handled that differently? I think it’s good to call for self-examination, but I’m not quite grasping the areas where the editorial thinks media fell short.”
Bailey: “The point is more about guarding ourselves against being unwittingly used by a hostile actor in the future. Russia, through WikiLeaks, purposefully put its stamp on our democracy by helping one side. It did that with a drip drip over the final few weeks, and media went along with that timeline by publishing several individual pieces. We have to ask our industry if we are OK with playing that kind of a role in elections, or is there a way we can think of to still do our jobs well without being used by hackers trying to undermine our democracy.”
Batten: “I have some concerns with the editorial because it suggests that the media ran incorrect or unverified information when I don’t know of it doing so. And it raises questions about the media’s performance not only on Russian leaks but on Comey’s email announcement in late October. What was the media to do about that? Not cover the FBI director announcing the FBI is reopening an investigation into one of the candidates? That would be irresponsible and look like the media is covering for her. No doubt the Russians/Wikileaks savvily trickled things out and the media went along. I can see the media mulling what to do about that. But if they are running true, verified information, I’m not sure how much criticism and second-guessing they deserve.”
Bailey: “And that’s the quandary. We are either willing to say we did everything in this well, or that we should rethink things. Our handling of Russia and Comey created an incredible imbalance in the transparency of the two final candidates, which did a disservice to the public, even if none of the news was fake. How does it serve our readers to be an unwitting tool in that kind of process? Are we really OK with saying that’s how things should be going forward?
“On Comey, we had to report, but the way we reported should be rethought. Many of the stories we ran speculated about the impact on the election – with very little context that it did not mean Clinton did anything wrong. In essence, by treating Comey as we did, we did publish unverified info – because those emails were neither new nor relevant. But by the time we found out, the die had been cast.”
St. Onge: “I’m not sure I agree with that assessment of the Comey news. News stories examined what was in the Huma emails –and what wasn’t. We wrote an editorial right away that (warned that few specifics were known and that the new emails might be meaningless).
“Others wrote stuff very similar to it. Was there horserace stuff – how the emails affected the race? Sure. But there also was good reporting on what the emails did or didn’t indicate, plus how there was conflict within the FBI about Comey even saying anything at all (NYT story) and other good pieces. And there was A LOT of opinion about whether Comey should have said anything at all.”
Bailey: “All of that is true, but some massive newspapers, like the NYT, used its entire front page on the news. With something like that, the aggregate effect is always going to be more powerful than individual pieces. We did not have to go wall to wall with it, but we did.”
St. Onge: “The FBI director said a presidential candidate was under renewed investigation. I don’t know how else you play that news but really big. If you underplay it – even out of caution – and it turns out those emails did contain bad stuff, then you’ve influenced the election in another way.
“To some degree, that’s always been our challenge. We’re at the mercy of the snapshots we provide, because they’re snapshots of what we know at the moment. The best we can do is provide as much info as we possibly can as early as we can.”
Bailey (responding to Batten’s earlier note): “Also, even if we believe media just did its job the way we’ve long believed we should, it still means that we were used by those with ill intent, and it worked. Shouldn’t that bother us? Shouldn’t that convince us to make sure no stone is unturned, even if that means rethinking/revamping how we do what we do? Given the ability of hackers, this issue will only grow larger.”
St. Onge: “I think you’re onto something there. It’s a different age – as we’ve learned. Do we need to be a different, more selective media? I don’t think I agree we do, but I don’t at all mind the question being asked.”
Bailey: “Think of it this way: If this newspaper did a major investigation into Bank of America, it wouldn’t publish until everything had been verified, proven. We would not publish even strong suspicions if we didn’t verify first. And yet, when the FBI announces an unverified claim, we make it a huge deal. Why?”
St. Onge: “Because it’s the nation’s highest law enforcement official saying a presidential candidate is under renewed investigation. It’s breaking news, which is different than a newspaper trying to make an investigation bulletproof before publication. If we start self-editing breaking news until we’re sure it’s going to be something, where does that stop?”