Dub in a tub
Bush hack shows the importance of sensationalism
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 20:02
Dubya just can’t catch a break.
Last week a hacker by the alias “Guccifer” broke into multiple email accounts of the Bush family, uncovering private messages, pictures and documents from 2009-12. Among the loot were messages between family members about George H. W. Bush’s failing health, a list of personal contact information for the former first family and a couple of interesting PG self-portraits of W. bathing. Yeah, that happened.
And from Guccifer to the main pages of major news organizations, the Internet got more Bush than it bargained for.
Yet there were few complainers. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t pertinent news or that the messages were of a private manner or even that they were obtained illegally. If journalism is all about getting the big story – no matter how trivial that story may be – then TSG won the week’s jackpot. And how? Because sensationalism sells.
TheSmokingGun.com, which aside from posting celebrity mug shots is known for obtaining exclusive material through government and legal sources, court documents and Freedom of Information Act requests, was the first news source to post about the hack. Its article contained everything from the digs at Bill Clinton to the awkward paintings. It was liked, shared and tweeted thousands of times.
Some major organizations smartly jumped on board. Reuters, the NY Daily News, USA Today and NBC News all wrote their own articles directly quoting the emails. Dozens of other websites wrote about it the hack without using any of the material. The New York Times, in a very New York Times-y move, even wrote an art review blog post on Bush’s paintings.
It’s not pretty, but it’s what people want to read. In the old rules of journalism (and perhaps in an ideal world), the emails would probably not have been published. There was once a time when we recognized the difference between a juicy story and an invasion of privacy, when the main story would’ve been about the hacker and not what the hacker found – maybe even a time when organizations would have thought twice before publishing a story that wasn’t actually a story for the sake of attention.
It’s hard to remember such a time, but it had to have existed.
The Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron drew a distinction between the publication of documents like the Pentagon Papers that reveal the conduct of the government and personal documents taken from a private source. The former, while possibly containing classified information, reveals information about our government that we may deem to be detrimental; the latter serve no purpose but to humiliate the owner.
But we, as a whole, root for the downfall of our nation’s celebrities. The emails are the equivalent of the up-the-skirt shots of celebrities stepping out of their cars or a weeks-long series of articles about Britney Spears shaving her head. These stories exist because we want them to. News organizations know we read them and that those stories will bring them many readers. Many complain when they exist but only after reading them first.
This, of course, is not the first time a celebrity has been hacked. Staying within the field of politics, former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin had her private email broken into in 2008. The hacker took screenshots of emails, a contact list and family photos, then shared them to Wikileaks. Just like with our current story, the screenshots quickly spread across the Web. Gawker, a popular news and gossip blog, reposted all of them, proudly crowing “it’s newsworthy, and we will not be taking it down!”
Society has become so much more digitally interactive, and as a result, people’s needs and wants are changing. Everyone wants to know what is happening instantly and all the time, even when a story (or a person) is no longer relevant. Because of incidents like this, people claim journalism is dying. But we don’t see it that way; we just see it adjusting with the times.