Friday, December 19, 2014

"The Interview" -- Never Mind

Sony Pictures has pulled its Christmas movie, The Interview, from all circulation, capitulating to threats from a nasty little country.

After a massive hack traced to North Korea and further threats to moviegoers who might buy tickets to the film, theater companies refused to show the movie.  The New York premier was cancelled last week.  Then Sony took the final step, announcing it would not release the movie even to video on demand.

(Interestingly, The Interview movie may be a stinker whose best bits are in its trailer.  Joe Morgenstern's review in today's Wall Street Journal savaged the movie, not for its message but as a piece of filmmaking -- "a buddy comedy with a slob aesthetic." He concluded with this: "In the real world, a debate has been raging over what does and doesn't constitute torture.  In the movie world, there's no debate: watching The Interview is torture from almost start to finish.")

But back to the point.  A huge corporation that professes to release artistic works and a bunch of large theater operators pulled out of a project because of potential liability.  The hack of virtually all of Sony's computer records has left the company and its employees vulnerable to losses of personal information and professional embarrassment.  The threats of violence in theaters, if fulfilled, raise potential for expensive liability lawsuits.

In short, big companies are unwilling to take risks, even on fundamental principles.  This has happened before.

Muhammed Cartoons

In 2005, a Danish newspaper printed 12 cartoons featuring pictures of Muhammed.  Some Islamic groups opposed representations of the prophet.  Other Islamic groups believed that no one should have the freedom to make jokes about their religion.  

One of the cartoons is below.

Months later, hostile and opportunistic Islamists circulated the cartoons to whip crowds into anti-Western frenzies.  Massive angry demonstrations were staged worldwide, and an estimated 200 people died in the turmoil.

Here's a picture, one of many, that were deemed acceptable for publication in major press outlets.

Of about 1,450 daily newspapers in the United States, only five published even one of the cartoons.  Of those, only one, The Philadelphia Inquirer, was among the country's top 25 papers by circulation.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General at the time, urged editors not to publish the cartoons.  His logic: "It is insensitive.  It is offensive.  It is provocative, and they should see what has happened around the world."

The protest photo is, if anything, more insensitive, offensive and provocative than the satirical cartoon.  But nobody, including Annan, wanted to make that point.

About the same time, the makers of South Park, an edgy and humorous television show, put together an episode that parodied the situation.  They included an ostensible Muhammed picture covered by a "CENSORED" graphic.  When the network got hold of the show, it censored it some more, bleeping out various phrases and excising a final speech about "intimidation and fear" that didn't even refer to Islam or Muhammed.  Then the network cut back access to rebroadcasts of the episode.
       ( Five years later, the South Park creators launched a smash hit Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon that satirized the Latter Day Saints religion.  Interestingly, nobody complained, even the Mormons, demonstrating again that media leaders are willing to kowtow to certain religions but not others.) 

In 2009, the Yale University Press published a book about the Muhammed cartoons -- The Cartoons That Shook the World -- but not until after it had pulled the cartoon images and all other illustrations out of the manuscript.  Even academic freedom took second place to expediency.

Who Stood Up

In fact, a number of small papers -- college publications, and small independent weeklies mostly -- published at least one and, in manys cases, all 12 of the Muhammed cartoons.  

Among American magazines, only left-wing Harper's published the 12 cartoons.   The magazine is supported by a nonprofit foundation, which perhaps made it easier for its editors to take the decision to publish.  For doing so, the edition was pulled from a number of bookstores. 

It is unfortunate that the most powerful media companies let themselves be cowed by violent extremists and leave the smallest publications to defend the basic principle of free speech. 

The Future

Since Sony pulled its picture, two other planned films have been scrubbed, one with a North Korean theme and another with just a North Korean scene. 

It is not difficult to see where this will lead.  Can you imagine a future film that pits American forces against Islamic terrorists or well-organized drug cartels or nasty street gangs or malevolent hackers from dodgy countries?  A documentary?  Will American writers or publishers think twice about articles that explain the workings of such groups?


Shortly after I posted these comments, President Obama spoke out about the situation,  He said Sony's capitulation was wrong, that the United States cannot allow extortionists to shut down speech  they oppose and that there would be consequences for North Korea.  Good for the president.

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