Reuters reported Friday that newly declared Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke had been part of an infamous hacker group as a teen. (Hacking is illegal unethical, don’t you know.)
Reporter Joe Menn said that he learned about O’Rourke’s involvement in the group when he began researching The Cult of the Dead Cow, which he called “the most interesting and influential hacking group in history.”
He discovered that an alumnus of the group had a member who was sitting in Congress. “I didn’t know which one,” Menn said, “and then I figured out which one it was. And the members of the group wouldn’t talk to me about who it was. They wouldn’t confirm that it was this person unless I promised that I wouldn’t write about it until after the November 2018 election,” that being O’Roarke’s unsuccessful effort to defeat Texas Senator Ted Cruz last year. Reuters, to be clear, sat on the story, which may have interested Texas voters, for two years.
O’Rourke himself eventually agreed to talk on the record in an interview in late 2017, confirming that he was a member of the group ,also on the understanding that the information would not be made public until after his Senate race against Cruz .
The ethics takeaways from this are irrelevant to how much weight a voter should put on youthful, pre-adulthood conduct by candidates. But these aren’t ugly or stupid tweets we’re talking about, it is criminal activity–conduct. The public has a right to know, and voters particularly have a right to know. Journalists have a great deal of discretion regarding the promises they make to sources and subjects of investigations, but promising to hide information about a candidate until an election has taken place can’t be defended. It’s a breach of trust, even if it involves high school conduct. Would Menn have made that promise if the adolescent conduct involved selling drugs? Stealing cars? Setting up burning crosses on black citizen’s lawns? Beating up gays? Gang rape? Setting homeless people on fire in the park? Would he have made that promise in O’Roarke were a Republican?
You know, for some strange reason, I don’t trust the judgment and motives of reporters like Menn. The rule should be that if facts come to light that a member of the public and voters would want to know to make an informed decision about their democracy, those facts should be reported immediately, and let the chips fall where they may. Yes, of course there may be rare exceptions; there always are exceptions. Somehow, helping a Democrat get elected seems to always be one. It isn’t.
The mainstream news media, you will recall, tried to bury Bill Clinton’s activities with Monica Lewinsky and the rape allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, just as, in those halcyon days when everybody foolishly thought journalists were fair and unbiased, White House pool reporters covered up impeachable liaisons by Jack Kennedy. What other secrets have they buried to help their favorite politicians? I don’t know. That’s the scary part.
Reuters, if it cares about journalism integrity, should fire Menn, and send a loud message that a reporter withholding information about a candidate until after it is too late to influence the election just because the candidate wants him to is taboo in the field. Of course, it won’t.