Frank Rich on the National Circus: Sony’s Apocalypse Is Now

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Photo: Ed Araquel/CTMG

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the devastating Sony hack and our new age of cyber warfare.

Yesterday, Sony Pictures canceled the release of the Seth Rogen–James Franco comedy The Interview after hackers linked to North Korea threatened terrorism against theaters that showed the film. What do you make of Sony’s decision? Was it prudent, or does it set a dangerous precedent for future controversial works of art?
I think everyone knows the precedent is ominous. As Fred Kaplan asked rhetorically at Slate, “Will hackers now threaten to raid and expose the computer files of other studios, publishers, art museums, and record companies if their executives don’t cancel some other movie, book, exhibition, or album?” The short answer is yes. We are witnessing, in Alan Dershowitz’s phrase, the “Pearl Harbor of the First Amendment.” 

But this story is far bigger than the threat to the First Amendment. And the vituperation being aimed at Sony for canceling the film’s release — coming from both the left and the right — is a sideshow that misses a bigger point. Before Sony capitulated, every major movie theater chain in the country had pulled out of showing The Interview. The Wall Street Journal reported that the nation’s largest cable company, Comcast, would have refused to show the film — and no doubt would have been joined in this veto by all the other cable and satellite providers if Sony had considered such a distribution alternative. So if Sony canceled a film that couldn’t be shown anyway, was that a cancellation or just a certification of reality? If Sony is a coward, they all are.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Sony had not canceled The Interview and, hypothetically, that one big theater chain —  say, AMC — had agreed to exhibit it. Does anyone doubt that Sony’s rival studios (like the Comcast-owned Universal) would have exerted pressure to get The Interview yanked anyway? They wouldn’t want their own big Christmas releases to risk losing a single terrorized customer fearful of entering a multiplex where The Interview was on a neighboring screen. In that context, look at the Mitt Romney tweet that caused such a stir overnight:

Wonderful sentiment, but would Comcast or any other American internet provider be brave enough to host a free online streaming of The Interview? Would the Comcast-owned NBC broadcast it, or would Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network? Let’s see if Mitt has the leadership abilities to broker that deal. The Motion Picture Association of America couldn’t even come together to draft a statement supporting Sony until two weeks after news of the hack broke.

But as I said, this story is bigger than the First Amendment. In the aftermath of breaches spanning from the NSA to JPMorgan Chase to Home Depot, it confirms that hackers may be able to bring any corporation — or government agency — to its knees for any reason whatsoever. And what are we to do about it exactly? Obama Administration intelligence officials now say that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the hacking. We have yet to see the proof, and, as Wired has observed in a skeptical analysis of North Korea’s alleged role, a cybercrime of this magnitude and ingenuity may be “difficult if not impossible” to attribute to any single source. But even if the administration can make an air-tight case, does America respond with a counter-attack at North Korea and risk further retribution? Is an American government that has seen computer breaches at the White House and State Department even capable of a failsafe retaliation? This is why I think people will one day look back at today’s newspapers and laugh that the long-overdue American détente with our Cold War nemesis Cuba received banner headlines while the cyberwar of our current century was relegated to below the fold.

The Sony hack, of course, has caused more casualties than The Interview. There have been leaked social security numbers, leaked screeners, and, most salaciously, leaked emails from producers, directors, and executives behaving badly. You’ve seen showbiz from many angles in you career. Did any of what you read surprise you? 
I am shocked to learn that there has been dissent within Sony about the quality of Adam Sandler movies. And to discover that even in liberal Hollywood, women do not get equal pay for equal work. As for the Amy Pascal–Scott Rudin thread about what movies President Obama might like, I was less startled by its content than by Pascal’s decision to apologize to Al Sharpton for it. Who elected this guy the Zelig of racial conflict in America?

But the real damage in the hack is not the gossip and the bitchiness. And it’s not merely the theft of intellectual property like screenplays and full cuts of movies, and the looting of personal information that could lead to identity theft and other crimes against the legions of non-boldface names who have been victimized. There are other subplots involving all sorts of people and corporations that have little or nothing to do with Sony or show business. And we don’t remotely know the whole of it yet. The hackers claim that the stolen Sony cache amounts to 100 terabytes — ten times the estimated storage space needed to digitalize the entire Library of Congress. And those who want to sift through it, whether journalists or bloggers or amateur sleuths, can and will continue doing so no matter what critics have to say about it. On Monday, for instance, the Times published an opinion piece by Aaron Sorkin lashing out at the press for trading in the Sony material, and the lawyer David Boies, in a news story in the business section, warned that Sony would go after any news organization that did so. But on the front page of the paper that very same day, the Times bucked both Sorkin and Boies to run a story on The Interview drawn in part from “hacked emails published by other media.” Yesterday, another Times article, about Google lobbying, also drew on Sony emails — these provided by “an industry executive.” Given that so many other players beyond Hollywood have figured in the emails thus far — from Google to NYU to the Times itself it’s safe to assume that the digging will continue, with more unexpected revelations yet to drip out bit by bit. It’s a Chinese — or perhaps North Korean — water torture of untold American companies and institutions.

Last year, after the Edward Snowden leaks, you wrote that “though Americans were being told in no uncertain terms that their government was spying on them, it quickly became evident that, for all the tumult in the media-political Establishment, many just didn’t give a damn.” Certainly the Sony hack has led to a lot of embarrassed executives and irate staffers. Did you underestimate Americans’ desire for privacy — at least when their private matters are made public?
My point, which I think still holds, is that Americans talk a good game about wanting their privacy protected but in reality we are almost sheeplike (and I include myself in that we) in the docility with which we turn over personal information to Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook — you name it — in pursuit of convenience, shopping, entertainment, and facile social engagement. All the information we give up can be hacked and too frequently is. One might imagine that the Sony apocalypse is making many Americans think twice about their voluntary exhibitionism. But I think we are unlikely to change our habits so much as hope, as Sony did, that surely there must be some nerd in IT somewhere who is protecting us from harm.