Russian meddling: Mainstream media is part of the problem

Russian meddling: Mainstream media is part of the problem
© Getty Images

Lying just below big headlines from the impeachment hearings was an urgent message for mainstream media: The rules of the journalism game need to change, because a formidable player — Russia — won’t leave the arena.

The game I’m talking about is how “opposition research” becomes news.

Former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill testified that Russia operates “like a Super PAC,” spending millions to “weaponize” opposition research, also known as “oppo.” Sections of her opening statement were directed at Republicans supporting what she described as “fictional” Ukraine narratives — but her warning could just as easily be aimed at political reporters.


For as long as anyone can remember, oppo leaks have fueled news scoops and exclusives. Journalists knew this information came from sources with an obvious agenda but, if the facts checked out, the research was fair game for a story.

Nonetheless, there were gatekeepers. Editors and other higher-ups could hold the research back, even if it was true. For a long time, many in the media were squeamish when it came to allegations about sex that were, by their nature, tough to confirm.

In the 1990s the news media found a way around that queasiness. It was called “reporting on the reporting.” During the 1992 Democratic primary season, mainstream media declined to publish allegations that candidate Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson Clinton2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Davis: My recommendation for vice president on Biden ticket Pelosi: Trump trying 'to suppress the vote' with attacks on mail-in ballots MORE had an affair with singer Gennifer Flowers. The National Star, a supermarket tabloid, was less hesitant and printed the story just days before the New Hampshire primary.

This gave the “respectable” press an opening: They didn’t need to prove the story was true; they simply reported on the controversy created by The Star. This work-around made many uncomfortable but soon became standard operating procedure.

After all, everything was part of a big game: Political campaigns were like pro-wrestling, and journalists were merely doing play-by-play from the sidelines. Campaign operatives with oppo leaks just wanted to make sure “their side” didn’t go flat on the mat.


But now we’re in a world where “their side” is not any domestic side at all. As Dr. Hill made clear, the Russians in 2016 didn’t care who won. Their disruptive goal was to make sure either candidate would become president under a cloud.

The media, to be brutally honest, were hoodwinked. As most news organizations now admit, hacked emails from the DNC contained little real information (John Podesta’s risotto recipes made a splash) but were feverishly reported on anyway. The nearly 20,000 emails were doled out in the days leading up to the 2016 Democratic Convention, designed to create maximum confusion. The scheme worked.

Much the same holds for the “Steele dossier.” An AP analysis of the dossier, a year after its release, asserts the document “appears to be a murky mixture” of real information, along with “snippets of fiction and disinformation.” Hill, an intelligence analyst, made it clear in her testimony she thought Steele had been "played" by the Russians. Mainstream news outlets wouldn’t have released the dossier without working for months to separate facts from outrageous claims. But Buzzfeed published it in full on Jan. 10, 2017, just 11 days before the inauguration. “Reporting on the reporting” allowed everyone else to dive in.

It’s clear now that Russia was the only winner in a game where the media thought they were sideline commentators but were actually active participants.

That happened because news outlets were playing by outdated rules. The game once stayed within our borders and operated — however carelessly — inside our political system, but not anymore. Adapting to that change will be hard: The news cycle is relentless, the economic pressure is profound. The media can’t afford to hesitate on a big story — yet, more than ever, they should. Leaks not only need to be judged by their truth but also by who the source really is and who really benefits.

Russia won’t exit the ring any time soon. The oppo game that news outlets play needs to place that grim reality front and center — or we all lose.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.