Aaron Sorkin has a few words to say about the news media that didn’t get a chance to make it into an episode of Newsroom. Instead, the filmmaker and screenwriter has spent the last few days taking aim at media outlets using data stolen in the hack of Sony Entertainment to write stories about the entertainment industry. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Sorkin called those outlets that have published the material “morally treasonous,” and hints that the practice is un-American. No, really:
I understand that news outlets routinely use stolen information. That’s how we got the Pentagon Papers, to use an oft-used argument. But there is nothing in these documents remotely rising to the level of public interest of the information found in the Pentagon Papers.
Do the emails contain any information about Sony breaking the law? No. Misleading the public? No. Acting in direct harm to customers, the way the tobacco companies or Enron did? No. Is there even one sentence in one private email that was stolen that even hints at wrongdoing of any kind? Anything that can help, inform or protect anyone?
The co-editor in chief of Variety tells us he decided that the leaks were — to use his word — “newsworthy.” I’m dying to ask him what part of the studio’s post-production notes on Cameron Crowe’s new project is newsworthy. So newsworthy that it’s worth carrying out the wishes of people who’ve said they’re going to murder families and who have so far done everything they’ve threatened to do. Newsworthy. As the character Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride,” I do not think it means what you think it means.
So much for ever getting a good review from Variety again. And so much for our national outrage over the National Security Agency reading our stuff. It turns out some of us have no problem with it at all. We just vacated that argument.
As a screenwriter in Hollywood who’s only two generations removed from probably being blacklisted, I’m not crazy about Americans calling other Americans un-American, so let’s just say that every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable.
Sorkin made an appearance on the Today show this morning to augment his argument:
“I have no idea if it’s illegal or not, but something doesn’t have to be illegal to be wrong, and this is plainly wrong and we all know it,” Sorkin said on TODAY Tuesday. …
More from Sorkin:
- Comparing the Sony incident to one in September in which nude photos of celebrities surfaced online: “I thought we all did a really good job of preemptively telling the press that if you publish these things, you’re being sleazy (in September). This is the exact same situation, only worse by magnitudes.”
- On the substance of the hacked information: “Is there anything in these emails at all that’s in the public interest, that points to wrongdoing at the company, that helps anyone in any way?” Sorkin said. “There isn’t. There’s just gossip there.”
There are two problems with Sorkin’s argument, both of which I address in my rebuttal at The Week. First, I challenge Sorkin to explain the entire entertainment industry and the media that covers it — and which clearly includes all of Sorkin’s own work — under the standard he sets for newsworthiness. Is there anything in it at all in the “public interest,”as Sorkin defines it for editorial coverage, that’s worth the least bit of attention paid to it? The entertainment industry isn’t curing cancer or governing people, after all, and the Sorkins of the world don’t seem to mind when their industry leaks all sorts of interesting tidbits about the products and people involved in it to boost their bottom lines.
Mostly, though, it seems as though the creator of The Newsroom is unfamiliar with how the donuts actually get made in the media industry:
There is also a hint of double standards in Sorkin’s outrage. If the Rudin-Pascal email exchange had taken place at another corporation — say, Walmart or Koch Industries — would Sorkin have objected to a hack that exposed it, and media coverage about the exchange? Or would it have been just great journalism, as long as it didn’t gore Sorkin’s own ox?
Consider this: the IRS leaked confidential financial information about the National Organization for Marriage before the 2012 election, after which it ended up in the hands of its opponents, Human Rights Watch. It then got disseminated to media outlets, which published the data and damaged the conservative group’s operations during a political campaign. A similar leak struck the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose financial records also got published by a liberal outlet before the 2012 election.
On a public policy basis, as well as on the affront-to-American-values scale, those infractions should rank a little higher than the Sony hack. Yet Sorkin didn’t seem bothered by reporters following up on those leaks. Or perhaps I missed Sorkin’s call for Congress to take action against the IRS and its targeting of private conservative organizations.
Still, as Sorkin alleged and Wallenstein admitted, there is something unseemly about reporters dancing to the tune of hackers and making cash in the process. Unfortunately, that’s what the press does with any kind of leak. Leaks and their resultant coverage are driven by the agendas of those who do the leaking, noble or not. That’s as true with celebrity gossip as it is with the Snowden leaks and the confidential data of conservative groups.
Variety’s co-editor in chief made a similar point in defending the trade magazine’s coverage of the material. “Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery,” Andrew Wallenstein wrote:
What’s particularly problematic is that even were a publication to abstain from publishing leaked material, dozens of others will do so regardless. Unfortunately, the data is in the public domain for all to consume. That in turn propels a news cycle from which a publication that stands apart risks looking out of the loop. Should information from a leak force someone like Rudin to make a public apology, how do you report on the apology without citing what he is apologizing for?
But what makes partaking of the Sony data truly unavoidable is that publishing content from the hack isn’t materially different what business journalists do every day. For instance, what if instead of sharing Pascal’s salary from a purloined document, a trusted source discloses that information to me on the phone?
Either way, information that I am not supposed to know has been transmitted to me; should I draw a red line around information that is typed on a computer as opposed to communicated verbally? Should I draw another red line around information when it comes in too great a volume, as it did in the form of the hack?
Salon’s Colin McEnroe agrees with me and goes even further, calling Sorkin’s op-ed “masturbatory falseness“:
When people call items in the Sony dump newsworthy, Sorkin quotes Inigo Montoya to them: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Eh tu, Inigo? I think it’s newsworthy if Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s highly decorated columnist – whose work appears in the same space where Sorkin was published – quite possibly provided the rich and powerful an advance peek at her column. (Dowd says she didn’t, but the emails offer a different interpretation.)
I think it’s newsworthy if rich and powerful media executives joke among themselves in a very reductive way about the supposedly race-based movie preferences of President Obama (and with a rapier wit surpassed only by any reasonably mordant middle-school kid).
And any revelation of pay inequality between actors and actresses strikes me as the beginning of an interested (and newsworthy) conversation. …
Nobody should know the power of this better than Sorkin. Has anybody ever appealed more skillfully to our thirst for glimpses behind the curtain? His career is all about showing us what it might be really like at ESPN or “Saturday Night Live” or the White House or CNN. One of his central fictional premises is that, in these places, there are both persons of virtue and hypocritical vipers and that we should strive to know the difference.
What a great idea, and – even though I can’t stand “The Newsroom” — I’ve loved every other thing he’s done (except “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip”). I even looked at his 2012 Syracuse graduation speech to see if there was something I could throw in his face, but I wound up sucked back into what a candid and compelling speech it is. He does not, however, understand journalism.
Indeed. And I’d go farther and say that much of Sorkin’s work, while entertaining, is exceedingly facile. His sudden offense at the “morally treasonous” media (a phrase which McEnroe rightly skewers as an incoherent word salad) demonstrates that trend amply enough.