Last Friday, The Daily Beast discovered yet another bombshell deep in the gigabytes of documents unearthed in the hacking of Sony Pictures by the so-called “Guardians of Peace.” The topic was the “points” (back-end compensation, bonus money if a film clears a profit) distributed among the marquee talent for last year’s Oscar nominee American Hustle, a breakdown that went thus: Director David O. Russell and stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner each received nine percent, while stars Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence each received seven percent. Hmmmm. What makes those seven-percenters different from the nine-percenters? I can’t quite put my finger on… OH RIGHT. Even more shockingly, the emails reveal that Lawrence was originally pegged for a mere five percent, but was upped to seven. Keep in mind, this deal was made after the Lawrence-fronted Hunger Games had opened and made a bajillion dollars.
So that’s a pretty shocking gender-based pay gap — one that you might even call dishonorable or immoral, if you were prone to hyperbole. But self-appointed Moral Arbiter Aaron Sorkin doesn’t think it’s immoral; he thinks it’s immoral that you know about it, which is one more reason that Aaron Sorkin really must just shut the fuck up.
The current round of self-righteous tsk-tsking comes in a New York Times op-ed titled “The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press,” in which the film and television writer, who has spent the last three years decrying the entirety of post-Woodstein journalism on The Newsroom, explains to us all that actually, the Sony hack is about ethics in journalism. He runs down the timeline of the hacking, the emails from the perpetrators, the initial dribs and drabs of emails detailing the inner workings of the studio. And then comes this:
Finally the media got serious. Not because no one gets more use out of the First Amendment than they do, and here was a group threatening to kill people for exercising it. Not because hackers had released Social Security numbers, home addresses, computer passwords, bank account details, performance reviews, phone numbers, the aliases used when high-profile actors check into hotels (a safety measure to keep stalkers away), and even the medical records of employees and their children. But because a stolen email revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was being undervalued.
There is a lot going on in this paragraph. First, it seems safe to assume that Mr. Sorkin’s screed went to the Times in the form of a Word doc, without the links that now pepper it — because, as we all know, the Internet is a foul, dirty place filled with illiterate halfwits incapable of anything resembling journalism. But seeing as the embedded link is part-and-parcel of online journalism, someone at the Times presumably had the job of going through said piece and inserting reference links — which means that in the midst of a paragraph complaining that the media didn’t “get serious” about the Sony hack until the embarrassing, juicy celebrity stuff came out, hey, lookee here, two examples of serious media covering the thing that he thinks no one seriously covered. (There are many more examples of this, but presumably his Times formatter didn’t want to make him look completely oblivious.) Even more awkwardly, two of the embedded links in the paragraph above this one are from those scabrous sleaze-mongers at… The New York Times. Whoops.
But more troubling, yet all of a piece with what we’ve come to understand about Sorkin, is the sneering dismissiveness with which he waves off the Lawrence story, as though it were merely an example of bullshit celebrity idolatry. It isn’t. It is a concrete example of the troublesome manner in which the people who run Hollywood devalue women — even at one of the few major studios run by one. It was a fact first confirmed by one of the initial pieces of intel discovered in the documents: a salary spreadsheet detailing, among the highest-paid and most powerful people at the studio, an eye-opening near-dominance of white men. Y’know, people like Aaron Sorkin.
And that’s why Sorkin can be so blithe and undisturbed by the, yes, newsworthy information that the hack has revealed: because black-and-white proof of gender-based pay disparities and casual racism don’t affect him. “I understand that news outlets routinely use stolen information,” Sorkin writes. “That’s how we got the Pentagon Papers, to use an oft-used argument. But there is nothing in these documents remotely rising to the level of public interest of the information found in the Pentagon Papers.” Maybe he’s right — or maybe understanding why there is so little representation of women and people of color in mass media of is of some minor public interest. Later, he asks, “Is there even one sentence in one private email that was stolen that even hints at wrongdoing of any kind?” To which I’d ask, what exactly is your definition of “wrongdoing”? Is paying people less than they’re worth, based on their reproductive equipment, “wrong”?
For whatever it’s worth, this criticism hails not from the always-busy corner of Sorkin-smashers online; this writer is on the record as a Newsroom defender (Season 1, even!). Furthermore, the third season of that show was well on its way to becoming, in my view (and even those of some previous critics), something legitimately, unapologetically great — until, well, that scene. (Also worth noting, in light of his op-ed, is how that same episode included an important story, centered on leaked government documents, that our heroes chose not to run. Do with that what you will.) Yet even as the show was clicking, Sorkin’s bitter you-damn-kids-and-your-World-Wide-Webs grousing was reaching a fever pitch, most irritatingly in the subplot detailing Jim’s incredulous discovery that live-in girlfriend Hallie’s new web outlet gave bonuses based on traffic. THAT’S NOT WHAT JOURNALISM IS ABOUT, ETC. (I guess no one told Aaron Sorkin about how cable news shows literally track ratings from segment to segment.)
That fury is at the center of Sorkin’s Times op-ed, which operates under the utterly contradictory premises that scurrilous online gossip-mongers are getting rich off these stories, while “the rest of us” loudly object, “You’re Giving Material Aid to Criminals.” First of all, if “the rest of us” feel that way, who’s reading the gossip sites? Secondly, if ever there was a time when Aaron Sorkin spoke for “the rest of us,” that time has long passed.
Is a giant portion — the majority, probably — of the Sony hack coverage simple-minded and silly, mean-spirited and click-chasing, giggling and sneering at SEO-friendly celebrities? Sure. But here’s the rub: There will always be an element of the press that does that, and there always has been. Even when Sorkin’s hero Edward R. Murrow was fighting the good fight on CBS’s airwaves (and supplementing that by fawning over celebs on Person to Person), gossip rags like Confidential — the ‘50s analog equivalent of Gawker — were telling celebrity secrets. That’s the duality of journalism. And by continuing to insist that we must return to our better, more virtuous selves, shaming the messenger and ignoring the message, Sorkin is doing little to combat his prevailing public image: an old man, yelling at clouds.