Okay, most of us hate George W. Bush (for what he did in Iraq, and to our country at home, the torture and more), but does that mean major media outlets were on ethically sound ground in publishing or reporting on those hacked e-mails from the former president and family, including his self-portraits in the shower and in the tub?
Even though, hey, the paintings were kind of humanizing and even drew some praise?
No one was surprised that the Smoking Gun ran with this last Friday—courtesy of the hacker known as “Guccifer”—and all manner of other sites along the network of tubes. But plenty of mainstream sites also jumped in, to a point.
Even the Smoking Gun did not publish all that it had—private e-mail addresses and some correspondence. But it did release e-mails discussing the near-death of George H.W. Bush recently, including his son’s warning that he did not want Bill Clinton—“Bubba,” as he called him—offering the main eulogy. Then there were those paintings.
William Bastone, the site’s editor and co-founder, told The Washington Post. “The nature of the hack was so extensive and extraordinary—considering that two presidents had their e-mails illegally accessed—that we clearly thought it was newsworthy. We decided to use a tiny portion of the material that was illustrative of the nature of the various incursions and their seriousness.” In other words: They were providing a public service by revealing how serious the hacking problem is today.
But Richard Wald, professor at Columbia University’s school of journalism and the former president of NBC News, said that even the most prominent people deserve some privacy rights, adding, “If the hack had revealed malefaction of a great nature, you’d say ‘Thank God they published it.’ But if it’s just [trivial], it injures the notion of civility.”
Indeed, two top newspapers showed some—but not total—restraint. The Washington Post reported the news and details but did not provide the usual link to the Smoking Gun. The New York Times did link directly to the Smoking Gun but mainly analyzed Dubya’s skills as a painter—but also linked to a Huff Post story which in turn carried a Newsy video featuring some of the material, including a photo of the elder Bush in his hospital bed (which the Smoking Gun had already removed from its site).
That shows the modern ethical challenges faced by mainstream media. They may profess and often hold to certain standards, but the pressures of SEO and linkage cause them to grab material as widely and as fast as they can, upsetting those guidelines. And the Times, while having some fun with the paintings—“as an artist he is, well, a heck of a lot better than any number of world leaders whose names spring to mind, foremost Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler”—hardly took an ethical stance of refusing to take advantage of the hacking.
Yes, we enjoyed the comparisons to Jasper Johns and the amateur paintings of Bob Dylan, and this:
The two paintings could be said to depict the introverted self-absorption for which Mr. Bush is known. Perhaps, he is trying to cleanse himself in a more metaphorical way, seeking a kind of redemption from his less fortuitous decisions as president. At the same time, whatever is going on psychologically, the paintings suggest a man, a painter at ease with his body.
But still. Maureen Dowd in a Sunday column also could not resist this minor gold mine, with such comments as: “The man can handle a brush. And we thought he could only clear brush.” But then she warned about the loss of privacy in the new tech world:
The instant gratification they offer makes us shortsighted in an unprecedented way. It’s insane how vulnerable we’ve made ourselves, like drunks failing to look around as they walk into traffic. Hackers could shut down the way we live, and if they hacked into drones or nuclear codes, determine the way we die. If you think it through, which most of us avoid, the prospect of Techmaggedon is terrifying.
Just recently, of course, the Times reported on its own broad victimization and exposure—by Chinese hackers.
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