Catch and Kill in the Modern Era

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If you are over 35, you have probably heard — or even said – a variation of the statement:

“I’m so glad I went to high school at a time where all the stupid things I did weren’t recorded and put on social media.”

The world we live in has a changing concept of what we consider privacy, yet we have an expectation of maintaining and protecting that which each of us still considers “private.” Society, in general, has been more apt to share information, good or bad, almost immediately upon reception. From people taking pictures of their food to using social media as their personal therapy session, we are starting to see real-time information lose its value in being kept a secret. Consider for a moment that the world is living the age of the “Celebrity Sex Tape.” Some stars have found it advantageous to actually put out videos for public consumption that which would have horrified previous generations if it ever got out. The desire for likes, clicks, and notoriety has outweighed keeping this kind of behavior behind closed doors.

This is where we are in our always evolving culture and with this, we can actually focus on the topic at hand.

Recently, I was asked if the practice of “Catch and Kill” is still possible in the era of mobile devices, the internet, and a non-stop news cycle. The short answer is yes (with caveats), and those caveats may surprise you.

For those unfamiliar with the term or practice of Catch and Kill, it’s a technique used by some publishers to prevent potentially damaging information from being released to the public. A recent example of this practice involved Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal being allegedly paid $150,000 by American Media in 2016 for the rights to her story of romantic liaisons with then-candidate Donald Trump. The signed contract stated that American Media had exclusive ownership to essentially any type of interaction that McDougal had with Trump. Once American Media owned the rights, they chose to not run the story thus ensuring that this tryst never saw the light of day in the public. The story was caught and killed.

So, can this tactic be employed in the age of mass exposure via the internet? Absolutely.

To begin, the most critical point as to why this works is understanding that information has the power and ability to damage another, which makes said information a commodity.

As a fictitious example, If I have salacious information on someone famous, I have something that others want. This gives me a lucrative bargaining chip with which I can make some serious money. It is in my best interest to keep the details of this information to myself, only giving potential buyers of the information enough to ensure not only my credibility but also the potential impact of the story on the general public.

Our fictitious celebrity may desperately desire to quash the information disclosed to the public and is willing to both pay handsomely, not to mention jump through multiple hoops, to ensure that I’m legally silenced and unable to tell the world that which may condemn him or her. As I shop around my story to various publishing outlets to see who will pay me the most, the celebrity is working with a friendly publishing company to ensure that they are not only aggressively pursuing my information to beat out their competitors but that they are also the highest bidder. Once I accept their highest bid and sign away my rights to them, I have essentially agreed to never speak of the story again and let the publisher do what they will with the story which is to never publish it. Our fake celebrity can now sleep at night, knowing their secrets are safe.

With the above said, here are all the dents in the Catch and Kill armor.

First, as mentioned above, we live in the age of social media sharing. We are raising an entire generation that doesn’t look at data, aka catch and kill type information, the same way as we have in the past. Beyond the surface sharing of celebrity sex tape phenomena, and pictures of our food, if we dive deeper into this we are seeing a shift in organizational thinking. The newer generations are looking at concepts like a hierarchy of leadership and innovating around it. If you’re older than 50 and a corporate leader, you’ve probably experienced some young whippersnapper stroll into your office and explain how you should be doing things. While the impulse is to simply label this as arrogance (“who does this punk think he is?”), this is simply the environment he or she was raised: a collaborative and cooperative environment where sharing of information is vital to success. Experience takes a back seat to all options openly discussed. This societal networking demands transparency to properly function which means sharing becomes of paramount importance. This is the antithesis of “Catch and Kill” which thrives in secrecy.

Further, publishers don’t often employ this practice because they either don’t have connections with the people who pay them to keep things quiet or they realize they’re going to be put into a public spotlight that they may not want. Publishers rarely want to be the story themselves (just ask Jim Acosta of CNN). However, they have an insatiable need for more and more information on celebrities that they know will drive traffic to their websites. Public consumption of celebrity anything is so prolific that legitimate organizations have been caught hacking into the technology of the famous people they routinely stalk.

Finally, and also the most damaging, is the celebrity’s perception that the publisher can properly safeguard the data. Gone are the days of having a single paper copy of a story that can be locked in a steel safe. Today, the stories are Word documents stored somewhere on a computer, server, or in the cloud. Hacking has never been more prolific, and – as the world has seen – truly damaging information can be stolen and then published on websites like WikiLeaks. Publishers are rather large targets for hackers (even state-sponsored hacking given the “Intellectual Property” at stake here), thanks to the technologies they use to run their websites like WordPress. Depending on the organization, their security can range from poorly secured to incredibly defended. Essentially, the celebrity is putting their digital lives in the hands of said publisher with the sensitive information, and this trust may be ill-placed. We’ve seen a series of massive data breaches over the years by various industries, and the publishing industry is no different in terms of its threat level.

Ultimately, this decades-old (at least) practice is alive and well. Even as we change the concept of what information we consider “private” there will always be secrets damaging enough to ensure that this industry will continue to thrive in the future. We’ll see what the hackers have to say about it.