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Opinion: The case against publishing hacked Sony e-mails

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(Read caption) Sony Pictures Entertainment continues to deal with fallout from a massive hacking attack, which some suggest could have been in retaliation for its film "The Interview," which premiered Thursday amid heavy security in Los Angeles.

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By now you’ve probably read something about the hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment e-mails containing confidential information, including unflattering remarks made by Sony executives. Stories with titillating gossip about celebrities are everywhere. Even Time peddled an “outrageous” schadenfreude listicle.

The voyeuristic coverage of dirty laundry not meant to be publicly aired is morally revolting. It’s a predictable, yet deplorable way to bring eyeballs to pages and screens. So long as ill-gotten, petty gossip stories run in high-profile places, there’s incentive for future hackers to get their kicks and settle beefs illegally.

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We’re not talking about whistleblowing or related matters of political import where important discussions need to be had. This is nothing more than privacy evisceration courtesy of media opportunism.

Hollywood is an especially easy target to humiliate. While many business details are shrouded in secrecy, the so-called Hollywood machine does its best to create an inescapable culture of celebrity worship, constantly getting in our faces with highly stylized versions of the latest happenings of people we’re asked to care about and emulate.

But in constructing images to adore, the flames of envy and jealousy are also stoked. After all, we can look only in the direction of the gods for so long before feeling uneasy about being mere mortals. And so it’s to be expected that when dirt can be smeared that knocks idols off pedestals, media outlooks will rush to show mean and embarrassing tidbits.

To some extent, the reporter’s race to expose gets justified through a sensibility that enough readers share: faux anti-elitism. Haven’t celebrities set themselves apart from the rest of us by choosing publicity over privacy? Doesn’t wealth and influence immunize them from the sting of public mockery?

In the wake of actress Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos being hacked from her iCloud account and posted online, Daniel Solove, the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, eloquently debunked this outlook that suggests forgoing privacy is the price celebrities must pay in order to receive everything good that comes their way: “But celebrities don’t really consent to losing their privacy. That gives it a false sense of legitimacy. There’s no contract that says that in order to be famous one has to surrender privacy. Why should being harassed or gossiped about be considered a legitimate job requirement? The fact that some celebrities make a lot of money does not legitimize it either.”

At stake, here, is a fundamentally important point about the value of privacy. If you only defend privacy rights for people who are like you, the average Joe or Jane, but not the exceptional Sandler or Jolie, then, sorry, you’re good at patting the backs of members of your own tribe, but you aren’t a real privacy advocate. As Mr. Solove argues in "Understanding Privacy," privacy protects all kinds of individuals because doing so is in society’s collective best interest. Ultimately, society functions best when we all have opportunities to limit what other people can know about our lives.

Ah, but maybe you’re thinking this is newsworthy stuff because it finally exposes the machinations that create the mythological proxies we’re asked to accept as genuine Hollywood culture. An article at The Guardian suggests as much, stating: “What’s great about the Sony Pictures hack is that it’s the first time that the information we’re getting out of the entertainment industrial complex isn’t being very tightly controlled.”

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Sigh.

This way of putting things is more about resentful comeuppance and cathartic righteousness directed at deception than ideology critique. We don’t need new data points to make the public hip to the fact that film industry runs on carefully orchestrated public relations. And, let’s fact it, scholars can find alternative routes for learning about horrible Hollywood executives are. Even if archival material donated by Hollywood insiders is more fraught than meets the eye, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is legally transferred and that research that discusses it typically differs from name and shame stories in both tone and substance.

Andrew Wallenstein, coeditor-in-chief of Variety, is probably right in believing that “Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery.” Sources do regularly tell reporters things they’re “not supposed to know.” Still, we should be wary of looking so hard for similarities that differences fade from view. The means of obtaining information and the purposes which it’s put to all matter, and the petty coverage I’m focusing on here could have and should have been avoided.

Passcode asked several media outlets that have been liberally publishing the e-mails to provide a counterpoint in defense of using the hacked correspondence. So far, none have offered. But BuzzFeed did publish this defense

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.


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