Shortly before he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I asked Adm. Mike Mullen what he saw on the ceiling on nights when he couldn’t sleep. “Cyber,” he said. That was 2011 and this is 2014, and it seems that Mullen’s ceiling has been moved to Sony Corp., which has been hacked, maybe by North Korea, and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it — not the U.S. government, not the cowed movie industry and certainly not the ravenous bloggers who have descended, vulture-like, for scraps of gossip.
The attack may have been an attempt to thwart the release of “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen comedy about a farcical attempt to assassinate the farcical North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. They have also pirated five movies, stolen scripts and, in other ways, severely hurt the company. This story is not about whether Angelina Jolie is indeed a minimally talented prima donna or whether Jennifer Lawrence was underpaid but an attempt to silence political satire. The film, I’m told, is funny. The effort to ruin it is not.
And yet news organizations have fallen on this story like hyenas on carrion. The so-called mainstream media have daintily relied on intermediaries, mainly bottom-feeding blogs, and so they can, as the Washington Post did in an online headline, say the emails were “leaked,” although they were stolen.
The inevitable consequence will inevitably limit what the public learns. My instructor in such matters is Dick Cheney, who once said that historians will be sorely disappointed by his files. “I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don’t write any.”
I am currently listening to the audio version of Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” a book enriched by Hamilton’s own letters and records — and those of his contemporaries. But only a fool today would keep an honest diary or write candid memos. For some time, this rule has extended to emails, so that now with Sony, Amy Pascal and other executives are being chastised for their digital candor: It is as if they’re responsible for their own hacking.
The U.S. movie industry is a financial and cultural behemoth. Last year, it posted $31 billion in revenues, but several billion was lost to piracy. As for the films stolen by the hackers, they’re out thereon the Internet.
But the greatest loss, the most terrifying, is to privacy. We are all whole people, not thoughtless phrases snitched from the ether. This, more or less, is what Clarence Thomas learned from his Supreme Court confirmation ordeal. “It … showed me something that I will never lose,” he told his friend, John Danforth, “and that is that 2 percent or 1 percent of 0.2 percent can always be used to destroy a human being when there are no barriers, when there is no perspective and no context.”
The fear is palpable. The other Hollywood studios, like the townspeople in “High Noon,” are scared into silence. Who will the hackers turn on next? The establishment press has been disestablished. Vandals set the pace, if not the standards. We rush to catch up: readers, eyeballs, hits. Make lists. Move fast. Sift the dirt for gold.
Sony threatens legal action, but this won’t work. What’s needed is a return to the days when trafficking in stolen information was shameful. But the public revels in the humiliation of the rich and powerful. Someone is going to supply this stuff. Now all of Hollywood stares, terrorized, at their version of Mullen’s ceiling. Playing tonight: an updated “High Noon” with the sheriff, hiding under the bed.
Richard Cohen is a Washington Post columnist.