22 December 2014

Sony, Obama, Harvard--Where is the spine?

A brief "goodbye" to 2014.  Good riddance.

The level to which Sony has sunk was indicated again when it was revealed that the company's President, Amy Pascal , "consulted" with Al Sharpton (who withheld forgiveness, yet) after the press published internal emails making jokes about President Obama possibly liking movies about black people.  What does "Rev" Al have to do with this?  (An irreverent aside: the press accounts I saw made no mention one way or the other of any fee or contribution in connection with that consult. What's the odds?)

Am I the only one who whose memory flashes back to President Bill Clinton publicly consulting with the late Reverend Billy Graham after it was revealed Clinton was having sex with a White House intern? I recognize that this is a weak analogy because Clinton was a real criminal who is lucky his victim's father didn't take after him with a shotgun, and Billy Graham was a real "Reverend." Still ... .

I think Sony was fucked not only by the NK hackers, but by the theatre owners as well, who caved in to the terrorists without thinking about the long term. And let us not forget the other studios who sat on the sidelines pulling for Sony to withdraw the film, lest its display at multiplexes hurt their box office receipts. The White House sitting on its hands until after the Sony withdrawal announcement didn't help much either.

Wanna do something instead of just talking about it?  I have several ideas:

1. The theatre owners and Sony suck it up and show the stupid movie.

2. We publicly flay the craven theatre owners.  Publish and advertise their names and stay away from their theatres for at least the Christmas season, or better still, until they show the film?  

3. The Republican-led Congress gets its shit together in January and passes some sort of First-Amendment-anti-terror bill to take Sony, the theatre owners and their insurance companies off the liability hook. Somebody in this mess needs to find some spine.  Who 'da thunk the U.S. Congress is a place to look for that?

I suggest the entire industry has lost sight of the long term.  For a group of people who constantly shout about the importance to their industry of their First Amendment rights, they have given the terrorists the key to the industry's ultimate destruction:by failing to assert and protect those rights.

Let's face it. There is no dearth of internet hackers, and there is no shortage of fundamentalists, assorted whackos, haters, internet trolls, and the like. What the movie people have done here is to add a new filter to the decision-making process of what content is deemed acceptable.  Now in addition to looking for excessive violence, explicit sex, nudity, profanity, etc, films, tv, and plays, writers and producers will need to add to the list "liklihood the content will piss somebody off."  Say goodbye to "Zero Dark Thirty", "Homeland", etc., and productions in which the characters are abusive priests, homosexuals, cop killers, racists, women who have had abortions,--the list is endless.  The result is Hollywood will be limited to spineless pap that no one will want to see.

This is a slippery slope: Self-censorship is not limited to motion picture or television producers.  Think newsrooms, print and otherwise.  There are lots of places in this world where journalists must limit their reports to "acceptable" material. Indeed, I think there is more of them than of us. Scary stuff.

How low we have sunk.

And while we are talking about "spine', check out this piece of news out of Harvard University, the alma mater of so many of our national leaders.  It appears the University has recently stripped labels off some drink machines in its dining halls because the labels bore the name of an Israeli company that made the machines in a West Bank factory. Moreover, the Harvard administrators vowed not to purchase any more equipment from that company.

Why? Well it appears the some Palestinian students complained that the presence of those machines was a "microaggression".  Ya can't make this stuff up.

After the Palestinian microaggression scandal hit the press, the senior Harvard administration scrambled to reconsider its policy, though apparently no final conclusions have been reached. 

I see no report that the President of Harvard has yet sought to consult with Rev Al, or a Palestinian counterpart. But stay tuned. To borrow New York's lottery advertisement: "Hey, ya never know".  Hard to believe?  See for yourself: 


(I am having trouble with this link. If clicking on it does not help, copy and paste into your URL box)
My final unsolicited suggestion for the New Year: the District Attorney for Staten Island should resubmit the Garner case to another Grand Jury, or step aside and let somebody else do so. Not because of the subsequent violence, but because, unlike the Ferguson grand jury decision, the Staten Island grand jury decision was indisputably wrong and a patent offense to our criminal justice system.

Ho, ho, ho, and all that.

A bientot.

19 December 2014

Journalism Jamboree

9:22 AM (46 minutes ago)

This is has been a tough month for journalists:

Let me count the ways:

1.  Rolling Stone

The magazine published its shocking University of Virginia rape story, only to later say they i) did no fact checking beyond speaking to the source, and ii) now they have no confidence in the source. Bummer.  My own view is that once again, journalists have demonstrated that "journalistic ethics" is an oxymoron. Rolling Stone decided that, in the circumstances, it had no ethical responsibility to speak to other parties involved in the rape story. The result is that the publisher, in a heedless rush to win a Pulitzer, or at the very least spike circulation,  has seriously set back the cause of rape reporting and prevention on and off campus. 

