The Media’s Handling of “DC Leaks” Material From Russia Was Lousy

It’s time for the media to do some soul searching.

One of the conclusions of last Friday’s report by the Director of National Intelligence on Russian interference in U.S. elections was that Moscow used the website DC Leaks, which came into existence last year, to disseminate stolen documents and emails. Many news organizations used that stolen material as the basis for news stories, often without explaining what DC Leaks was.

You might be thinking: it’s not fair to ding media sites for not knowing the shady nature of DC Leaks. How could they be expected to know such spook-craft before last week’s revelations?

Well, they could have started by reading the “About us” page of DCLeaks.com, which reads as if written by Boris Badenov:

“DCleaks is a new level project aimed to analyze and publish a large amount of emails from top-ranking officials and their influence agents all over the world.”

Or there’s this:

“The authorities are just lobbying interests of Wall Street fat cats, industrial barons and multinational corporations’ representatives who swallow up all resources and subjugate all markets.”

Yes, Natasha, vaht could better be than new level project with large amount of information about industrial fat cat barons that subjugate markets.

Beyond the fractured-fairy-tale syntax, there was plenty of warning about DC Leaks. On August 11, Bloomberg reported, “Security experts now say that site, DCLeaks.com, with its spiffy capitol-dome logo, shows the marks of the same Russian intelligence outfit that targeted the Democratic political organizations.” On August 12, the security firm, Threat Connect, issued a detailed paper headlined, “ThreatConnect Identifies DCLeaks As Another Russian-backed Influence Outlet.”  The report included specific technical proof implicating DC Leaks, and also noted that DC Leaks’ first big document dump involved stolen emails from retired Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the former commander of NATO forces: “In this role as the most senior U.S. military official responsible for Russia, General Breedlove advocated for a more muscular response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Slate, The Hill and others ran stories about DC Leaks’ shady behavior. It was there for the Googling. That didn’t stop most media outlets from covering future leaks – usually with little or no mention of DC Leaks’ suspected nature.

Most troubling, the Observer, the publication run by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, ran three pieces based on DC Leaks information.

One was an August 12 piece headlined “DC Leak Exposes Top Clinton Donor George Soros Manipulating Elections”

On October 7, they ran one titled, “DC Leaks Exposes Clinton Insider’s Elitist and Embarrassing Emails,” identifying the source as “the anonymous hacker organization DC Leaks.”

And on November 14, they published the article, “Email Reveals Clinton Camp Spied on Sanders Delegates Before Convention”

In none of the three pieces, did Kushner’s publication mention the Russian connection to DC Leaks.

But it wasn’t just the Observer. Fox News ran a story on September 22, sourced to DC Leaks, about material stolen from White House staffers about Michelle Obama’s schedule, without mentioning any Russian connection. On October 7, they ran another piece about an MSNBC producer sucking up to Clinton. Again no explanation of what DC Leaks was – nor was there in a related piece by Breitbart.

The Daily Caller breathlessly boasted of their DC Leaks connections: “DC Leaks has given The Daily Caller exclusive access Wednesday to hundreds of emails leaked from White House advance associate Zach Leighton’s personal account.” To their partial credit, they did note — in the last sentence of the piece — that “DC Leaks has been accused of having ties to the Russian government by cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect.”

Even the non-partisan press couldn’t resist publishing the DC Leaks material with only modest mentions of their provenance. The New York Times reported on the contents of Colin Powell’s emails and didn’t mention until the eleventh paragraph: “It is unclear who operates DCLeaks.com.” The Washington Post on September 14 wrote about Colin Powell’s hacked email as coming form “DCLeaks.com, a site with ties to other recent hacks of U.S. political figures and groups.”

As far as I could find, the best treatment was by BuzzFeed which ran the material with this explanation:

“The website DCLeaks.com — which has reported, but not confirmed, ties to Russian intelligence services — obtained Powell’s emails. It may be the latest example of a Russian entity potentially trying to influence the US presidential election — in July, the FBI said it believed Russia was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s internal emails right before they party’s convention.”

Politico also provided some context:

“POLITICO reviewed the correspondence this week after being given access by DC Leaks, a purported anti-secrecy site that researchers have linked to the Russian hackers responsible for breaches at top Democratic organizations.”

In not a single case that I could find did the publications have the Russian ties in the headline or subhead.

Isn’t it time for a little bit of soul searching from the media – Trump-controlled, conservative and mainstream — about how to handle stolen material of shady origins?

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.