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The press should always report the news — even if it comes from a source with ulterior motives.

If a story is true, and it doesn’t involve divulging classified data or private and personal information, like the name of a rape victim or the address and phone number of a private citizen, the press should cover it.

If media get into the habit of sitting on factually true stories because of the unsavory motivations of their sources, it’s not hard to imagine that spiraling out of control. When newsrooms start to believe they’re supposedly protecting the public by withholding information, buried stories will become the norm, not the exception.

Questions about whether media have a duty to ignore true-but-questionably-sourced stories came up this week following the New York Times’ remarkable report on Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The short of it is this: Russian intelligence agents reportedly hacked the email accounts of Democratic National Committee staffers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. These Russian agents then allegedly fed thousands of emails to WikiLeaks, which later released the hacks in installments during the final months of the election. The American press ate it up, eagerly reporting on each new release as it happened.

Aside from communications revealing high-level DNC staffers colluded with the Clinton campaign to rig the Democratic primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., there were no huge news scoops in the email hacks.

Anson Kaye, who served as a senior member of the Hillary for America media team, even compared the leaks to a persistent, but non-threatening, “low grade fever.”

However, now that the election is over, and it’s seems clear the Russians played some role in hacking the DNC and Podesta, Clinton’s supporters are surfacing in numbers to attack the press for covering the hacks.

Media should’ve resisted the urge to report on the content of those stolen emails, the failed presidential candidate’s supporters insist. By failing to do so, they add, the press acted as Putin’s willing pawns.

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The Times itself seemed to agree with this assessment:

Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.
Mr. Putin, a student of martial arts, had turned two institutions at the core of American democracy — political campaigns and independent media — to his own ends. The media’s appetite for the hacked material, and its focus on the gossipy content instead of the Russian source, disturbed some of those whose personal emails were being reposted across the web.

The Washington Examiner contacted the Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, and asked him if the Times regretted covering the email hacks.

His answer was simple: “I think we had to cover what was in the emails.”

Regret aside, there remains the larger question: Should media cover legitimate news even if it comes from a source with ulterior motives?

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The answer is complicated, obviously, but the simplest answer is: Yes.

The press shouldn’t be in the business of withholding non-classified or private and personal information over fears it may hurt a political party or institution or benefit a foreign agent.

Who gets to be the judge of such a thing? Can the press and its very human — and oftentimes fiercely partisan — actors be trusted to draw the line in a responsible fashion?

Though it has more recently fallen down on the job, the American press is nevertheless an indispensable institution, showing occasionally that it still has the stomach and will to hold public officials to account.

However, for the media to be effective, they must be believed. To be believed, they must be credible. To be credible, they must then be transparent (Note: A reader tells me I have just accidentally paraphrased Edward R. Murrow). That means reporting on everything that is legitimately newsworthy. If media begin picking and choosing which true stories are safe to report, they will undermine their own credibility, rendering the entire institution fairly useless.

Whether America’s media should self-censor attempts by a foreign entity to game our free and open press is an extremely tricky question. At what point should newsrooms draw the line and say, “We will not report this”? Does such a line even exist reasonably?

There is no clear and ready answer to these questions.

Perhaps the best available guidance comes from Pope Francis, who begged reporters recently to fight the urge to engage in scandal-mongering and detraction.

“In slander we tell a lie about a person; in defamation, we leak a document … and we uncover something that is true, but already in the past, and which has already been paid for with a jail sentence, with a fine, or whatever. There is no right to this. This is a sin and it is harmful,” he said.

Francis added, “I believe that the media should be very clear, very transparent, and not fall prey — without offence, please — to the sickness of coprophilia, which is always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true. And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, it can do great harm.”

There isn’t a clear-cut set of rules regarding how newsrooms should handle covering stories like the WikiLeaks email dumps. For now, Francis’ plea for media to resist scandal-mongering and detraction is probably the best basic guideline available.

That’s better than nothing.

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