The Hacked Sony E-Mails Are A Distraction From The Larger Issues, And It’s Wrong To Use E-Mails Stolen From Anyone, Ever
I don’t take George Clooney that seriously, most of the time, but his interview with Deadline spoke to a lot of things I’ve been reflecting on about my job lately. In it, Clooney spoke about a petition of support he tried to circulate after Sony was attacked by what the FBI has now concluded were, in fact, North Korean hackers. The petition read:
“On November 24 of this year, Sony Pictures was notified that it was the victim of a cyber attack, the effects of which is the most chilling and devastating of any cyber attack in the history of our country. Personal information including Social Security numbers, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and the full texts of emails of tens of thousands of Sony employees was leaked online in an effort to scare and terrorize these workers. The hackers have made both demands and threats. The demand that Sony halt the release of its upcoming comedy The Interview, a satirical film about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Their threats vary from personal—you better behave wisely—to threatening physical harm—not only you but your family is in danger. North Korea has not claimed credit for the attack but has praised the act, calling it a righteous deed and promising merciless measures if the film is released. Meanwhile the hackers insist in their statement that what they’ve done so far is only a small part of our further plan. This is not just an attack on Sony. It involves every studio, every network, every business and every individual in this country. That is why we fully support Sony’s decision not to submit to these hackers’ demands. We know that to give in to these criminals now will open the door for any group that would threaten freedom of expression, privacy and personal liberty. We hope these hackers are brought to justice but until they are, we will not stand in fear. We will stand together.”
How hard could it be to get people to sign on to that? Really, really hard, apparently: Not one single influencer would sign the petition. Not a single one. Clooney told Deadline that people were too scared — not because of the recent threats of violence that the hackers have made, but simply of being targeted by the hackers and doxxed. And let’s call this what it is — doxxing. There’s no difference between a GamerGate-sympathizing lawyer looking up Zoe Quinn’s public records and distributing them, or 4channers guessing their way into Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud storage, and North Korean hackers going through a considerable amount of trouble to publicly humiliate celebrities and Sony executives by releasing their e-mails. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that, and I’ll get to that momentarily. Clooney has blamed the media for dropping the ball on reporting the hack, concentrating on the salacious details of the e-mails and on Hollywood relationships rather than the fact that this was a destructive terrorist attack that damaged and devalued American property in addition to a harassment campaign against celebrities and executives meant to push them into silence.
Clooney’s comment was: “It was used as a weapon of fear, not only for everyone to disassociate themselves from Amy [Pascal] but also to feel the fear themselves. They know what they themselves have written in their emails, and they’re afraid.” They know what they have written in their e-mails, and they’re afraid. The implication is that the people in question have e-mails they would rather not have publicized, probably because they have offensive content that could put their jobs at risk.
I should note here that I’m about to roundly criticize several publications who I really, really love, on whom I depend, who employ people for whom I have a lot of admiration. I’m also going to roundly criticize myself, if that helps, because I have engaged with this story in a way that, reflecting on it, I think goes against my principles both personally and professionally. But Clooney’s comments made me think really hard about the way culture blogs and some left-leaning news outlets report the news, which is to jump on newly-available, salacious information, manufacture an opinion on it that usually defaults to outrage, and publish that day without waiting for more information or considering the information as part of a bigger picture.
I’ll cop to my faults in that regard. I’ve done it, and one instance in which I’ve done it that makes me feel really guilty and awful is that I reported that Chicago Bear Brandon Marshall was being sued for abuse in the midst of September’s domestic abuse allegations in the NFL. I was criticized for it at the time, and so I backed off of the story, but then just a few weeks ago I found out that Marshall, yes, was once abusive, but has received treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder and hasn’t had any incidents of violence since then. It’s a huge success story, and had I not jumped on the opportunity to published a salacious news item, I could have made a better point than I did about the utility of mental health treatment for domestic abusers. It’d be on my beat; I write about mental health a lot, and I was once misdiagnosed with BPD and received treatment for it myself. I had the personal insight to be able to write something better. I apologize, flat-out. It was bad reporting.
