The Messy Media Ethics Behind The Sony Hacks

The gray area where the leaked information resides — between public and private, prurient and illuminating — might not be the exception, but the new normal.

Sony / Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed

In the past few days, I’ve seen the email addresses of dozens of stars. I’ve seen the Amazon order histories of executives. I’ve seen the carefully laid-out breast-feeding diet of a senior VP. I’ve seen the ebullience and joy with which a famous director and the head of Sony talk about the future of filmmaking. It’s inarguably juicy, but what fascinated me more were all the documents over which my media studies colleagues — a group of which I was, until leaving for BuzzFeed, an active member — would salivate.

I saw memos that could alter global film market research, I read interactions between stars and producers, and about stars and their value, that could challenge or substantiate the claims of my own dissertation, with its focus on the history of the gossip industry. Thousands of documents, as yet unexplored and unreported. Where others see the potential scandal, I see scholarship.

But even as I sift through the latest release of hacked information, the overarching questions remain: What differentiates the leak and publication of private documents of a privately held company from the publication of the Jennifer Lawrence nude photos? Are reporters simply working as tools in a possible North Korean cyberwar? Or are journalists fulfilling their democratic role of disseminating information that serves the public interest?

This sort of hack is wholly unprecedented. Other massive, global companies have been hacked, but none so extensively (the hackers claim to have over 100 terabytes of information) and none with the visibility — and explicit connection to our everyday lives, in the form of television, movies, and music — of Sony. The entire business world is fueled by secrecy, but the sort of secrecy kept behind Hollywood’s closed doors, notorious for its power plays, publicist machinations, and bloated egos — that’s sexy.

These leaks are fascinating to academics, certainly, who must balance the hunger for an inside understanding of an industry which, over the last 50 years, has become increasingly unwilling to share any information, historical or otherwise, with ethical debates about the provenance of those materials. But the leaks are also incredibly juicy for journalists, who have also been working their way through the massive piles of internal documents, emails, and marketing department PowerPoints made available through a massive data breach of Sony’s internal server.

Which is part of why it’s so difficult to parse the ethics of reading, interpreting, and ultimately reporting on these documents: Whose agenda does their publication further? But what is the role of journalists if not to take that which is “new” and present it for readers, asking them to make their own judgments?

The answers to these questions, and the way these documents are handled and discussed in the weeks and years to come, aren’t limited to the journalism ethics classroom. These documents are neither the JLaw nude photos nor are they Snowden’s cache of national security documents. They’re not the product of angry teenage boys nor are they the work of a politically driven whistleblower. Yet when it comes to future handling of such information, the gray area in which they reside — between public and private, between prurient and illuminating — might not be the exception, but the new normal. The stance that journalists and academics take on these documents has the potential to guide our nation’s understanding of how we treat the compromise of the 21st century’s most valuable commodity, for both individuals and corporations: privacy.

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.

As the sheer breadth and depth of the hack started to come into focus last week, the first concern was for privacy, especially over the release of Social Security numbers of past and present Sony employees. Journalists here at BuzzFeed News and elsewhere reported the few pertinent specifics and character of the data released, while obscuring the most invasive information; some of the findings were banal (celebrity aliases, horrible HR PowerPoints, the script for a recruiting video); others were more incendiary (a potential gender pay gap). The experience of sorting through the labyrinth of internal data wasn’t unlike trying to look through the matrix of folders from an old, discarded computer: lots of chaff, very little wheat.

But there was enough reason to report. The legal position was straightforward: These documents were obtained through illegal means, but accessing them is not, in fact, illegal; reporting on documents made available through the hack, and even excerpting from them, are covered under both the First Amendment and Fair Use, which protects the reproduction of copyrighted content under the aegis of “enriching” or educating the general public.

The journalistic position was also fairly straightforward: As Fusion’s Kevin Roose explained on MSNBC, he and his editors employed a “civic good balancing test,” opting not “to publish things that are damaging to people unnecessarily,” such as Social Security or phone numbers, and focus on the potential to serve “a civic good.” “What you have in the Sony hack is an enormous data set of what people in one of the largest studios in Hollywood are paid,” Roose told host Chris Hayes, “and when you break that data down and use it as the basis for analysis, you end up with some really interesting … valuable, and important to democracy and industry.”

Here, Roose articulates the philosophy under which most journalists were exploring the hacked documents. Granted, releasing the amount Beyoncé and Jay Z were paid for a cameo in The Interview, as Roose did on Dec. 4, may toe that line of “civic good,” but few were objecting to the reportage of the leak on an ethical level.

That changed on Tuesday, when Defamer published an incendiary email exchange between Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin. Rudin is known throughout Hollywood for his abrasive attitude and management style. That said, the emails went viral not because Scott Rudin is a dick, but because he was a dick about one of the biggest stars in the world, calling her a “minimally spoiled brat” and “a camp event.”

Reading this exchange feels like pulling back the glossy veneer of the constant publicity that guides all Hollywood interactions; the exchange feels real, raw, and revelatory in the same way that the leaked elevator surveillance footage of Solange Knowles does: People are their realest selves when they don’t think the world is watching.

