Gossip as a Terrorist Weapon

Gossip as a Terrorist Weapon

By Carl M. Cannon - December 21, 2014

Is terrorism ever funny? That question arose in the dark days after 9/11. The answer was a resounding yes, put to rest by comedian Ellen DeGeneres. In the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks, a formulation arose in American politics and popular culture. If we stop doing such-and-such an activity, the line went, “the terrorists have already won.”

What started as a serious reminder not to sacrifice freedom for security quickly became grist for satire, as DeGeneres showed while hosting the 2001 Emmy Awards. “We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win,” she said. “And, really, what would upset Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”

Thirteen years later, courtesy of North Korean criminality and U.S. capitulation, here’s a new wrinkle: If we can’t go to a movie theater and watch a tasteless comedy on Christmas Day, have the terrorists won?

This disquieting sequel to an old gag line began with “The Interview,” Sony Pictures’ cheeky comedy featuring two idiotic tabloid television stars who somehow secure an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—and are then persuaded by the CIA to assassinate him.

In the ensuing firestorm over this film, a new set of questions has arisen. Can a fictional depiction of politically motivated murder ever be truly funny? Does the Obama administration care about freedom of the press? Does the press?

The story began on Nov. 24 at the company’s Culver City, Calif., headquarters when the image of a skull flashed on every employee’s computer screen simultaneously, along with the ominous warning: “This is just the beginning.”

The hackers say they’ve accessed all of the company’s “internal data” and will release “top secrets” unless their demands are met. All week, Sony’s computers are frozen and phone lines paralyzed. On Thanksgiving the hackers, calling themselves “Guardians of Peace,” upload four unreleased Sony movies to online film-sharing hubs. “The Interview” is not one of them. The following day, a North Korean government website calls the movie “an act of evil provocation.”

North Korea tepidly denies involvement—while praising the hackers, who launch a two-front war. The first consists of leaks calculated to embarrass company executives while poisoning Sony’s relationship in the Hollywood community. The second is a series of escalating and violent threats against Sony employees—and anyone associated with “The Interview.”

This was no longer hacking. This was what the law calls “terrorist threats”—felonies. This was cyber-warfare on an unprecedented scale, which could happen to any U.S. media company or any corporation. So what was the reaction here? Essentially, mass denial.

President Obama said nothing for weeks. The Justice Department would only confirm an FBI investigation, even though it recognized immediately that the attack had North Korea’s fingerprints. At the State Department, an unnamed spokesperson told reporters that North Korea apparently doesn’t understand that in America you can make movies without government interference.

Perhaps it’s true that the North Koreans cannot really comprehend the First Amendment. Or maybe a factor in their calculation is that they know that the only person imprisoned by the U.S. government after the slaughter of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi was an independent filmmaker in California, whose anti-Muslim movie, it turned out, was unrelated to the attacks.

The media response was even worse, and more inexplicable.

Sony’s own trade association, the Motion Picture Association of America, headed by former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, said nothing. “We have no comment at this time,” an MPAA spokeswoman said 17 days after the attack. “We’re not involved.”

About that time, “Guardians of Peace” began releasing inter-Sony emails obtained via their malware. You’d think that after the hackers started issuing chilling threats to physically harm Sony employees that the media would be chary about helping them execute an extortion plot. You’d be wrong.

Instead, news outlets began breathlessly reporting everything from the aliases of movie stars and the salaries of Sony employees to snarky internal comments about Adam Sandler and Angelina Jolie—and an email thread in which Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal joked tastelessly to producer Scott Rudin about President Obama’s supposed taste in movies.

Gossip über alles!

It was the rare news outlet that acknowledged it was essentially aiding North Korea in carrying out a conspiracy to blackmail an American company into forgoing its First Amendment rights.
The Associated Press and other mainstream organizations called these revelations “leaks,” which hardly conveys the reality of a military dictatorship stealing a U.S. company’s communications and demanding that it cease its activities.

The Daily Beast characterized its Sony dirt as investigative reporting. Time magazine trumpeted the “7 Most Outrageous Things We Learned From the Sony Hack,” none of which were very interesting. What’s actually outrageous is what the pressure for clicks has done to journalistic ethics.

A few saw the dilemma. Andrew Wallenstein, co-editor-in-chief of Variety, a publication devoted to Hollywood, wrote a column headlined “Why Publishing Stolen Sony Data is Problematic But Necessary,” and admitted that his moral compass was spinning “like a weather vane in a hurricane.”

“What if suspected hacker North Korea bombed Culver City?” he wrote. “Can I sift through the rubble for Sony executives’ hard drives?”

Here’s another hypothetical: What if a newspaper was preparing an investigative story showing that Cuba was still supporting international terrorism even while negotiating with the Obama administration for more openness. Havana doesn’t want that story out, so Cuban military hackers break into the newspaper’s computer files, doing millions of dollars’ damage, place embarrassing emails online, threaten to harm the paper’s employees and families—and then kill anyone who buys the paper at a newsstand the day the exposé is published.

Would the story then be some catty thing one editor said to another in a private email?

To some it would. It was the most incendiary North Korean threat—to attack U.S. movie theaters—that got the movie pulled. It’s also woke the Obama administration and the MPAA out of their torpor.

The FBI released a statement Friday, as did Chris Dodd. This is serious, they said. At his year-end news conference, President Obama said the same thing, adding that the movie shouldn’t have been pulled—without acknowledging how Sony was left to fend for itself. “We will respond,” the president said, offering no specifics.

Not everybody discerned a shifting wind. Al Sharpton still secured his Thursday meeting with penance-seeking Amy Pascal. Her public apology and private genuflection were apparently not enough. “The jury is still out on where we go,” said Sharpton afterward.

This is not the first time Al Sharpton has appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner. The difference is that this time the actual executioner is a foreign dictatorship headed by a madman. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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