Poring through thousands of private, stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s confidants has become a daily ritual in Washington.
The hacked emails—some mundane, others laced with intrigue about election strategy, snarky barbs, whining about salaries or perceived slights—provide an inside, real-time view of the insecurities, sniping and self-promotion that churn beneath the surface of a heated presidential campaign.
Yet it’s also uncharted territory fraught with ethical dilemmas: Should a private individual’s stolen correspondence be read? How does someone respond publicly when they’re the subject of a private email? Have the emails been altered?
Nearly every morning since Oct. 7, WikiLeaks has tweeted out an alert that it was publishing on its website another couple thousand messages stolen from the email accounts of John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. As of Tuesday, it had published more than 31,000 of Podesta’s emails dating to 2008. WikiLeaks appears on track to continue releasing batches of Podesta’s emails right up until Election Day.
The Podesta emails follow a string of notable illicit caches released during the 2016 election campaign, including thousands of messages stolen from the Democratic National Committee and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the DNC thefts, but U.S. intelligence agencies are firmly pointing to the Russian government.
Donald Trump says he doubts the Russians are behind the cyberattacks. For weeks the Republican nominee has highlighted the contents of the hacked emails on Twitter and in his speeches, as his campaign issues multiple news releases a day.
Despite Trump’s bombast, no bombshell revelation has emerged to significantly alter the presidential race or prompt calls for the Democratic nominee to drop out—as happened with Trump following the leak of a decade-old video of him vulgarly bragging about groping women.
In a few instances, the messages have actually undercut Trump’s talking points. Rather than the well-oiled, octopus-tentacled cartel of international conspiracy painted by Trump, the Clinton Foundation in Podesta’s emails is riven by rumors, funding woes and internal feuds—among them a bitter rift between the candidate’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and a former aide of her father, former President Bill Clinton.
While the leaks do underscore the coziness between the Clintons and well-heeled donors, Trump’s reliance on the hacked emails has given even some in his own party pause, especially as he has continued to express admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge it,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who backs Trump, said recently in an interview with ABC News. “Further, I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”
The releases from WikiLeaks put journalists in the uncomfortable position of receiving and reviewing stolen property for its potential news value. There has undisputedly been some real news to emerge, such as Clinton’s secret Wall Street speech transcripts.
Emails obtained through public records requests or other official means often contain redactions, but not the WikiLeaks emails. They contain personal financial details, medical information, phone numbers and even an account of purported suicide threats made by a key staffer at the Clinton family foundation.
Still, media ethicists say, news organizations have little choice but to wade through the daily email dumps looking for news.
“Journalists must ask themselves, ‘To whom do you owe your primary loyalty?’ The answer is your audience, the American public,” said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education foundation in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Ignore the emails and you fail to serve the American public, and play into the hands of the manipulative, destructive narrative that the media is on Hillary’s side.”
The stolen emails do provide an unvarnished and sometimes profane glimpse of the inner workings of a campaign that has a reputation for being guarded.
In a 2015 exchange with Podesta, liberal operative Neera Tanden wrote of Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, “I f(asterisk)(asterisk)king hate that guy,” calling him a “smug,” ”pompous,” loathsome man whom a reasonable person might wish “to kick the s(asterisk)(asterisk)t out of on Twitter.”
Lessig, an advocate of campaign finance reform who launched a modest protest campaign for president, wrote on his blog that he got off an airliner after a flight to visit his father to find his email inbox flooded with messages about the hacked exchange.
“I can’t for the life of me see the public good in a leak like this—at least one that reveals no crime or violation of any important public policy,” Lessig wrote. “We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder.”