CNN did not commit blackmail but did abuse “newsworthiness.”

After some discussion on Popehat yesterday, I’m convinced that blackmail is the wrong way to look at the CNN thing. Blackmail has two elements1, a threat and a demand:

  1. It’s okay to tell my wife about the affair.
  2. It’s okay to not tell my wife about the affair.
  3. It’s okay to ask me for $50,000.
  4. But it’s not okay to condition the choice between (1) and (2) on (3); that’s blackmail.

Some people have argued that CNN did not threaten the Reddit user, but that’s not convincing. Imagine we keep the threat the same but alter the demand:

CNN is not publishing HanA**holeSolo’s name because he is a private citizen who is so remorseful that he issued an apology and announced his intention to pay CNN monthly installments of $10,000 for one year to heal our emotional injuries. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

Obviously that would be blackmail; even if their was no initial “agreement”, CNN is using a threat2 to ensure that payments continue. The reason that CNN’s real-world threat is not blackmail is that they did not use the threat to make an illegitimate gain.

Imagine that the Reddit user were a high school student who posted something inflammatory and racist using the school’s computers, and a teacher finds out. The teacher promises not to tell the student’s parents, so long as the student takes down the posts and promises never to do it again. This does not strike me as blackmail; the threat is real but the demand is for something perfectly reasonable. Blackmail is the inappropriate use of sensitive information, whereas this teacher is using sensitive information in an appropriate way.

Likewise, suppose that I am married and my wife’s sister finds out I have an OkCupid profile that I have not told my wife about. She threatens to tell my wife unless I close down the profile, and warns me that if I ever create another, she reserves the right to tell. Again, the threat is real, but her demand is an appropriate use of sensitive information.

What CNN did is still wrong, because they are a major news organization covering a private individual.  The issue is not blackmail, but abuse of the standard of “newsworthiness.”

Imagine that CNN finds out about my OkCupid profile while researching an article about people who use online dating to cheat. The same threat-and-demand that is ethical coming from my wife’s sister would be egregiously unethical (albeit not blackmail) coming from CNN – it’s something you’d expect of the sleaziest tabloids, not a mainstream media outlet. If they decide in good faith that this is a newsworthy topic, the ethical thing for them to do would be to describe the generalities of my situation without identifying me, even though:

  • …my behavior is immoral.
  • …the “secret” they’re threatening to reveal isn’t very secure.
  • …the general topic of “people cheating online” is newsworthy, and my private life brushed against these newsworthy events.

(This seems obvious, I think, because “adultery” is a less partisan topic than “racist shitposting.”)

But suppose CNN evaluates the situation differently than I do, and believes in good faith that my identity as an online adulterer is newsworthy. In that case, how can they justify keeping my identity from the public, because of my apology that may or may not be genuine?  “Newsworthiness” is not a punishment to be doled out, and to use it as a tool of threat interferes with the ability of other media organizations to operate with public trust.

And that’s aside from the appearance of petty vengeance created if my online activities include not just secret OkCupid profiles, but childish memes mocking CNN.  After all, it’s not like CNN has ever threatened to identify any other OkCupid adulterers; only the one that made fun of them.  Now “newsworthiness” has been twisted not just into a threat, but into a tool of retaliation.

1. Blackmail turns out to be a fascinating topic in legal philosophy; for more, google “paradox of blackmail.”

2. If the article was indeed “poorly worded” and they intended no threat, the proper thing for them to do would be to revise it to remove the sentence that everyone agrees sounds like a threat. Like, if someone said that in a movie, everyone in the audience would understand that it’s a threat, right?  CNN claims that HanA**holeSolo says he doesn’t feel threatened, but someone who was threatening him would lie about that, and even if they weren’t lying, the threatened person would be likely to lie.  Basically, CNN has created a situation where it’s impossible to trust them even if they intended no wrong.

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