If the ongoing WikiLeaks fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that the American media does not know how to effectively cover Russia’s alleged connection to the DNC and Podesta leaks or its supposed scheme to undermine American democracy. That’s because Russia is taking advantage of a free media environment, where the government cannot control how and what kind of information is disseminated.
The media fallout unseated Debbie Wasserman Schultz and put Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party on the defensive. Rather than focusing on how to win votes and ensure a Clinton victory, the Democrats were fighting off accusations of corruption and favoritism.
These leaks felt different. Although the documents were leaked during a campaign season, this was not an American method of taking down a rival. This was not opposition research, where an intern sits in an office in Washington, D.C., and listens to hours of YouTube videos to catch a politician making a mistake...
As a Russia watcher, this was too familiar.
Back in the 1990s, Russian oligarchs vied for power and influence in the Kremlin. Each billionaire owned his own media outlet and used former Soviet intelligence connections to dig up damning information (or simply fabricate a story). From accusations of homosexuality to foreign banking assets, Russian kompromat (or compromising material) was used to discredit and shame political opponents. Mayors were sacked and even Boris Yeltsin was rumored to have been a victim.
The Kremlin has consolidated the country’s media since those anarchic years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, President Putin has control of a vast and sophisticated network of state-owned or dominated television channels, newspapers and magazines. The Kremlin can wield kompromat against political enemies in surgical strikes exactly because they have such a strong grip on information flows.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the media is free to spin and expand on any details – only partially controlled by journalistic codes of ethics. Information is free-flowing. This is exactly why such chaos erupts when damning information is leaked – no one has direct control over a majority of what kind of information gets out into the public. That’s exactly why Russia can mobilize kompromat against key American leaders and spark a media inferno.
The beauty of this tactic is that the American media must make an impossible decision: it must choose between its commitment to informing the public and holding officials accountable and its responsibilities to this country’s integrity and institutions.
While a free media remains better than the alternative, American newspapers, television channels, and magazines should be careful how they treat sensitive information coming from leaks.