Gertrude Stein famously said “there is no there.”
Similar thought? The Smoking Gun, which describes itself as a site publishing “exclusive documents” including those from “court files nationwide,” published photos and excerpts from personal emails without, well, a smoking gun.
A hacker named “Guccifer” sent the website photos and emails from former presidents George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush and their families, and the Smoking Gun published a selection of photos and information from emails. The U.S. Secret Service has launched a “criminal inquiry” into the hack of “six different email accounts,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
But, as ethicists and journalists told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, information gleaned from the hack — as reported by the Smoking Gun — seemingly failed to provide anything of actual news value. But The Smoking Gun’s editor William Bastone said it included “a tiny portion” of details and images from the hack in order to be “illustrative of the nature of the various incursions and their seriousness.”
Farhi’s report on the hacking raised important “journalism ethics questions” about why this Bush family information — which largely seems to have revealed just personal and identifying information, was published at all, given that it was “personal” and “stolen goods.” While Bastone called “Guccifer’s” hack “so extensive and extraordinary” and as such, defended The Smoking Gun’s report as “newsworthy,” Farhi described the Smoking Gun’s report on the hack as having gone “further than merely describing how deeply the hacker had penetrated the family’s personal accounts.”
“Are there any standards left?” Farhi questioned, citing longtime journalists on the needless publication of personal information. Columbia University professor Richard Wald commented to Farhi that “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.”
Similarly, the Post’s executive editor Martin Baron is quoted by Farhi as saying the photos found during the hack weren’t necessary to post. There wasn’t “a reason to display those photos” since they are “private” and have “no public policy implications,” Baron told Farhi. Further, Baron invoked reporting on the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks as possible reasons to report on leaked information because they relate to government, not personal information.
iMediaEthics is writing to The Smoking Gun asking how it decided what to publish and what to withhold in its reporting on the hack. We’ll update with any response.