Just before Thanksgiving an entity calling itself the Guardians of Peace shunted an unimaginably vast amount of data pillaged from Sony Pictures Entertainment, one of the world’s foremost movie companies, onto publicly available Internet sites. Then they alerted the news media. Stories hit the wires based on the dump of purloined corporate information, which included pretty much everything: personal emails, salary files, employee health records, unreleased feature films, credit card records, passwords, performance evaluations, scripts from rejected TV pilots, and 47,400 Social Security numbers of current and former employees.
The scale and impact of what CNN called the “extraordinary and devastating cyberattack” were both unprecedented—as Buzzfeed put it, “the most embarrassing and all-encompassing hack of internal corporate data ever made public.” While 40 gigabytes of data were released, the hackers claimed to have 100 terabytes in hand. That would be five times the estimated size of the Library of Congress’s book collection.
Stories based on private online chitchat among Sony executives disparaging actors, directors, and other collaborators got big play, as did pay comparisons, strategic musings, details of big show biz contracts, evidence of huge diversity gaps and gender disparities, a counterattack by Hollywood stars, and confirmation of the long-held belief “that the film business was full of back-stabbing egomaniacs,” as a Guardian writer observed.
For its part, Sony responded with both groveling apologetics and a stern warning from its attorney, the celebrated David Boies—hero of the successful Microsoft antitrust suit and the unsuccessful attempt to keep George W. Bush out of the White House in 2000—that news media would be sued if they didn’t delete the stolen material. That’s a warning that few people regarded as legally plausible, and would have put Sony on a legal collision course with its fellow Hollywood movie giants that also own big news media, notably Walt Disney Co. (ABC and Fusion) and Time Warner (Time Inc.), which had weighed in with substantial hacking coverage of their own.
Sony also decided—after threats were posted of possible reprisals against cinemas showing the satirical movie that apparently provoked the hack, in which the leader of North Korea is assassinated—to withhold it from theatrical release. It’s now talking to online distributors about relying exclusively on Internet-based rental channels.
But I want to look at the ethics of the assault on Sony, which drew some initial comment but which deserves more sustained consideration. While the wrongness of what the hackers did is clear, the complicity of the news media in aiding and abetting them has been less thoroughly condemned.
In my view this is an affair that exquisitely compresses some of the most troubling ethical issues of journalism in the digital age. “West Wing” writer and producer Aaron Sorkin—who got “dinged,” as he put it, in hacked emails about a project he’s scripting for Sony—wrote an angry Op-Ed column for the New York Times wondering, in a word, what gives? What’s the justification for the news media to take part in such wholesale informational plunder?
The ethical critique of the Sony coverage is a powerful one, and it warrants closer examination.
First is the question of privacy. Shouldn’t the news media defer to the ordinary expectation that our routine interactions with colleagues, even those that happen in a workplace setting, won’t be served up for public consumption without our consent—assuming we’ve broken no laws and have done nothing where the public benefit from exposure outweighs our right to keep private talk private?
This isn’t a simple question, and there certainly are elements in the Sony emails that offer insight into the mindset of individuals whose judgments and worldviews have sweeping consequence in shaping the contours of popular culture. That these people are jerks, with the emotional maturity of teenage prom court also-rans, is of some interest, as those of us who feast on Hollywood memoirs can attest.
But such wholesale exposure comes at a cost: It shrinks the sphere of security and candor within which we all thrive, it makes our working world more timid, it diminishes our ability to be forthright in our day-to-day interactions, it’s vast numbers of eyes looking over our shoulders. And that’s no small thing.
So the decision of whether the story is worth it needs to be taken carefully, not indiscriminately and gleefully, as it was here.
Second, and of even greater consequence, is the role the media have eagerly accepted in what appears to be an utterly reprehensible plot. If, as seems clear, the Sony hack was a reprisal for the studio’s plan to release the comedy film, “The Interview,” it’s an action whose full fury required the collaboration of the world’s news media.
The media weren’t covering the hack, they were integral to it, they were fulfilling its purpose: to hold Sony Pictures up to ridicule, to frighten and demoralize its employees, to trigger litigation, to scare off potential audiences for the movie, and to send a message to other studios about the range of pressures that their own creative decisions might be vulnerable to.
It’s hard to see that the public illumination that has come from media coverage of the hacked data was worth all that.
Andrew Wallenstein, co-editor in chief of Variety, the entertainment business mainstay, reflected ruefully on the problematic ethics of the media coverage, but concluded that he had no choice but to follow the media herd: “My prime directive as editor in chief of Variety is to stay relevant …You have to be part of the conversation.”
Sadly, it’s just that choice that the hackers were counting on.