Disrupters Were Journalism's Winners in the 2016 Election

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The filing of the final campaign stories can only mean one thing – it’s postmortem time. 

In our amped-up news cycle, the mainstream media’s performance has already been sliced and diced in real time. The main critiques have drawn wide attention: barely disguised bias against now President-elect Donald Trump; coziness and collusion between the Clinton campaign and the media, as laid bare in hacked emails; and unfair "free air time" granted to the ratings-boosting Trump on the cable networks, especially some Fox News shows.

 But the big story this election season was not the coverage – both good and bad – by legacy outfits. Instead, the 2016 election ratified the influence of a relatively new force in the media: nontraditional activist journalists.

I am referring here primarily to the conservative investigative journalist Peter Schweizer, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch and, last but not least, the enigmatic international transparency group WikiLeaks. Call them the disrupters. 

Few would dispute that collectively these three have driven the most consequential coverage of the campaign for well over a year now. Traditional news outlets have often been relegated to the role of mere amplifier of their troubling revelations about Hillary or Bill Clinton or their circle -- revelations that by and large have not been called into question.

It's worth recapping what they did, and reflecting on what that means.

Schweizer is the author of the book “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.” Among other things, this seminal 2015 bestseller, from the think-tank world no less, prompted a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of the Clinton Foundation that continues, as we learned late in the campaign.  

Judicial Watch is the conservative watchdog group whose relentless freedom of information lawsuits over Hillary Clinton’s emails forced headline-grabbing disclosures throughout the campaign, picked up by news outlets across the political spectrum. (The New York Times did disclose the existence of her private server, discovered by congressional probers.)

WikiLeaks, for the few Kardashian fans who may not have heard of it by now, is the international nonprofit that publishes secret information. For months it trickled out politically explosive, hacked Democratic emails like water torture, at least to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her party and some journalists.

Try as some in the news media might, it is not so easy to consign these three to the fringes of journalism. As he notes in an essay elsewhere on RealClearInvestigations, Schweizer has regularly won validation for his work from mainstream media, some of which collaborated with him.

Judicial Watch is a conservative gadfly, yes, but it is acting more like a newsroom staffed by lawyers – a scary thought, to the government at the very least. With an ample, donor-funded war chest, the nonprofit is taking journalists to school in deploying one of their most valued weapons, the Freedom of Information Act, doing so more effectively than any news organization in recent memory. Mainstream news organizations are happy to take its costly court-won revelations and run with them. So it’s not surprising that its President, Tom Fitton, nominated Judicial Watch for three Pulitzer Prizes last year (It was disqualified because it was ruled to be an advocacy group, Fitton told the Pulitzer-laden New York Times).

And look at the accolades WikiLeaks claims on its website, including from Time and The Economist. In 2010, journalists from the Guardian, the New York Times and other outlets readily rolled up their sleeves to get in on the ground floor with WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, and publish stolen material that illuminated dark corners of American foreign policy. 

Today, as regards hacked Democratic emails concerning possible criminality and corruption by a possible next President of the United States, the mainstream media's relationship with WikiLeaks was -- shall we say -- less ground floor and more arm’s length. These are Russian-directed hacks of American democracy, we are told; this batch of stolen information is somehow different from earlier ones.

Schweizer, Judicial Watch and WikiLeaks may not be typical reporters but their methods and aims align with some of the best traditions of journalism, in particular investigative journalism. Attacks on their journalistic integrity have far less to do with high-minded principles than protecting turf.

Ultimately all news reports should be judged by two standards. The first is relatively straightforward: are they accurate? There is little doubt that the disrupters discussed here meet that test. But the second standard -- are the news reports fair? -- is becoming increasingly problematic and subjective. What is fair in a fractured media environment that increasingly mirrors our fractured politics? Americans, and their preferred media sources, increasingly see the same set of facts very differently. When fairness is in the eye of the beholder, the judgment of fairness becomes a cudgel removed from an ideal.

Claims of journalistic objectivity are equally problematic. Back in 2013, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, a onetime boss of mine, debated the convention of objectivity in news reports with another disrupter, the “civil liberties” journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald, who helped bring to light American secrets stolen by Edward Snowden, held that "honestly disclosing rather than hiding one's subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism.”

Keller disagreed, saying it’s better to suspend one’s opinions and let "the evidence speak for itself."

Keller’s standard is the mainstream standard of objectivity – the one some use to judge journalism disrupters and find them wanting. Or maybe it was the mainstream standard. As the WikiLeaks emails and a lot of election reporting suggest, a good number in the news business pay lip service to objectivity and honor it in the breach.

At the dawn of the Trump era, maybe it’s time for those journalists to do some soul-searching and, if they can’t uphold their professed principles, drop the charade and be proud activists.

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