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.”