And I struggle with that impulse to grab a news item and publish it a lot. I get exhausted reading stories that are morally horrifying to me all day. I got exhausted during #GamerGate, I’m exhausted with Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, I’m exhausted with racists’ and several police departments’ stubborn resistance to validate the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m exhausted every single time I have to read about a woman being raped, abused, doxxed, humiliated, harassed, discriminated against, pushed to self-harm, or attacked and then also have to read a bunch of comments about how this deluge of news stories that all fall along a pattern that reveals systemic misogyny doesn’t actually mean that systemic misogyny exists. My job requires me to report on things that exhaust me, and sometimes it’s easier to just grab an item, say it’s outrageous and analyze it as such but not give any interpretation as to how we could move forward from that outrage, and move on to the next one. It’s certainly considered acceptable in this field to do that. Read around some of the most popular news blogs on the internet and see if you aren’t just reading the same arguments regurgitated over and over with the details of specific news items really only providing new window dressing.
And in that case, as a writer, you have to ask yourself: Are these items really newsworthy? I’ve been wondering that in relation to the Sony hack. Channing Tatum’s e-mail writing style is not really newsworthy (that’s my post; I’m happy to indict myself first). Idris Elba maybe being the new James Bond is nominally newsworthy, but not newsworthy enough to merit getting that information from hacked e-mails. Mark Zuckerberg wanting to halt the production of “The Social Network” is neither very surprising nor very newsworthy. Angelina Jolie being called names is not newsworthy. Leonardo DiCaprio being called names is not newsworthy. Alex Trebek wanting to quit “Jeopardy!” is not newsworthy. The fact that celebrities use pseudonyms is literally old news.
But then you have items like Kevin Hart being called a “whore,” Jennifer Lawrence making less than her male counterparts in “American Hustle,” a producer claiming that Black actors shouldn’t be cast in lead roles because Black actors don’t play well overseas, and documents from the hack showing that Hollywood wants to revive SOPA (the internet censorship bill that was killed a few years ago), in addition to Sony Chairman Amy Pascal’s now-infamous racially tinged jokes. Or, just racist jokes, really. Are these newsworthy?
Some publications are saying yes, those items — those hacked e-mails — are newsworthy, and we have an obligation to report them. The basis for that argument is twofold: First, Sony should have had better security measures set up to protect these documents. Second, you can’t make comparisons between other instances of doxxing and this instance of doxxing because of the content of the e-mails and the implications of that content, as well as the fact that it was done in a professional environment, makes it different.
On the first count: That is a non-argument for news outlets that rushed to say that anyone who claimed that Jennifer Lawrence shouldn’t have used iCloud was a misogynist, apologist dickhead who was missing the point. Sony’s poor security measures have no bearing on the fact that the hack was unethical and a form of violence. That is, straight up, victim blaming. The content of those e-mails does not mean that Sony was not victimized by the hackers. This is equally missing the point.
On the second, yes, you can make comparisons between Celebgate and the Sony hack. Doxxing is doxxing is doxxing. When Jennifer Lawrence’s nudes were released, we all said that this was a matter of privacy and autonomy and consent. Saying that the content of the Sony e-mails — the opinions and attitudes expressed therein — exempts the people targeted from the right to privacy, autonomy, and consent because those people weren’t living your personal politics is hypocritical at best and dangerous at worst. I thought that we valued privacy, autonomy, and consent because we were working toward a more equal, just, and diverse world. Equality and justice means we don’t rescind what we consider to be basic measures of human dignity from other people because of their politics or their opinions.
