I’m not a fan of Seth Rogen or James Franco’s movies. I saw “This Is The End,” and it was like being stabbed in the head for 90 minutes. The only way I was going to see the duo’s new movie, “The Interview,” was under duress.
Still, even non-fans of Rogen and Franco should be troubled that Sony has canceled distribution of the film after a devastating computer hack by the North Korean government, the leaking of reams of confidential internal documents, and the murky threat of terrorist attacks against theaters that showed the movie. It’s a full-scale assault on free expression — and one in which America embarrassingly surrendered.
First, there’s Sony. Decision-making in Hollywood is of course driven primarily by financial considerations, but Sony is still a media company. Allowing itself to be bullied into shelving content that offends — even mindless content — could have a dangerous chilling effect on other media companies.
It already is. One film set in North Korea was pulled this week and another on defectors from the country’s hermit kingdom may get the same treatment. The question now is whether other industries, like book publishers, TV networks, or music companies will take a similar course and not just on matters related to North Korea, but anything that smacks of political controversy. Sony has, in effect, handed cyber-blackmailers a roadmap for intimidating companies whose content they don’t like. But Sony only deserves so much blame. It is, by and large, the victim here. The hack will cost it an estimated $100 million. Moreover, it has been left to fend for itself — by other studios, the theater chains that said they wouldn’t show the film, and, above all, its fellow media companies.
Media outlets, from Gawker to the New York Times, have gorged themselves on titillating gossip about Hollywood executives and movie stars gleaned from the hack. The majority of stories were far more of prurient interest than they were of public interest — with the latter generally used to justify the former. But hey, clicks are clicks.
Not long ago, when nude pictures of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton were stolen and put online, media companies acted quickly to protect the victimized stars. “The Internet is used for many good things. Stealing people’s private photos is not one of them,” Google solemnly declared. Apparently, for some, profiting from stolen e-mail communications and corporate financial information is what the Internet is good for.
Perhaps the most troubling example of media overreach came after screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times lambasting media outlets as “morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable” for trafficking in the material. One of the companies Sorkin criticized, the Daily Beast, used the stolen cache to respond. The news site ran a story featuring a private e-mail exchange between Sorkin and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in which Sorkin allegedly bad-mouthed Hollywood actresses. The story was of virtually no public interest and rather amazingly was published under a pseudonym. While it might not have been the direct intent of the story, it felt as much like a warning as it did a news article: “Criticize our coverage and we can mine the hack for embarrassing details about you, too.”
By feasting at the trough of misbegotten gains — and conspiring in the privacy violations of Sony and its employees — major media outlets increased the pressure on Sony to cave.
But in the end, the last piece of blame lies with us. What finally killed “The Interview” was the hazy, apparently meritless threat of violence. Although Americans are more likely to be killed at the movies by a fellow citizen with a legally purchased gun (or a steady diet of concession stand food items) than from an angry North Korean, we are a pathetically skittish lot.
Theater owners understood that the moment “terrorism” was mentioned, a country that likes to believe itself resilient and unbowed in the face of the nation’s enemies would turn tail and run — free speech be damned. You almost have to give the hackers credit; they knew exactly which of America’s buttons to push.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe.Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.