At this point we're pretty far along on the Sony hack story. But a number of morally and ethically suspect pieces were published a week ago and, of course, news organizations rationalized their behavior. Since then, things have taken a darker turn with terrorist threats and the decision, first by theater owners and then by a corporate giant, to bow to those whims. But before all that started happening, I got “Nightcrawler” writer and director Dan Gilroy on the phone earlier this week to talk about the media's role and responsibilities when something like that arises. Reporters devouring a hacked carcass, scavenging for ratings under the thin guise of integrity – I was, to say the least, quite reminded of his film.
“'Nightcrawler' does come across as an indictment,” Gilroy says, “but the indictment I'm trying to make isn't so specific to stringers or even the world of the pressures on Rene [Russo]'s character as a news director in a station. The larger net I'm trying to cast is that people watching the film will say, 'Wait a minute, I'm one of the people who watches these images. If I'm given a choice between two channels and one is showing an in-depth study of social security going bankrupt and the other is showing a car chase, I'm going to watch the car chase. It doesn't make me bad or good, it's just I have to be aware that the time I would normally slot to informing myself is being given increasingly to violent, graphic images.'”
And indeed, providing a market for same. Which is why I wanted to talk to him this week. A former Variety reporter himself, Gilroy is well aware of the world of entertainment journalism and how the lowered stakes of that beat can keep the ethical slope slippery. The line between news and entertainment is increasingly blurred, and so a mentality of providing the readership what it wants, not necessarily what it needs, more easily catches hold.
“I think it's absolutely relevant,” he says. “If it [had been] a third party, a hacker or an individual, I think that person would be motivated by the understanding that there is a tremendous vacuum out there and a desire for private information, things that are forbidden, that you wouldn't feel good about yourself for looking at. Because you'd be a thief if you snuck into someone's office and looked at their computer. And somehow because it's being published, that makes it OK? News gatherers who are desperate for ratings or eyeballs, it's 'what can I put on here to get an advertiser to put a $2,000 banner to go on my screen because I'm hurting this month?'”
Which recalls the rampant rationalization that came in the wake of media decisions last week. Gilroy didn't even feel the need to finish reading Aaron Sorkin's New York Times op-ed condemning publication of the material, he says, because the “Newsroom” creator had so succinctly made his point from the outset. “I agreed with every word,” he says. “The rationale that I've seen stated in print is, 'Well, if we don't run it then other people are going to run it, and then we're somehow behind.' The moral issue that you're bringing up, that is probably the most relevant part of the conversation, is literally discarded the moment they start speaking about it. 'It's not a question of if it's moral or not, it's a question of it's out there and if we don't run it we're behind.' I think it shows you how far down the road we are on this.”
There are obviously, potentially, much higher stakes surrounding the Sony situation than whether private information and exchanges are published, but it's worth it to consider media behavior in the lead-up to this week's events. Gilroy's film speaks so specifically to these concerns because he grew up a news junkie who always felt journalism to be an inspiring occupation, “one of the cornerstones of society,” he says. There's a reason whenever there is a revolution, the rebels take over radio and TV broadcasting. It's that important, so much so that whatever the stakes, the ethical high ground ought to be at the forefront.
“News has become entertainment,” Gilroy says. “Once that happens, a whole series of horrific events start to happen, whether it's the lack of dissemination of something that can inform you or something that actually negatively impacts society. And who among us would ever want to have our privacy invaded like that and not feel utterly violated if it becomes fodder for commercials or ads on a site? It's terrible.”