And honestly, I doubt that Amy Pascal wants to be racist. I doubt that in her heart, she bears active resentment toward people of color. She fucked up. That doesn’t mean she should be publicly humiliated. We all fuck up — like Clooney said, nobody really wants the contents of their e-mails released to the public. I know I don’t. I know I would be terrified if there was a possibility of having my whole, private life history laid bare. And yes, even if it’s possible by a legal standard to subpoena e-mails sent in a professional context, most people expect that most of the things that they write while they’re at their jobs (where they spend the majority of their lives) are private. Since when did left-leaning publications start saying that the legal standard is all that counts? Is that the standard we’re going to adopt for everything, and if it is, should I change my coverage of Bill Cosby’s rape accusers, or UVA, two instances in which the legal standard of proof could not be met?
I don’t think that these items are newsworthy enough. The e-mails just confirmed things we already knew about the film industry — that it’s racist and sexist. Left-leaning cultural commentators spend a huge portion of their time breaking down the ways in which the film industry is racist and sexist and how that’s manifested in a lack of representation onscreen, lack of funding for movies written or pitched by women and people of color, implicit or explicit racism and misogyny in scriptwriting, and the objectification, fetishization, and exploitation of women and people of color in films. The abundance of tight, sharp, critical analyses we’ve written over the last several decades do a better job of getting to the root of misogyny and racism in Hollywood than a few thoughtless e-mails that, if Sony hadn’t been maliciously attacked by North Korean hackers because of the content of a stupid movie, we wouldn’t have ever seen.
Racism and misogyny in Hollywood are things that we absolutely should report on, but we shouldn’t use stolen e-mails as sources for our reportage. And if all these e-mails are doing is confirming what we already know, it’s absolutely not the real story. Clooney made an interesting point about what the hackers did to the Sony executives: “You embarrass them first, so that no one gets on [their] side.” The salacious details released in the hack served as a distraction, and, he continued, “The problem is that what happened was, while all of that was going on, there was a huge news story that no one was really tracking.”
And he’s right — the Sony hack is a minefield. There’s the fact that, as it turns out, North Korea really did successfully attack Americans on American soil via a computer network. The hackers went on to make terroristic threats, or, in other words, we were just attacked by North Korean terrorists. That alone merits stories on the history of America’s relationship with North Korea. We all remember that North Korea was testing nuclear bombs just last year and has recently been making threats to start testing again, yeah?
There’s the fact that Sony’s business is unraveling right now: While people are jumping on the bandwagon of calling the decision to pull the movie’s release cowardice, Sony has, in fact, been trying to find ways to release the movie safely. The problem is that because they’re a target, anyone who associates with them is a target, and while they are certainly interested in protecting their financial assets, they also can’t ethically expose other people to that threat. Even distributing it online is proving difficult, because someone has to distribute it, and anyone who has a relationship with Sony is being threatened. The MPAA has stayed silent on the whole issue because they’re afraid of being targeted, there’s the list of thousands of people who wouldn’t sign Clooney’s petition — this is censorship. It’s not just censorship of a dumb movie, it’s censorship of political beliefs, and of solidarity. We are losing something much, much more than a Seth Rogen movie in this crisis.
And then there’s the fact that this was a cyberattack, and possibly the future of warfare. If Obama follows through on his promise to “respond proportionally” to the attack, it would be the first time that the United States has ever retaliated on a cyberattack. That has a lot of really interesting implications about what our country values that will need to be answered. If we retaliate, will it be on the basis of the threats of violence, or on the destruction done to Sony’s network when it was attacked with malware, or on the principle of privacy? How will that relate to the way that we treat more commonplace cyberattacks like the doxxing of private citizens? How could this change the way we react to DDOS attacks? How do we feel about that, and how do we want to move forward into legislating crime on the internet and via networks? These are all questions that not only are begging to be answered, but are genuinely necessary to answer.
There are bigger, more important things than salable outrage that’s thinly veiled in worthy social concern. Outrage is a distraction. We’ve been doing outrage for too long, and you can tell that it’s been too long because we’re considering it acceptable journalism. Writers don’t have an obligation to report on salacious e-mails, but if the world depends on us to both report facts and guide conversations about big issues, we are obligated to do a better and more nuanced job of it than devouring private correspondence hand-fed to us by terrorists.
Follow me on Twitter.