By the old rules of journalism, George W. Bush’s private e-mails to his family might never have been published or broadcast, certainly not without his permission. Most news organizations would have thought twice about publishing personal messages that were, in essence, stolen goods.
But that was then. The former president’s private communications and photos sent to family members went far and wide over the Internet on Friday after they were published by a Web site.
The Smoking Gun, which specializes in unearthing material about criminal and legal matters, disclosed the Bush family’s personal correspondence in a story based on material it said it received from a hacker identified only as “Guccifer.” A predictable and near-instant tidal wave ensued, with the story and variations on it being linked, tweeted and otherwise disseminated quickly.
A predictable question might follow: Are there any standards left? From TMZ’s revelations about celebrities behaving badly to high school students’ test scores popping up on a local online forum, the titillating, the taboo and the personal all seem to be fair game for someone. It’s not just that information wants to be free — as the old formulation had it — nowadays, it can’t help not being that way.
The Smoking Gun’s story is ostensibly a report on the breach of electronic security surrounding the Bush family. The site reported that the hacked material included confidential lists of home addresses, cellphone numbers and e-mails for “dozens” of Bush family members, including both former presidents. It did not disclose the details of the lists.
But the site — founded in 1997 and owned by Time Warner — went further than merely describing how deeply the hacker had penetrated the family’s personal accounts.
The Smoking Gun published apparently private Bush family photos from the hacker’s cache, such as a shot of George H.W. Bush sitting up in his hospital bed in December (the photo was taken down a few hours after it appeared). It also quoted from e-mails that revealed deep family concerns about the elder Bush’s health, including one from George W. Bush seeking input from his relatives for a eulogy to his father. Further, it posted images of paintings made by the younger Bush that he had sent to his sister Dorothy, including paintings of a man showering and one in a bathtub.
“We certainly thought hard about using some of the stuff,” said William Bastone, the site’s editor and co-founder, in an exchange of e-mails Friday. “The nature of the hack was so extensive and extraordinary — considering that two presidents had their e-mails illegally accessed — that we clearly thought it was newsworthy. We decided to use a tiny portion of the material that was illustrative of the nature of the various incursions and their seriousness.”
But ethics experts took a dimmer view. Even prominent people “enjoy some right of privacy,” said Richard Wald, a professor at Columbia University’s school of journalism and the former president of NBC News. “If the hack had revealed malefaction of a great nature, you’d say ‘Thank God they published it.’ But if it’s just [trivial], it injures the notion of civility.”
The Washington Post reported the story but dispensed with its usual practice of linking to the original article and did not reprint the hacked photos. While the hack is newsworthy, Executive Editor Martin Baron said, “I don’t see a reason to display those photos. This is all private to the Bush family. There are no public policy implications here whatsoever.”
Baron drew a distinction between publishing important documents taken without authorization — such as the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks cables — and personal materials taken from a private source. The former reveal the conduct of government actions, he said, while the latter do not.
The New York Times appeared to ignore the story altogether for much of Friday. Its only mention of it was an arts-blog entry late in the day assessing George W. Bush’s skills as a painter. The paper did not return a request for comment.
But such ethical constructs are under siege in an age in which virtually any individual can publish or broadcast information, said Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“I’ve said before that media ethics aren’t just for the media anymore,” he said. “They’re for everyone.”
In December, an anonymous individual somehow obtained and posted the final grades of thousands of high school students in Fairfax County. The 2,100-page document appeared on Fairfax Underground, a freewheeling online forum that also disclosed the names of students allegedly involved in making videos of themselves having sex with several girls. The site removed the grade document after Fairfax school officials obtained an injunction.
The Smoking Gun is a far more established and respected news site. While well-known for posting mug shots of arrested celebrities, it also does substantial investigative work. It uses government and legal sources, such as court documents and Freedom of Information Act requests, to obtain exclusive material about criminal and civil proceedings.
In addition to the Bush story, the site this week posted court documents filed in criminal actions against hackers accused of prying into the e-mail accounts of such figures as Mila Kunis, Miley Cyrus, Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Palin.