So what is the punishment?  Does Rolling Stone get sued? By whom? Does the Society of Professional Journalists put em on probation?  Would that there was such a group and that it had such power. Other "professions"  e.g, physicians, lawyers, etc, do function under the watchful eye of disciplinary organizations that have the power to sanction, and even defrock ethical violators.  But then again, how does one violate an ethical code that does not exist?  I know, I know, the journalists scream they are free to make mistakes, violate moral principles, etc, because the First Amendment says so.  I must have an outdated edition of the Constitution because I cannot find those words in my copy of the document.

2.   The Sony hack.
Somebody hacked into Sony's computers and stole the company's proprietary information.  Financial data, employee's social security numbers, emails, everything. In this instance, the thief apparently was North Korea, but put aside for the moment the question of who did it. What is clear is that this was a theft, every bit as illegal as a physical burglary--you know, the old fashioned kind involving picked locks, broken windows, jackhammers, whatever, all in the dead of night.  We have all seen the movie.  

The Sony thieves then made the private stolen information available to the press, and, tadah! the press published it.

Is that okay?

Some years back the Twentieth Century Fund published a piece I wrote called "The Myth of the Muzzled Media"  (Yeah, already you know where I stand!)  In it I wrote about a significant judicial decision, Pearson v Dodd. Briefly, thieves broke into Senator Dodd's office, stole his papers, and gave copies to Drew Pearson who published them. The court, in slavish obeisance to the press, said this conduct was just peachy, as long as Pearson had not aided in the theft beforehand. In my essay, I suggested that i) Pearson was a "fence" for the stolen property and in Criminal Law 101 we were taught that knowing possession of stolen property is a felony, and ii) Pearson did effectively aid and abet the theft because the thieves knew he would publish it. The only value of the stolen property was the beforehand knowledge the fence would take it and publish it.

(I had just won a big verdict in a libel case against CBS and was a frequent speaker and panelist at First Amendment programs, at which my heretical views were regularly challenged by so-called "First Amendment Lawyers." My  definition of a member of the "First Amendment Bar" is a lawyer who earns his or her fees from publishers.  Anyway, you can just imagine the thrashing about and foaming at the mouth of my colleagues when I referred to their clients as "fences."  I loved it!)

The Pearson-Dodd decision was not predicated on personal privacy vs. government secret information. Presumably, the press would argue that exposing the latter is more important than the former, and deserves more protection.  Stick a pin in a publisher's lawyer and he bleeds the "Pentagon Papers" case--which by the way, does NOT stand for the proposition they most frequently advance, i.e.,  that one can publish stolen government documents with impunity.  But that issue is for another rant. 

What is important with reference to the Sony hack, is that the Dodd court's opinion makes no distinction between hacks of private vs. public information. Indeed, the court wrote that if a self-motivated criminal were to secretly and illegally install a recording device under the bed of a married couple, and were that "eavesdropper to the marital bedroom" to hear material that "is of public interest", the press was free to publish the stolen private content. Yikes. 

Bottom line: a publisher has a free pass if it decides the material is "of public interest."  Some ethical standard, huh? Obviously, some publishers thought stolen private pictures of a naked Jennifer Lawrence were of sufficient public interest as to qualify them as "newsworthy" and they published them.  Others abstained, but then published s private emails among Sony artists and executives. Yuch.

Bottom line, this week, the press played North Korea's game by publishing the content of the stolen information. Was the publication illegal?  Making out that case would be pushing a big rock up a steep hill.  Is it unethical?  I don't know how one could tell without a set of clear ethics rules.  As it is now, each publisher decides for himself, on a case by case basis. So if some publishers believe naked pix of Jennifer Lawrence and/or the social security numbers of Sony employees are "of public interest", they are free to report that "news." And remember please, the word "publisher" is very amorphous these days. It includes the New York Times, The New York Post,  Rolling Stone, Gawker, TMZ, Drudge, and maybe even moi.  Scary stuff.

3. The Hillary Photograph:

Now, down to the real important stuff.  Yesterday, the New York Times published a color photo of an attractive young woman at a dinner party. In case you missed it, it was in the Style section.  Here is the photo:

Talk about irresponsible journalism: The Times ran a caption identifying this hottie as Hillary Clinton!  Either the Times made a mistake or Hillary has had a punim transplant.  Either way, this is newsworthy, non?  The Times was silent on both questions.

We do not have these problems in St. Barths, mainly because the two daily free eight-pagers are in French and I don't know what they say.

A bientot.