Leaks vs. reporting in the age of Trump

Leaks vs. reporting in the age of Trump

To listen to President Donald Trump, his spokespeople and a number of talking heads on cable TV, leaks to the media are rampant these days.

But is this really true? At the same time that Trump has rebuked the media for reporting leaks, he has derided a number of the stories based on the leaks as fake news.

So, what's going on here? There may be a larger, age-old issue here when it comes to leaks vs. reporting.

When journalists get sources to talk to them and give them information in the course of doing their jobs, is that a leak or a source answering a reporter’s questions?

Or is a leak only when someone decides to call or email a reporter and make a conscious decision to share something sensitive without any prompting?

We are seeing lots of leaks now

And why are there so many leaks now? The New York Times editor recently weighed in on this, saying Trump is dealing with leaks from two groups -- people in the DC establishment and those in the White House.

There is and always has been a fine line between a leak and reporter doing their job.

One of the most famous examples reared its head again recently. Former New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, writing an op-ed about the Vietnam War on May 29, said in a brief bio in that piece that he “obtained” the Pentagon Papers for the Times in 1971.

But by all accounts, it was then Rand Corp. employee Daniel Ellsberg who photocopied the Pentagon study of the Vietnam War and released it to the Times and other newspapers. (The Nixon administration unsuccessfully tried to stop their publication; Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act but all charges were later dropped.)

Leaks come in different types

Leaks can be about sensitive, confidential and classified information.

But it can get complicated – as Trump himself reportedly gave classified Israeli intelligence about ISIS to the Russians during an Oval Office meeting. And someone leaked the name of the Manchester bomber to the U.S. media before UK officials disclosed it. These two instances upset Israel and the UK.

In the middle of all of this, Trump has called for finding the leakers and stopping the leaks.

But Presidents have historically had mixed results with stopping leaks. And prosecutors have had similar results when using prosecutions or investigations to attempt to find the sources of leaks.

And now when Trump alternately rails out against leaks and then calls the stories coming from leaks “fake news,” he gets more media pushback.

Journalists say it’s not fake news

As Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post said on MSNBC on May 30: “No reporters I know are making things up.”

For reporters, the debate over leaks vs. reporting and “fake news” is something they would rather avoid but they are being dragged into it. For PR people, you generally don’t like leaks about your client or your company -- especially if they are negative.

What should reporters and PR people do in this atmosphere?

  • If you’re a reporter, keep reporting. Make sure your source is solid and understands they could get caught up in a leak probe or a Trump tweet.
  • If you’re a PR person, talk to your client or key people at your company. Make sure they understand what they can and can’t say or give to the press.

When it comes to Trump himself, no one would expect him to be upset if the leaks were positive.  In fact, he only likes official leaks that come from him or his administration and has had a tantrum when the leaks are bad for him or what he calls fake news.

But I think in this time we are living in, and with the Russia probe expected to continue, we will see a continuation of aggressive reporting and some version of leaks, no matter how they happen or how you define them.


The Comey “Leak” and the Reality Winner Leak

Two more recent developments -- both Russia-related -- indicate the furor over leaks is here to stay.

When former FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress, he acknowledged he had a friend, later identified as Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman, contact the New York Times to tell them about a memo Comey had written after a meeting with Trump.

A report on the memo, in which Comey claimed Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation, ran in the Times. After Comey told Congress his friend went to the media, Trump called Comey a leaker and his attorney threatened to file a DOJ complaint against Comey.

As far as we know, Comey's memo contained sensitive information, but it wasn't classified. What was classified was a separate NSA report leaked by government contractor Reality Winner. News of that incident broke the same week as Comey’s testimony.  

Winner was arrested and charged with "removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet." According to media coverage, that material was an NSA report about efforts by Russia to mount a cyberattack on a U.S. election software company and local election officials before the 2016 election. The Intercept.com wrote a story based on the leak.

So the debate over leaks continues. Stay tuned.

Andrew Blum is a PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. Contact him at ajbcomms@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter: @ajbcomms

Photo via Pixabay

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