Aaron Sorkin in 2011. Photo courtesy WEBN-TV
If I awoke one morning to find a stolen car parked in my driveway with the keys in the ignition, I would not pull it into my garage or drive it to work. I don’t think you would, either.
If an email appeared in my inbox claiming that an attached file contained a list of all of my competitor’s clients, complete with their contact information and financial details, I would probably just delete the email. I certainly would not open the attachment, even if I were not worried about infection with a computer virus (which would be a serious concern in this situation).
And when intimate photos of celebrities are hacked from their devices and posted on the internet, I do not seek out or look at those images. I agree with actress Jennifer Lawrence, who was victimized by such a crime, that each uninvited viewing by a stranger is a continuation of a sexual assault. I would not want to be associated with any outlet whose stock in trade is such abuse.
I am therefore sympathetic to executives of Sony Pictures who, through their attorney David Boies, have demanded that news outlets stop downloading, hosting and reporting on the trove of confidential information that was stolen from hacked Sony computers and posted online by the thieves, who are apparently either sponsored by or aligned with elements of the North Korean government. North Korea, which has taken deep offense to a forthcoming Sony film, has denied involvement in the hacking but praised its results.
I am likewise sympathetic to screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin, who is the subject of some of the stolen material and, in a New York Times op-ed, called its dissemination “morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable.”
Sorkin was right to suggest that readers “imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that will draw the most blood. And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing. As demented and criminal as it is, at least the hackers are doing it for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel.”
Before I get all holier-than-thou, there are a few apparent wrinkles in my ethical reasoning that I need to smooth out. One is that I do not object to reporting about the fact, the nature and the extent of a data theft; such reporting is important to help society, notably other businesses, understand the threats we face. I think the New York Times was off-base when it cited a Bloomberg story that reported about highly personal medical records of Sony employees and their families that were among the data released online, without naming any names. (Disclosure, I have a daughter who works at Bloomberg, though to my knowledge she has not been involved in covering the Sony breach.)
On the other hand, I thought Bloomberg crossed the line with another story that reported on an approach to Sony by a group purporting to represent some Middle Eastern princes who supposedly wanted to invest $7 billion in the studio, under certain conditions. The details of that interaction were Sony’s private business and none of the public’s. The distinction between the two stories is a fine one, though not one that I have much difficulty in drawing.
My attitude about publishing the contents of stolen documents at all is more ambiguous, and thus more difficult to reconcile. I have no trouble at all with the fact that, 40 years ago, newspapers including The Times and The Washington Post chose to publish the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. The documents described the history of American involvement in the Southeast Asian military conflicts that began in the 1950s. We were in the midst of the Vietnam War, which was one of the most important and controversial public issues of its time; of course the government’s own history of that war was important to the public. It never should have been classified at all.
Similarly, I am not distressed that news outlets reported on many aspects of the surveillance and data collection techniques that Edward Snowden disclosed via the documents he took from the National Security Agency last year. Americans were misled about the scope and nature of the data that was being accumulated in the name of the fight against terrorism; thus, we were deprived of an opportunity to debate and legislatively weight the trade-offs between security, privacy and the risk of that data’s abuse. Snowden now has asylum in Russia. There is room for disagreement about what should happen to him if he ever comes under U.S. jurisdiction again, but I don’t see any legitimate argument that the press should have refrained from reporting on his disclosures.
On the other hand, I had (and still have) serious reservations about much of the reporting on information that originated with the service member formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, now imprisoned under the name Chelsea Manning. Her data dump, which was published by WikiLeaks initially with the collaboration of several prominent American and foreign media outlets, had much less material of genuine public concern, except to the extent that the public chose to concern itself with confidential State Department and Pentagon cables and other materials that basically showed diplomats and soldiers doing things that diplomats and soldiers do. Unlike Snowden, who was deeply concerned about a privacy question of significant public interest, there was no particular issue or objective that animated Manning.
Why do I question journalists using Manning’s purloined material but not Snowden’s? Reporters are not, and should not, be in the business of evaluating their sources’ motivations; they are in the business of reporting news. The only unifying principle I can find to explain my views is that I thought there was a great deal of valuable news in Snowden’s disclosures, but not in Manning’s.
This principle is what news outlets have used to defend their publication of material taken in the Sony hack. The problem is that what they call news isn’t news, unless “news” means anything that someone, somewhere, is willing to look at. This would include pretty much anything gossipy or prurient, as Aaron Sorkin and Jennifer Lawrence, among many others, know all too well.
I don’t think Sony’s lawyers will have much luck stopping the traffic in stolen goods. Our First Amendment protections, which are fundamental to our freedom, are too strong to permit that. But just because we can publish something does not mean we should. Those who purvey gossip posing as news, and those who consume it, are the sort of people who will do anything for a nickel. I want to be better than that.