The Sony hacks have put news outlets and the rest of us as media consumers into an unprecedented intersection of terrorism, media, and ethics. Journalists like Anne Helen Peterson of Buzzfeed sought to explain their reasons for reporting on the leaked information and people who were actually affected by the leaks wrote their own op-eds on the situation for the New York Times (and by this I of course mean Aaron Sorkin). Both writers agree this is a sticky situation, but fall on opposite sides regarding journalistic duties.
The starting point to both of their arguments is set too far back however. All media is exploitative, therefore some amount uncomfortable. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can deal with the consequences, both big and small. The question isn’t “Is reporting this ethical or unethical?”, it’s “How do we navigate this particular spot in the gray area?” The conversation shouldn’t start at deciding whether or not journalists leaking the Sony documents is exploitative because it is. No doubt. The conversation should start at discussing where does this situation fall on our spectrum of worthiness. Where do we draw the line? When have we gone too far? Or maybe we haven’t gone far enough. I don’t know.
As Peterson notes, this is uncharted territory with no precedent. We need to figure this stuff out. On Twitter, a commenter noted the outcome from the hacks will be used as a precedent in the future so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That may prove to be true, but in this digital age, we barely have time to figure things out before somebody somewhere hits “Publish”. Now that may sound like a cop-out, but to infer that the 24-hour news cycle is at all forgiving when we’re mucking about in the gray area is to be incredibly idealistic.
Buzzfeed made the uneasy decision to publish, because if they didn’t, others would; because they want the clicks; because they felt an obligation to the greater truth.
Sorkin condemns the publications, because it would be helping the terrorists; because it’s yellow journalism; because this is an unethical and distasteful way to reach that greater truth.
Buzzfeed’s argument is sort of weak and it would sit better with me if they just admitted they want the traffic among all their other reasons. Sorkin accepted awards for writing a made-up story about a real person’s life (The Social Network), so he’s sort of the pot calling the kettle black. No use in pointing fingers or trying to find the higher ground though – we are all complicit. We were complicit each time we read a story on the leaks (and Sorkin’s article contains no less than 12 links). I am complicit for speculating about all of this on my public blog. I was complicit when I made a short film about my grandma in film school and never really explained to her why or even showed her the final film. If you work in media (tv, film, journalism, academia, fine arts, internets), you are exploiting someone or something else. It’s exploitation even when your subject is 100% on board and signed all the waivers. There’s no getting around it.
Petersen’s comparison between sifting through the Sony documents and a historian sifting through the archives at a library was a fresh way to put things in perspective.
I’m looking at these documents with the same eyes with which I pored over the collections of David O. Selznick, the greatest independent producer of classic Hollywood, or silent star Gloria Swanson, who preserved all correspondence, negotiations, contracts, letters to lawyers, and so much more from her 60-year career. Those collections, like those of United Artists and early Warner Bros., are housed at archives, where scholars travel to sift through them with white gloves, transforming stacks of musty telegraphs into works that function as our dominant understanding of the way the industry functioned, failed, and excelled.
But those archives, like most archives, were donated. Some are stripped of incriminating materials, but archives are generally given to institutions with the understanding that they will be used to illuminate history. In that, they are the inverse of the Sony hack, in which a group of hackers used illegal means to indiscriminately release the contents of Sony’s internal server. Selznick never had his correspondence leaked while he was filming Gone With the Wind; it was only decades later, when Selznick himself had been gone for years, that scholars began to use his archives to make sense of the operation of Hollywood. That sort of archival work is considered “history” and, as such, deemed legitimate, ethical, safe — even if the findings did suggest that most Hollywood executives were megalomaniacal assholes.
Are we saying it’s okay to look at personal documents after the person and a considerable amount of time has passed? That what makes leaking movie executives’ emails now is wrong because those people are around to be embarrassed by it and it kind of makes us feel bad to read them? Again, I don’t know. My point is that we live in a world where the line between sharing information and personal gain is almost nonexistent. Whether you are the network execs pulling the strings on the puppets or the audience paying to watch those puppets act, you are complicit. It’s good that we’re having these conversations because this is precedent-setting, fascinating, and very very messy. My hope is we start from this very base truth so we can properly navigate the consequences.
P.P.S. Full disclosure: I have friends and colleagues who have or currently do work for Sony Pictures Entertainment. In the past, I have also corresponded with staff regarding my job applications. This is a very very tiny piece of information stored in Sony’s archives; nevertheless, I felt I should at least mention it.
P.P.P.S. Merry Christmas!