As Election Nears, German Media Braces for Devious Hacks

That, the newspaper theorized, might be a vehicle through which the hackers release their digital booty ahead of the Sept. 24 election, which will be a referendum on Ms. Merkel, the de facto European Union leader (and, it happens, one of the strongest Continental voices for continued Russian sanctions).

Whatever the case, if the data does leak, Germany will face a test like the one America faced last fall. More specifically, the German media will face a test like the one the American media did.

I had to wonder: Will it do better than we did? And should we have done better in the first place?

The Clinton campaign, its supporters and even some in the media itself have complained since last summer that American news organizations were all too ready to make themselves the weapons of a hostile foreign power, by happily reprinting emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton adviser John Podesta, which intelligence officials say were the fruit of Russian hacking. The charge has taken on still more potency with the investigations into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. (They say they didn’t; Russia denies involvement in the hacks.)

The view has its adherents here, including the chief editor of the influential German magazine Der Spiegel, Klaus Brinkbäumer.

“I wouldn’t say the American media failed, but I actually do agree when somebody says that they’d been weaponized and used, it’s sad to say,” he told me over the telephone from his headquarters in Hamburg.

“It was out there very quickly, and very, very soon, and of course there was a plan behind it,” he said, “and I’m not sure every journalist who used this material understood what was behind it.”

Should similarly stolen emails drop into the decidedly tamer media here, Mr. Brinkbäumer told me, Der Spiegel would not use any information it couldn’t independently verify.

“We want to be not as quick as possible but as honest as possible and as sincere as possible — that means there will be no rush,” he said.

The editors at Bild, Germany’s largest newspaper, plan to go further.

“We will have a special teaser, and in the teaser we will have a banner saying ‘Hacked,’ because ‘Hacked’ is more known than ‘Leaked’ in Germany,” Julian Röpcke, the Bild political editor, told me at the paper’s offices in the headquarters of its corporate parent, Axel Springer.

“And then we will have every paragraph where we use leaked information in red,” he said. “So we will have black and red paragraphs, and under it we will write something like, ‘The information in red was leaked to manipulate your opinion about this person.’”

Mr. Röpcke said Bild’s decisions were partly informed by what had taken place in the United States, though he said he wasn’t being judgmental about his overseas colleagues.

“I think we would have made the same mistakes, because it was so early and you didn’t really know what was happening,” he said as we spoke over Cokes in the Axel Springer Journalists Club, a throwback to a bygone newspaper era featuring original wood paneling from The London Times and sweeping views of Berlin.

Then again, United States intelligence officials suspected Russian involvement in the hacking early on. At the time, though, editors at major media outlets — including this one — said that if the contents of the emails were newsworthy, they had no choice but to report them.

Hillary Clinton’s aides argue that they were covered excessively. The much bigger story, they say, was that the emails were allegedly the fruit of a Russian attempt to undermine the American political process.

“There were not commensurate journalistic resources committed to investigating the chain of custody of the hacked materials compared with the easy task of just regurgitating what was in them,” Brian Fallon, Mrs. Clinton’s former press secretary, told me over the phone.

Sensitive to charges of excuse-making, Mr. Fallon added: “I’m not saying the media is solely to blame. The Clinton campaign made plenty of mistakes.” But that, he said, “shouldn’t free the media from looking at itself if this is going to be the norm — where foreign governments are going to interfere in elections.”

Mr. Fallon acknowledged that there had been some newsworthy material in the stolen emails. If there hadn’t been, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, would not have had to resign (over emails showing she favored Mrs. Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primary season), and CNN would not have broken its contributors’ contract with Ms. Wasserman-Schultz’s interim successor, Donna Brazile (over emails showing she shared with the Clinton campaign a question proposed for a CNN/TVOne candidates’ town hall-style forum).

Mr. Fallon directed his criticism at less consequential tidbits, like gossipy quips captured in the email exchanges of Mr. Podesta and the prominent Clinton supporter Neera Tanden. They fed a stream of blog items and social media posts, he said, that allowed “the Russians to manipulate the news media’s attention.”

They also fed the American media’s voracious appetite for bite-size, traffic-driving tidbits that are the opiates of the nation’s new information addiction.

Several people I spoke with here said they were optimistic that news of the hack-and-leak operation in the United States had helped prepare Europe for similar efforts. They pointed to France, where leaks of stolen emails from Emmanuel Macron’s political movement, En Marche, failed to sway the electorate there.

The French newspaper Le Monde, for instance, declared that it would not allow itself to be “manipulated by the publishing agenda of anonymous actors.”

But the leaks also hit just hours before a legal blackout that forbids candidates and media to share “electoral propaganda” 44 hours ahead of voting. And, as Le Monde wrote, it was not enough time to verify any newsworthy material, anyway.

It was never clear that there was much newsworthy in the leaked files to begin with.

As Marcel Rosenbach, a cybersecurity reporter for Der Spiegel, told me, “If there’s actually something in the material that amounts to something — if there is a scandal to be reported on — that’s the most important question.”

In that case, the German media’s fervent hopes for dealing with stolen data will face their true test.

If history, and what I know about reporters everywhere, are a guide, they will publish. That, after all, is the imperative of a free press. But getting the story right means getting the whole story, including when the leaks are part of a suspected state action aimed at swaying opinion.

If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that the answer to information as a weapon is more information, as a path to the truth. And, yes, we can handle it.

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