The hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer network has certainly entertained the national media over the past few days, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Combine the insatiable appetite for celebrity news with the opportunity to look behind the corporate wall to find out how entertainment executives talk among one another, and you have a click-bait powerhouse. Toss in an example of racism toward President Obama by two powerful liberals, and it turns into the event of the season. What’s not to love?
Plenty, according to Aaron Sorkin. The television and film producer and writer suffered serious damage to his image in the release of the hacked internal communications. Sorkin accused the media of "giving material aid to criminals" in an essay for The New York Times. "[E]very news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace," Sorkin wrote in reference to the hacker group that took responsibility for the theft of the data, "is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable."
Give Sorkin credit for guts, if not discretion. One of the media outlets Sorkin called out for moral treason was Variety, the most important trade magazine in Sorkin’s industry. Andrew Wallenstein, Variety's co-editor-in-chief, offered up a cri de coeur defense last week for reporting on and publishing the contents of the leaked communications. "The hackers are playing the press as pawns," Wallenstein admitted. "Journalists are essentially doing their bidding by taking the choicest data excerpts and waving them around for the world to see, maximizing their visibility."
After citing the same issues that drove Sorkin to later roast his publication, Wallenstein ended up defending his decision to publish. "Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery," he concluded. Had the same information come to Variety in a different way, Wallenstein argued, it still would have been published.
Sorkin, for his part, argued that the leaked material had no real news value, unlike the leaks from the Edward Snowden cache or the Pentagon Papers. Sony isn’t a government or Enron, he pointed out, but a movie studio, and nothing of what was stolen and published had any social or cultural value, appealing only to the prurient and the nosy.
In this, Sorkin landed a clean punch — but perhaps he was too much on target. His essay could easily be taken for an argument against the existence of Variety altogether. After all, Variety doesn't cover governments or the Enrons of the world. What exactly is Variety supposed to cover, if not news about the studios and celebrities, the appetite for which can be best described as prurience and nosiness?
For that matter, the entertainment industry hardly rises to Sorkin’s stated standards, despite his best efforts. He fulminated about a NATO-type treaty among studios and unions to lobby Congress for some kind of action to defend against an attack on "one of America’s largest exports." Sony Entertainment is a subsidiary of the Japanese corporation, of course, so it’s not exactly an American export. And if the American film industry as a whole is so important that it requires Congress to protect it, then suddenly we’re back to grounds that it is newsworthy, and that Variety and other media outlets are correct to exercise scrutiny whenever possible.
There is also a hint of double standards in Sorkin’s outrage. If the Rudin-Pascal email exchange had taken place at another corporation — say, Walmart or Koch Industries — would Sorkin have objected to a hack that exposed it, and media coverage about the exchange? Or would it have been just great journalism, as long as it didn’t gore Sorkin’s own ox?
Consider this: The IRS leaked confidential financial information about the National Organization for Marriage before the 2012 election, after which it ended up in the hands of its opponents, Human Rights Watch. It then got disseminated to media outlets, which published the data and damaged the conservative group’s operations during a political campaign. A similar leak struck the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose financial records also got published by a liberal outlet before the 2012 election.
On a public policy basis, as well as on the affront-to-American-values scale, those infractions should rank a little higher than the Sony hack. Yet Sorkin didn’t seem bothered by reporters following up on those leaks. Or perhaps I missed Sorkin’s call for Congress to take action against the IRS and its targeting of private conservative organizations.
Still, as Sorkin alleged and Wallenstein admitted, there is something unseemly about reporters dancing to the tune of hackers and making cash in the process. 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. That’s as true with celebrity gossip as it is with the Snowden leaks and the confidential data of conservative groups.
Should that be the case? No. But the media aren’t going to swear off leaks or purloined documents any time soon. We are better off taking aim at the leakers and the hackers than the media.