The hackers behind the Sony Pictures leaks have pushed their cause to new extremes. Having spent several weeks making the lives of movie executives miserable, they're now literally threatening the lives of average moviegoers.
It's easy to imagine the executives at Sony Pictures sitting around a conference table, cursing the day they decided to greenlight The Interview. A hyper-violent comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un was never going to be the easiest sell, but the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy may well go down as the biggest headache in studio history. Several weeks ago, a group of hackers, calling themselves the Guardians of Peace, responded to The Interview by releasing an enormous trove of private data stolen from Sony servers.
The fallout has been widespread, embarrassing, and genuinely damaging to the studio. Several movies, including the as-yet unreleased Annie, were posted to file-sharing sites. Confidential information, including salaries and addresses of both movie stars and Sony Picture employees, were published. Private emails, which ranged from snarky to vindictive to racist, were widely disseminated. And unannounced details of many upcoming movies, including the full script for the 007 movie Spectre, were stolen.
The release of so much raw data has been a thorny ethical issue for journalists who cover the entertainment industry, who must weigh the news value of each item vs. the sketchy way in which it was obtained. "The hackers are playing the press as pawns," conceded the co-editor-in-chief of Variety, as he explained why his publication was reporting on the information revealed by the hack. "Journalists are essentially doing their bidding by taking the choicest data excerpts and waving them around for the world to see, maximizing their visibility." "There is something unseemly about reporters dancing to the tune of hackers and making cash in the process," said The Week's own Ed Morrissey. "Unfortunately, that's what the press does with any kind of leak. Leaks and their resultant coverage are driven by the agendas of those who do the leaking, noble or not."
Ethically, I'd argue that the only rational response to something like the Sony hack is a measured one: some details rise to the level of newsworthiness, and some do not.
The hackers' motivations are petty and troubling, but journalists should be comfortable pissing off powerful people — if they're not, they're in the wrong job — and certain leaks, like the racist exchange between Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal, offer an opportunity for the public to get a glimpse at the uncensored comments of powerful people in a disproportionately lily-white industry. If a story like that reached an entertainment journalist through some other channel, it's hard to imagine them sitting on it.
But amid all the juicy gossip revealed by the hack, a second angle has been less discussed: the end goal of the hackers. It was clear from the outset that the hack was a retaliatory action against The Interview, and that the hackers' ultimate aim was to make Sony pull the movie altogether. (That's all assuming, of course, that their stated motives can be taken at face value; the North Korean government has denied direct responsibility, but praised the hackers' actions.)
Sony, to its credit, has not relented yet — but the hacker's most recent message, attached to the latest chunk of hacked data, increases the pressure with an openly terroristic threat. This is the message that came with today's "Christmas gift":
We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY. [The Verge]
We're not just dealing with a group of politically motivated hackers; we're dealing with a group of terrorists who are openly threatening violence against movie theaters. Even with doubts about the validity of these threats — The Interview premiered in Los Angeles last week, though the New York premiere is forthcoming — it's a disturbing message, and it's easy to imagine how it could make potential moviegoers pause as they make their plans for the Christmas season.
But terrorism only works if we're afraid of it. Unfortunately, I suspect the hackers accomplished some measure of success. Given the trouble it's caused, it's hard to imagine another movie like The Interview getting a greenlight anytime soon. But right now, The Interview is still set to debut on Christmas, and it's up to moviegoers to decide whether or not this threat will change their minds about seeing the film.
I don't want to get overly preachy about a goofy, gory Rogen/Franco joint (and, by all accounts, a mediocre one). But this isn't something to be taken lightly, either. We're dealing with intimidation that's virtually unprecedented in this industry, and the way we choose to respond is important, because any response to terrorism sets a precedent that other would-be terrorists will follow.
I'm not particularly interested in The Interview, but by threatening to attack movie theaters that screen it, the hackers just guaranteed that I'll buy a ticket.