How the media botched its coverage of Roger Stone and helped him hype Russian dark ops
News on Friday that a federal court convicted former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone on seven counts, including obstruction of a proceeding, false statements, and witness tampering only added to Trump's woes as the second day of impeachment hearings played out in Washington. Stone’s conviction certainly added to an aura of criminality that surrounds Trump, as more aides and advisers are convicted and sentenced to prison time.
The guilty verdicts also returned focus to the dismal job the campaign press did in 2016. Specifically, the media treated a bottom feeder like Stone as a serious person while wallowing in the Democratic emails that Russian operatives stole, and for which Stone served as a conduit for Republicans.
During the 2016 campaign, both The New York Times and The Washington Post couldn't stop quoting Stone, and couldn't stop whitewashing his ugly past. In their pages, Stone was vaguely tagged as a "Trump confidant," a "veteran political operative," "an informal adviser," "a political strategist,” the "master of the political dark arts," a "sometime-Trump adviser," and yes, a "Trump supporter." What did news outlets politely leave out in 2016, when Stone became a go-to source? They left out his racist and radically hateful past.
From Media Matters:
Stone called commentator Roland Martin a “stupid negro” and “fat negro.” He referred to commentator Herman Cain as “mandingo” and called former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) an “arrogant know-it-all negro.” He also called commentator Al Sharpton a “professional negro” who likes fried chicken and asked if former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was an “Uncle Tom.”
Additionally, Stone attacked New York Times columnist Gail Collins as an “elitist c*nt” and tweeted “DIE BITCH” at former Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Back in 2008, Stone formed the anti-Clinton group called “C.U.N.T.” Keep in mind, Stone had been banned by both CNN and MSNBC because he was so untrustworthy, but the Times and Post had no trouble trusting him.
There's no way serious news outlets should have been dignifying a gutter player like Stone as a significant, professional political voice in 2016. "Stone is a thug who relishes personal insults, character assassination, and offensive gestapo-like tactics that should be unequivocally dismissed by civil society, most especially those who might give him a platform from which to spew his hatred," is what conservatives were saying about Stone that year.
But when it came to Trump, too many in the press changed all the rules in order to accommodate him. And one key rule was to pretend Stone wasn't a deeply odious and untrustworthy player.
Stone's star seemed to rise in the press because of his association with the story of the Democratic Party emails that were stolen and widely distributed to the media during the campaign. And that was the media's second major, Stone-related sin of the campaign season: Journalists actively, and irresponsibly, hyped a Russia dark ops campaign that Stone helped market.
Here's the key part: Despite their revisionist claims that they had no idea Russia was behind the email scheme, journalists knew in the summer of 2016 that Russia was connected to the hack, yet reporters and editors gleefully published the stolen documents anyway. WikiLeaks’ connection to the Kremlin has never been a deep mystery. "Throughout WikiLeaks’ existence, the allegedly pro-transparency group has had strange, shadowy, but very well-documented connections to the Russian state," Vox has noted.
In June 2016, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee posted a public notice that concluded that the hack had been carried out by two groups associated with Russian intelligence. And in July, top U.S. officials were confirming that Russians were behind the illegal attack on the DNC.
So why the media rush to do Russia's bidding in 2016? I've tweeted this many times, but if anyone thinks the same journalists and the same news outlets would have gorged on stolen Trump emails in 2016 if they had been hacked by Iranian government operatives, I know of a bridge that's for sale in Brooklyn. That scenario simply is not conceivable because the press would have instantly backed down to right-wing objections and claims the press was aiding and abetting an American foe and helping Iranians interfere in a U.S. election.
But with Clinton, the press wallowed in an unmistakable amusement as they pretended the benign emails pulled back the curtain and offered an unvarnished look at her. (They did not, unless you count risotto recipes as being an unvarnished look.) What unfolded in 2016 was comically breathless coverage of the emails, even though those pushing the hacked material often conceded that none of the emails revealed stunning information. After the campaign, the Times itself conceded that news organizations became “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” by publishing so many stories on the hacked emails.
The dirty little secret is that everyone in the D.C. press thought Clinton was going to win, and because there was a strange personal animus toward her, the press seemed to see its job as making sure she limped across the finish line and that her historic win be as unenjoyable as possible. The hacked emails provided a perfect vehicle for that harassment campaign.
Three prominent researchers who documented Russia's propaganda success in 2016 recently urged journalists to rethink how they treat hacked emails delivered by Russian intelligence. "Newsrooms should carefully consider how the volume of their coverage might be manipulated by strategic leaks," stressed Renee DiResta, Michael McFaul and Alex Stamos. "Most importantly, they need to break the cycle of amplifying disinformation by "covering the controversy."
That's sage advice. Here's some more for 2020: Don't follow the lead of bad actors like Roger Stone.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.