Media throughout the country carried news recently that a half-dozen email accounts belonging to ex-President George W. Bush and several of his friends and relatives had been hacked. The words and images that were pilfered weren’t all that interesting, so all in all it wasn’t a huge story.
But to me, a fan of the vanishing right to privacy, this was still a reasonably big deal. I was struck by the way the former president’s right to chat with intimates, free of eavesdroppers, was barely acknowledged. Comments he had made privately and paintings he had kept from public view were exposed worldwide as if the propriety of doing so was beyond question.
And I think that idea is worth looking at more carefully.
We’ll leave to the FBI and Secret Service the question of whether the hacking warrants legal reprisal. My interest is in what sort of respect Bush’s privacy deserves from the media that received the hacked materials.
The first report of the hacking came in a Feb. 7 posting on The Smoking Gun, a website owned by Time-Warner that tilts toward what was once called tabloid journalism (Among recent headliners: “Man stabbed as ménage a trois goes wrong,” and “Mom charged for letting son, 3, pump gasoline.”)
The Smoking Gun handled the Bush material fairly well, I thought, by foregrounding its invasiveness. The hack “exposed personal photos and sensitive correspondence from members of the Bush family . . . ” The site noted it had obtained confidential material — including home addresses, cell phone numbers, email addresses for Bush family members — but didn’t republish any of it.
In fact, most of the media I saw seemed aware that the material was pretty personal.
But they then turned around and squeezed every bit of even marginally interesting detail from it: Family concern about the declining health of the patriarch, George H.W. Bush; references to whether ex-President Bill Clinton should deliver a eulogy when the elder Bush dies; email from Fox News luminary Britt Hume about the 2012 presidential election; images of W’s own artworks, which he plainly hadn’t meant to exhibit publicly, let alone submit for artistic and psychological appraisal.
So what gives? The closest I found to an articulation of the principle underlying publication came from Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post (and, I must acknowledge, an old friend). Commenting on why he didn’t run Bush’s paintings, Baron said: “This is all private to the Bush family. There are no public policy implications here whatsoever.”
That basic principle is, I think, a sound one: Before publishing private stuff, be convinced there’s a valid and discernible connection with what’s properly public.
To be sure, even that may not offer the clear guidance we’d like. Often, it may be impossible to know just how enlightening private utterances are and how reliably they illuminate public actions.
But that principle is a sturdy one, well worth trying to apply. It means that certain things are off-limits, unless shown otherwise. It means that Bush’s email (if it existed) to a friend saying he didn’t trust his ex-vice president, Dick Cheney, wouldn’t deserve the same privacy consideration than would an email caution that Bush’s mother mustn’t hear of discussions about how to handle her ailing husband’s funeral. (Which did exist, and was mentioned in news accounts.)
And it means the media need to be careful about blithely assuming that when it comes to people of sufficient prominence, the private is public, and the claim to a personal sphere is nothing more than an impermissible wish for concealment.
Journalists for years have seized on the notion of “character,” because it offers a noble-sounding way to connect, seamlessly, the most intimate realities of someone’s life to the most public, and to justify an open season on the private lives of the powerful in the service of “the public’s right to know.”
Sometimes the inquiry is warranted. But more often, I think, the claim that invasive reporting surfaces publicly significant realities is bogus, and all that’s happened is that the widening access to personal communications is used to shove into public gaze thoughts and experiences that have only a brittle claim to be any of our business.
Before long, that looming danger of public exposure will circle back onto the private sphere, and stifle personal expression in ways that shrink, rather than widen, the richness of experience and thought that we feel free to share with those we trust.