Politics & Policy

That Funny Stuff From the Sony Hack Is Stolen Property

Establishment media stonewall questions about trafficking in stolen goods.

Reporters for the New York Times, Time, and other publications refuse to discuss a wave of stories denigrating motion picture stars and producers — all of them based on illegally obtained property of Sony that was hacked and fenced by criminals apparently working for North Korea’s murderous dictatorship.

Sony Pictures Entertainment was victimized recently in a major corporate security breach, apparently in retaliation for the upcoming comedy The Interview. Digital copies of unreleased films, personal financial data on entertainment industry notables, e-mails, passwords, and other information — a reported 100 terabytes of data in all — have been stolen. About 40 gigabytes have been made public so far.

Mainstream publications, which are never reticent about scolding less established media over arcane journalistic scruples, are publishing damaging data from this “trove” (as newspapers and news channels call the stolen Sony data) with great relish and barely concealed contempt for Hollywood.

The New York Times is sharing uncharitable comments made in e-mails between the extraordinarily successful producer Scott Rudin and Sony studio co-chairwoman Amy Pascal. The Washington Post emphasizes that Rudin had unkind words for prominent actress, director, and producer Angelina Jolie, as well as for an ill-conceived plan to build a Cleopatra movie around Jolie. Time magazine’s Sam Frizell teases the “7 Most Outrageous Things We Learned from the Sony Hack.”

Frizell declined to respond to questions from National Review Online about the propriety of trafficking in stolen goods for the purpose of writing breathless articles about scuttlebutt that, if it involved any other industry, would be considered well within the boundaries of normal workplace sniping. Also declining to comment: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes of the Times, and Variety’s Alex Stedman. A Washington Post editor responds that the paper does not permit reporters to break the law in pursuit of stories.

“We never encourage anyone to steal documents,” national economy and business editor Greg Schneider writes in an e-mail to NRO. “However, when documents make their way into the public domain, or are sent to us, we are within our rights to report on them. Leaks from companies and government agencies are not uncommon. Over many decades, such leaks have presented news organizations with a wide range of circumstances that call for them to exercise judgment. We assess each set of facts individually. In this instance, the release of documents was an event that demanded coverage, and the information brought to light has stirred discussion about a host of legitimate issues that also warranted coverage.”

This is quite a distance from the legacy media’s habitual hand-wringing and forelock-tugging. Margaret Sullivan, the “public editor” at the Times, recently wrote that one of the paper’s items — a list of violent attacks committed by Muslims acting in the name of Islam — “ran into trouble” because its catalog of atrocities was too extensive. The opinion and news desks at the Post are currently split over whether the name of Washington’s NFL team should even be allowed in the paper.

In most cases, the establishment media’s reporting on the Sony crime has merely followed the leads of Buzzfeed, Gawker, and TMZ; but there has been remarkably little of the reticence that characterizes mainstream coverage of, for example, the identity of the University of Virginia rape accuser (who, per the Post’s own reporting, appears to be in fact a sociopathic fabulist) or the circumstances of the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State. Under ordinary circumstances, the destination media enthusiastically applaud their own good taste in suppressing information. Why do these standards change when the victims work in show business?

The Washington Post’s Schneider cites “legitimate issues” surrounding the Sony theft, but the reporting in his and other papers goes well beyond what is necessary to describe a massive theft of company property. Rudin and Pascal’s seemingly sarcastic speculation about President Obama’s interest in exclusively black films is very compelling, but in no way can it be said to shed light on the damage done to Sony, or to illustrate business opportunities the company has lost as a result of the theft, or to be of any interest at all other than to sate the appetite for schadenfreude about Hollywood bigshots. Rudin’s nasty comments about Jolie are considered justified because they are in the context of an actual business story: the collapse of a planned biopic about the late Steve Jobs. But the failure of the Jobs project happened well before and independent of the hack of Sony’s data. The failure of a big movie project with big names attached is an interesting business story, but it is a separate story from the Sony theft — and one whose sourcing is derived entirely from the Sony theft. (Also, didn’t somebody just make a Jobs biopic with Ashton Kutcher, barely a year ago?)

Other news from the hack is even more gratuitous. Items such as a disciplinary memo concerning an improper workplace sexual relationship and the president of Screen Gems’ complaints about money demands from actor and comedian Kevin Hart would raise no eyebrows if they turned up in the corporate records of an auto manufacturer, a paper products company (unless it was owned by the Kochs), or for that matter a major daily newspaper. Yet they’ve become self-generating controversies. Pascal has been made to apologize for her “insensitive and inappropriate” comments. Hart and the daughter of Larry Ellison have been cheered on for standing up against privately made comments that did not harm them in any way and would never have been known at all if not for Kim Jong-Un and his willing American stooges.

Much of this material is amusing, but the same could be said of many private communications by private citizens. By analogy, if you were writing up the burglary of a home, there would be a recognizable distinction between saying “The thief took a cache of potentially embarrassing personal communications and intimate letters” and publishing the content of those communications and letters after having received them second- or third-hand from the thief.

There is an element of asymmetrical warfare in seeing the Kim dynasty’s will carried out by starstruck stateside journalists. No information of any kind is allowed to be disseminated within North Korea, and seeing the flabby, gouty son of the Dear Leader whip up a late-capitalist feeding frenzy is yet another reminder that in the 21st century cave people can do more damage to civilization than civilization can do to them.

But the most striking part of the establishment media’s delight in sharing stolen goods is that it reveals how situational and juvenile their standards really are. Most of these papers still employ public editors, ombudsmen, and other bluenoses to remind us all how rigorous the production of journalism is. But just throw in a movie star and suddenly they’re all Perez Hilton.

They behave that way because they don’t take the entertainment business seriously. To reporters sweating over the spelling of proper names, searching for ten-second quotes in hour-long recorded interviews, and cadging free food at boring D.C. conferences, Hollywood’s flagrant make-believe can only seem unworthy and Scott Rudin’s fabulous riches undeserved.

They’re wrong about that, and one detail in the Sony hack coverage reveals how easily the movie business, as a business, is underestimated. You’d have to know very little about movies not to recognize that a massively budgeted, star-driven picture about Cleopatra is a ticket to the poorhouse. That’s something 20th Century Fox learned, at a nearly fatal cost, in the 1960s. The culture must be getting pretty dumb when the guy who points out such an elemental truth is considered the villain.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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