The schadenfreude directed toward Pascal and Rudin, however, has been met with resistance. On Twitter, film journalist and historian Mark Harris told “everyone who’s gloating over stolen emails” that “you must all feel very, very secure about your own correspondence.” Harris’ tweet articulated the strain of unease in the aftermath of the Defamer post, and coincided with increased calls to treat these leaks in the same way that journalists called others to treat the September hack of celebrity nudes: as an unethical and distasteful invasion of privacy.

The difference, of course, is that one hack is aimed to exploit and humiliate young women (and is a sex crime), and the other is aimed at a multibillion-dollar international media conglomerate. One targeted individuals’ private iCloud servers; the other was directed at servers at a place of employment. The women whose photos were hacked might have been celebrities, but they were vulnerable in a way that Sony, for all of its current woes, simply is not.

As for claims about violating the privacy of Amy Pascal, whose inbox was leaked in its entirety: Thus far, all published email exchanges relate not to Pascal, the individual, but to her capacity as co-chair of Sony Pictures (with the exception of a personal exchange between Pascal and her husband about his friendship with Nikki Finke, who had just viciously gone after her). These leaks thus focus on Pascal’s role as a controlling force behind the release of a high percentage of the entertainment available across the world today, whose comments and viewpoints have impact on the way we see our world reproduced for us on the screen — her role, in other words, as a public figure.

The same goes for Scott Rudin, who, while not directly affiliated with Sony, is behind many of the most successful and prestigious movies of the last decade. To say that his racist thoughts on the types of movies that Obama would like is not important is tantamount to denying an author’s political views have an impact on the books he writes. Rudin has the power to make the movies with the biggest budgets and the highest profiles; his attitudes toward race — and the way he treats others — isn’t the only reason that the logic of mainstream Hollywood remains insidiously and enduringly racist, but it cannot be discounted.

These conversations were private, but the art they produced has very public, if often sublimated, ramifications. The Lawrence hacks don’t contribute to any understanding save what Lawrence’s breasts look like. The Sony hacks speak loudly, and at length, about contemporary film industry and its generation of popular culture.

Illuminating Rudin’s assumptions about Obama’s film preferences is one thing, but does that legitimize publishing correspondence about the making of Cleopatra? “I believe people have the right to conduct business correspondence privately; it’s not as if criminality is being exposed,” Harris explained to me in an email. Ultimately, publicizing their correspondence just “makes it LESS likely that people who make movies will speak candidly to each other, let alone to journalists and scholars.”

Indeed, in the wake of these leaks, one can imagine just how frantically other Hollywood studios are scrambling to bolster their security measures. The question remains, then, as to how journalists and scholars make use of the existing material in a way that doesn’t simply carry out or validate the aims of these or any hackers.

For Gawker Editor-in-Chief Max Read, who’s overseen much of that publication’s handling of the documents, items like the emails are “newsworthy documents that were publicly available,” and “the idea that a journalist should refrain from publishing them because it might ‘validate the hackers’ actions/aims’ is genuinely incomprehensible.” Thomas Schatz, author of Genius of the System and one of the academics most familiar with the challenges of doing industrial history both with and without the benefit of the archive, told me that “I guess my bottom line is that we should welcome the opportunity to look behind the curtain.”

The information is out there; it’s not disappearing. It’s a question, then, of the avenue it takes from here.

When an academic goes to the archive, she spends days, even years, squinting at illegible handwriting and sifting through correspondence, combining her macro knowledge of the industry with the micro revelations of accumulated documents. A reporter doesn’t have the privilege of that sort of lengthy contemplation, but nor does she have the necessity to sort by hand: The Sony documents arrived in digital form, and fully searchable. To find a potential scandal, all you need to know are the right keywords, and a cascade of controversy appears onscreen.

This ease of accessibility — and the sheer amount of information conveyed via digital correspondence — points to the larger issues undergirding these ethical discussions. They’re variations on the same discussions we’ve had about WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, “The Fappening,” and the rise of “vigilante journalism” and its exposure of private (but not always guilty) individuals, all hinging on the way to handle the sheer amount of private data each of us produces on a daily basis.

The new reality is that journalists simply do not own the news cycle: Even if Gawker, BuzzFeed News, and Fusion decided to stop covering it, others would take up the mantle. The new role of journalists, for better or for worse, isn’t as gatekeepers, but interpreters: If they don’t parse it, others without the experience, credentials, or mindfulness toward protecting personal information certainly will.

As Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, told me, “These aren’t new challenges — some of the greatest revelations in American history have come from sources with dubious or outright destructive motives. What’s more, we don’t imagine that our jobs are, or could imaginably be, to shield our readers from information that is widely available online, but rather to interpret it, explain it, and find insight into a powerful corporation and industry. We’ve been focused on reporting on information that offers that insight.”

It’s telling that so many involved in the dissemination of this knowledge, including myself, have found themselves conflicted. That hesitance, however, is at least in part responsible for the quality, and character, of much of the reporting thus far, which aligns with the central projects of both journalism and media studies in their most essential forms: making sense of how structures of power work and showing how, and why, the way they wield their power matters.









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