On the day that Sony basically scrapped the movie, I got this email from Jeff Shell:
It was only then, after the theaters refused to show the film and Sony paused the release, that the White House seemed to get engaged—and not in a terribly helpful way. At a press conference, when President Obama was asked about Sony, he criticized the studio, saying it had “made a mistake.” He added: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” Lynton was upset about this and decided he needed to fire back. He was scheduled to talk to Fareed Zakaria on CNNj, and the White House asked him to pull the interview. He did it anyway. “I think, actually, the unfortunate part is, in this instance, the president, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened. We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters.” Lynton said when theaters say they will not show the movie, they had no alternative but to halt the theatrical release. “We have persevered, and we have not backed down.” In fact, after the chains refused to show it, Sony worked behind the scenes to have other platforms get the movie out. Almost everybody refused—Netflix, Faceboo, Apple, Comcast—all of whom were concerned about getting hacked. Only Google and Stripoe were willing to help to get the movie out.
But there was another shoe to drop, and it affected me and what I was trying to do at State: the leaking of emails between myself and Lynton. In the early months of my job, I had reached out to Lynton for help in the counter-ISIS fight and countering Russian disinformation. The WikiLeaks release contained a number of emails between Lynton and me.
This was the email that got the most attention:
Many publications in their story about the Sony hack made passing references to the email and our dialogue, including New York magazine, and Gawker. But the one publication that did the most with it was Russia Today. It was as though they were practicing for 2016. They were particularly exercised that a “senior State Department official” was enlisting help “countering … Russian narratives.”
Even before the print article was published, the correspondent for RT, who was a regular attendee at the State Department’s daily briefings, began to pester the State Department spokesperson about the emails. The RT correspondents were well-known for haranguing the State Department spokespeople and trying to trip them up on policies regarding Russia. RT’s Gayane Chickakyan, who had previously written about me accusing me of being a propagandist, had asked State spokesperson Marie Harf about the significance of me trying to “counter” Russian narratives.
Conventional Russian media outlets, particularly Russia Today and Sputnik, were always on top of what they invariably criticized as anti-Russian bias. They then responded in the characteristic Russian way: They accused you of what they were doing. They always accused America and the West of being hypocrites, propagandists, and treating Russia like a junior partner. I had started watching RT in my State office, and found it to be a low-rent version of Fox News, featuring “experts” without expertise, pundits and academics from organizations and universities you’ve never heard of spouting conspiracy theories that you only expected to see on the dark web.
The references in my emails to Russian disinformation and propaganda had obviously gotten their attention. Their strategy was always to try to punch back harder. In addition to their online story, RT also did an on-air story that was broadcast the same day as the digital one posted. It was done by the correspondent cited in the online piece, who, after a dramatic on-air reading of the emails, says, “So the State Department response to allegations that the government is in talks with entertainment giants to promote U.S. foreign policy could be summarized in two words: So what? We reached out to Sony, and they refused to comment.”
Then the RT anchor came back on air and introduced a middle-aged fellow with rimless glasses who was chyroned as a representative of the “anti-war Answer coalition.” He asserted that, “This is really a revival of whatever was allowed to die after the Cold War…This collaboration was intensified exponentially to turn the big corporations into arms of the government.” Adding that all of this “propaganda” was “deeply controlled by the White House and the Pentagon.”
The Russians were trying to shape the story to their master narrative of anti-Russia bias by the U.S. They didn’t have any special sympathy for Kim Jong Un, but they liked showing corporate America and the American government at the mercy of a tin-pot dictator. Going back to the Cold War days, there is nothing the Russian media likes more than exposing what it considers to be American hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, in this case the U.S. government not standing up for the values of free speech.
This also proved to be RT’s strategy during the 2016 election: to focus on American disunity and hypocrisy, to exaggerate the dangers of immigration and play up the grievances of Trump voters, in general to show the U.S. as something akin to a failed state.
In the end, in addition to a digital release, Sony managed to cobble together a limited number of independent theaters and show the movie around the time they had originally planned. Some months after the whole episode had receded from the news, I spoke to Michael. He told me that President Obama had reached out to apologize. Michael was grateful for that. Reflecting on the whole episode, he said, “Cyber can be as destructive as anything physical, but because it’s invisible, people who haven’t experienced it don’t seem to understand it. There still isn’t a way to combat this.”
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