On Christmas Day, Sony Pictures will release The Interview, a Seth Rogen–James Franco comedy about two bumbling journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Based on the trailer, it looks goofy, tasteless, and pretty hilarious.
When word of the movie first came out, the North Korean regime, whose attributes do not include a sense of humor, threatened retaliation. Now some entity, likely backed by the North Korea government, has carried out that threat by hacking into Sony’s internal database, posting the most damaging material online, and pointing American journalists to it. The eight data dumps released to date have contained an almost bottomless store of harmful and embarrassing disclosures: the salaries of executives, the Social Security numbers of movie stars, the health records of employees, and emails in which studio executives and producers disparage talent and spread malicious gossip. In one case, for which studio co-chairwoman Amy Pascal and the producer Scott Rudin have already apologized, they swapped dumb, racially charged jokes about President Obama. The hackers have promised to expose more data if Sony proceeds with the planned release of the movie, and have also made threats against the families of people who work there.*
The juicy details have been widely reported almost everywhere—by websites and news organizations including Gawker, Mashable, Fusion, the Daily Beast, New York Magazine, the New York Post, BuzzFeed, the Verge, and CNN, among many other places. Sony has now hired super-lawyer David Boies to try to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Over the weekend, Boies sent a letter demanding that news organizations stop reporting on the stolen material. If not, he warned, they could be held liable for financial damages.
But the decision to desist from publishing this stuff should be based on ethics and respect for the right of free expression, not legal pressure. News outlets should obviously cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story. But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should voluntarily withhold publication. They shouldn’t hold back because they’re legally obligated to—I don’t believe they are—but because there’s no ethical justification for publishing this damaging, stolen material. (I am articulating my opinion here, not Slate’s policy. While the magazine has been judicious in its coverage of the emails, it did publish this article about indications of a gender pay gap among Sony executives and the editors will continue to apply their own judgment about when and whether to cover stories arising from the hack as they emerge.)
Journalists resisting what they see as an attempt at censorship by Sony are cooperating in a larger act of censorship, directed at Sony. The studio made a brave and it now appears foolhardy decision to make a film mocking the world’s most notorious despot. Subjecting tyranny to ridicule is a Hollywood tradition that goes back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), both of which lampooned Adolf Hitler.* Some people found those films to be in pretty poor taste, too. But by making people laugh at Nazis, they engaged in a canny form of subversion.
I think that’s what Seth Rogen, who came up with the idea for The Interview, must have been trying to do here. Kim Jong-un may not be Hitler, but he runs one of the most perfect slave states the world has ever known. He is also is in possession of more effective tools to punish critics on the other side of the world than the Nazis were. The digital assault on Sony represents genuine innovation in cross-border censorship. It seems wrong to describe it as a leak, or even a hack. It’s long-distance revenge porn, carried out by world’s most vicious state against a victim that happens to be a global corporation.
What distinguishes this episode from the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden disclosures, where the more prestigious media organizations published super-sensitive secrets about national security? The difference is the matter of public interest. In the Snowden case, purloined emails revealed abuses of power. The disclosures exposed practices that even President Obama admitted as wrong once they came to light. And in those cases, journalists at the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post took seriously their obligation to balance the public interest with potential for harm to individuals and risk to national security.
In the case of the Sony hack, it’s hard to see any public interest at all. The stolen emails are more like the nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence that someone got by hacking into her Apple iCloud account. Of course people wanted to see those photos. But in that case, even the bottom-feeding media acknowledged that there was no justification for the massive violation of her privacy that hosting them entailed. But in that case, the public had sympathy for the victim. This time, the reaction has been schadenfreude. It should be solidarity.
Correction, Dec. 15, 2014: This article originally misspelled Adolf Hitler’s first name. (Return.) It also originially misattributed the threat of further hacks if Sony proceeds with the release of the film The Interview to North Korea. The threats came from hackers who may be backed by North Korea, but the connection has not been definitively established. (Return.)