Director Judd Apatow has never particularly had a reputation for careful parsing of the issues, so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that yesterday, he tweeted: “Releasing private Sony e mails [sic] to hurt people is the same as releasing nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence. Why are they ok to print?” He was comparing the deliberate violation of individual actresses’ privacy to a much more indiscriminate attack on a corporate entity that happens to have embarrassed some of its employees. But while the leaks are fundamentally different, there is a better question Apatow might have posed: how do we define the difference between a leak that offers us transparency, and one that feels more like retribution?
It’s easy to understand what’s wrong about the theft of actresses’ intimate pictures earlier this summer. The images were stolen from the women who produced and owned them, rather than leaked in some sort of ploy to parlay a sex tape into a career. Their release served absolutely no purpose other than to make the women in question feel vulnerable, and to communicate that they have no right to privacy that might interfere with someone else’s entitled voyeurism. The desire to leer at Gabrielle Union or Jennifer Lawrence is not actually a meaningful public interest that overrides a woman’s right to her privacy and property.
The Sony hack is a more confounding event, in part because the sheer size of it means that there is both trash and treasure in the cache. Some of the salary data released in the hack, for example, help put hard data behind the general sense that there are significant gender disparities in Hollywood. And for movie fans, there is certainly some interest in seeing emails that confirm that the wranglings and courtships that are involved in putting a project together do, in fact, look a lot like the machinations we saw on “Entourage.”
Yet other information, rather than providing any sort of genuinely new information, mostly serves to confirm our previous perceptions. The dumb, racist jokes about President Obama’s taste in movies that Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin, an influential producer, exchanged in email definitely reinforce the idea that Hollywood takes racial justice most seriously when it garners someone a shot at an Oscar statuette. They’re probably worth commenting on, as I did yesterday.
But they don’t actually provide connective tissue between unattractive bad behavior and decisions Pascal and Rudin made about what projects to greenlight, what directors to support and what actors to cast. As of now, it seems like Pascal will make a pilgrimage to New York to accept ritual forgiveness from Rev. Al Sharpton, and business in the overwhelmingly white film industry will continue pretty much as before.
Similarly, it’s embarrassing for New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that the hack involved emails that show her giving Pascal’s husband, a former Times reporter, a look at a column about Pascal prior to its printing, as well as the two women fawning all over each other after publication. But it’s also not new that Dowd has behaved this way: in 2012, a fellow Times reporter let a CIA source have an early look at a Dowd column about “Zero Dark Thirty.” And once again, it seems unlikely that the Times will do much about it, especially as Dowd transitions over to the magazine.
“Because Sony is a powerful entity, the pretense can be floated that exposing the data has some importance,” Andrew Wallenstein, the editor in chief of Variety wrote in a meditation on the ethics of publishing information obtained from the hack. “But really, the press loves a great narrative just as much as a movie studio, and here we’re just casting Sony in the villainous role of the greedy capitalist machine getting what it deserves.”
The dividing line lies between what’s emotionally satisfying and what’s truly relevant, moving a story forward or helping point the way to actionable reforms. When members of the hacker collective Anonymous started making forays into social justice-oriented actions, it might have felt righteous in a mean sort of way for someone like revenge porn king Hunter Moore to get a taste of his own medicine in the form of a doxxing that released his personal information. But revenge isn’t legislation or a shift societal norms: Badgering Moore did nothing to stop the theft actresses experienced earlier this year.
There are always going to be fights over which disclosures fall into which categories. And when the people insisting that hacks or leaks are irrelevant are doing so from their positions of power in government, we ought to be vigorous in our skepticism. But in an environment where Daniel Ellsberg doesn’t have to decide who gets a couple of physical copies of the Pentagon Papers, we’re all potential targets and all potential publishers. We can no longer outsource our opinions about what’s right and wrong to publish. We have to figure out these lines for ourselves.