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Why the press must report those Sony hacks

What the Sony hacking has in common with Jonathan Gruber and Donald Sterling

The hacking of Sony Pictures' internal systems and the dumping of personal and corporate information onto the Internet--the biggest entertainment story of the year--confronts news organizations and the public with two complex puzzles. One is how to report the divulged information, and the other is what to make of it. 

Sony and Aaron Sorkin, a big-name screenwriter, offer an easy solution to the first. They say none of it should be reported. Sony mustered the eminent lawyer David Boies to demand that news organizations desist from republishing any of the content released by the hackers, who are widely presumed to be linked to North Korea, and destroy any of it in their possession. 

Sony "does not consent to your...making any use of the Stolen Information," Boies wrote The Times and other publications. But as Boies undoubtedly knows, news organizations don't need Sony's consent. Numerous Supreme Court cases have left it crystal clear that, as long as the publishers didn't have anything to do with the original theft, they're free to use information that was illicitly obtained by others.

The seminal ruling in this vein involved the Pentagon Papers, a classified government study that was liberated by Daniel Ellsberg and passed on to the New York Times and Washington Post for publication in 1971. That ruling addressed itself chiefly to the issue of governmental prior restraint of the press, which the court ruled unconstitutional, but further rulings applied the broader principle to material that lacked its earth-shaking import. (Responding to the Boies letter, Times editor Davan Maharaj called the Sony information "newsworthy" and added: "We have reported on this material in a manner consistent with our editorial standards, and we will continue to do so.")

Sorkin, in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend, tried to place the Sony hacks in a moral context. Republishers of the hacked material, he wrote, are "helping" the hackers in their apparent campaign to destroy free speech (by demanding that Sony cancel "The Interview," the comedy that ostensibly triggered the hacking). "If you close your eyes you can imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that will draw the most blood," Sorkin wrote. "And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing...for a nickel." He called the dissemination of the hacked material "morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable."

Sorkin acknowledged that information disclosed through theft, hacking or other illegal acts can sometimes be in the public interest. He tipped his hat in passing to the Pentagon Papers case, but dismissed it as irrelevant: "There is nothing in these documents remotely rising to the level of public interest of the information found in the Pentagon Papers."

But the line isn't so sharp: it's not a case of the Pentagon Papers resting on one side of the OK-to-publish line, and everything else being on the other side. Some of the Sony material illuminates the thinking and actions of executives at or near the very summit of a major publicly traded corporation, one of the most influential entities in one of our most important industries.

It's true that there are places to draw the line, but it's not up to Aaron Sorkin, who concedes that he has a personal interest in the material (some of the executive emails disclosed by the hackers are about him), to declare the entire package off-limits, even if he is the creator of the HBO show "The Newsroom."  

But where are the lines? The hacked material ranges from salaries, medical claims and personal information about rank-and-file Sony employees all the way up to email exchanges between Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal and others that they thought would remain forever private. (Pascal and Rubin have both apologized in public.)

In practice, major publications have been fairly circumspect about how much of this to publish. None, as far as we can tell, has published individual salaries of ordinary workers, or private data such as Social Security numbers. Bloomberg came about as close as anyone to invading employees' privacy by using some information about individual employees' medical claims for an article about the dangers of having such data in corporate databases. It didn't identify any of the employees, though it's conceivable that some at Sony might be able to guess their identities from the published facts. 

Some news articles might be criticized for retailing in-house gossip--executives and producers grousing about petulant stars. The biggest catch is an email exchange in which Pascal and producer Scott Rudin tossing racially insensitive cracks about President Obama back and forth. 

Should those be off-limits? No, for two reasons. They tell us what top executives think and say in their unguarded moments, and that could be useful for assessing their public actions. And they're likely to have an impact on deal-making by Sony with those performers--even if they're not republished in the press--in which millions of dollars in corporate revenues are at stake.

It's always worthwhile to be reminded what happens behind the carefully cultivated scrim of Hollywood, or any industry. Hollywood makes billions by manipulating reality, including the reality that is Hollywood itself. It's not that executives don't want information to be divulged about their machinations to get a movie made, or their judgments about actors, actresses and directors: they merely want it all to be published entirely according to their own spin.

Over the decades, they've nurtured an entire cottage industry to do so--People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, Oscar telecasts, etc.--fed relentlessly by flacks and devoted to communicating the fantasy that Hollywood is one big happy family; that starlets are happiest (as P.G. Wodehouse would put it) when surrounded by their books, their flowers or their dogs; and that making movies and TV is all about Art. Now that they've lost control of the PR, they're mortified. There isn't much one can say in response to that, except "Tough."

That said, however, how important are private or semi-private conversations that become public in weighing the performance or character of the speaker?

The question comes up constantly, and each case is different. This year alone we've been treated to private remarks by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber, and now Amy Pascal. 

At some level the speakers all deserve a pass on being judged by these private remarks; is anyone among us innocent of having expressed an impure, inappropriate, even racist or sexist remark while thinking ourselves securely among friends, or uttered a joke in one social group that we would never think of uttering in another?

The necessity of sustaining a functioning workplace or family circle means showing one face in public, while letting off steam in private. When the private becomes public, chaos invariably ensues, often followed by groveling apologies and temporarily (or permanently) ruptured relations; the private email sent accidentally into the world at large is such a common occurrence it's too hackneyed for a plot point any more in, well, Hollywood.

The only solution is to weigh these private outbursts against what we know of the speaker's public actions. No one who knew Donald Sterling as an NBA owner or a Los Angeles businessman could have been surprised at the racism he expressed in private conversations taped and made public; that side of his character even had been aired in court proceedings. The tapes provided a convenient pretext for the NBA to evict him as an owner, but the least convincing business pronouncement of 2014 had to be NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's sanctimonious claim to have been shocked when he heard them. 

Do Pascal's impolite remarks about Obama reveal her to be a racist? TV host Al Sharpton (a reformed race-baiter) and TV producer Shonda Rhimes suggest they do, and in not so many words have implied that they may disqualify Pascal from keeping her job. Maybe they're right. 

But the question should hinge on whether those remarks validate, reinforce or contradict anything already known about Pascal, who has been a leading figure in Hollywood since the 1980s. If she's made decisions over the years that were inexplicable--but now are supposedly illuminated by the discovery that she may be a closet racist--that's one thing. But if she really was racist in her professional or personal guises, one suspects that would have been widely known by now, and she would never have risen to the position of studio chief. 

Yet the same factors that make some of the information divulged by Sony's hackers so hard to evaluate are what make its republication important. Everyone who rises to a position of responsibility and influence is a three-dimensional human, and all three dimensions enter into what we need to know about them. If Pascal loses her job because Sony no longer thinks she can be an effective studio boss, then knowing what brought Sony to that conclusion is even more important.

The Sony hacks may not tell us everything we need to know about Amy Pascal, Scott Rudin or others caught speaking out of turn, but they tell us something. It's up to us to figure out how important that something is. 

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