EXCLUSIVE: Something Chris Rock recently said to Frank Rich in New York magazine has been haunting me for the past few weeks.

“The thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd,” Rock said. “Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. [Emphasis added.] There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like f*cking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.” [Again, emphasis added.]

Rock has been outspoken about the support he got from producer Scott Rudin, first in taking on a serious Broadway role in The Mother***ker With The Hat and then in producing Top Five, which Rock wrote, directed and stars in, and which opened this weekend to rapturous reviews. “Scott Rudin got me to run at a speed I didn’t know I could run,” he told Charlie Rose. “Scott believed in me as a leading man.” And when Rock called bullshit on the attacks following the publication of a tasteless e-mail exchange between Rudin and Amy Pascal about Barack Obama’s taste in movies, I thought, Well, finally a voice of reason. Except I must have hallucinated that, because as far as I can tell, Rock hasn’t said a word about the attacks.

My guess is that Chris Rock finds himself in the same impossible position as those of us in the journalism game. Which is: What do we do with this information (not for nothing is it called a “dump”) that shows we have a moral compass while acknowledging what any anthropologist knows, which is that the shit and detritus of a community tells you a lot more about the inhabitants than what was written in the Social Register. Ask any Dylanologist.

Instead, I asked Floyd Abrams, the country’s pre-eminent lawyer on First Amendment and freedom-of-the-press issues. I was a little hesitant because, although I have known Abrams slightly since he offered guidance to me as a New York Times culture reporter writing about similar issues, my last interaction had been a few months ago, when I took exception to his column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he condemned an opera he’d never seen. How did he feel about publishing this Sony material — especially in light of Aaron Sorkin‘s impassioned Op-Ed in the Times attacking journalists who published this material as abetting criminals and selling out “for a nickel.”

Abrams was gracious and thoughtful when I called him.

“I think he makes a valid moral point, that what we are dealing with here are criminals who have engaged in blackmail and other acts that are worthy of condemnation,” he said when I asked about the Sorkin column. “That said, there are at least some materials that have been published which seem to me to meet almost any definition of what’s newsworthy.”

Image (1) New-York-Times-logo__120814223500.jpg for post 343006Bingo, I thought. Weighing moral obligation versus the public’s right to know has been lifted out of the abstract — “I would never traffic in stolen goods” — and into the very high-profile world of the culture business. It’s a debate similar to the one that has engaged the Beltway punditocracy over the revelations in Edward Snowden’s, you know, dump. Sony hired famed litigator David Boies to put journalists on notice that Sony will do everything in its power to protect its brand from thieves. On Monday morning, New York Times editor Dean Baquet posted a minimalist response to Sorkin and Boies:

“It is hard to have a firm policy on how to handle these kinds of materials. As we’ve made clear, we have used documents surfaced by others. It would be a disservice to our readers to pretend these documents weren’t revealing and public. But the main issue, the main thing we consider, is how newsworthy the documents are. In that regard I would say these aren’t the Pentagon Papers. And these aren’t Wikileaks.”

If you can figure out what direction the ethical compass is pointed here, let me know. The Times will follow, but not lead, in determining the newsworthiness of the stolen documents? How’s that work for the Paper of Record?

Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and longtime director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, first expressed sympathy for Sorkin’s view when I spoke with him.

“I think he’s got a point,” Jones said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is not national security. I don’t think there is a public-interest reason for journalism to take advantage of a terrible invasion of Sony’s innermost materials. I can understand Sony trying to persuade people not to publish these stories.”

In the end, he said, he still has to side with journalists, and he compared the challenge to those faced by reporters and editors covering the Snowden leaks. “It was very much like the State Department stuff,” he said, qualifying that by adding a prediction that, “I don’t think any horrible damage is being done by releasing these materials.

“I think what it shows is that if you live in a digital world and think you can’t be hacked, you’re kidding yourself.”

And yet none of us — well, few of us — pretend that the path is clear cut. In his column, Sorkin snidely dismisses the issue of pay inequity for women as unworthy of transfer from the realm of private e-mails to published account. Who do we entrust to make the distinction between gossip and news?

“While some of the documents are obviously on the gossipy, personal side,” Abrams says, “that does not make them fall below the level of what responsible journalistic organizations might decide to publish. These are powerful and influential people, and so it passes my test about what’s appropriate to publish — even in the context of the disturbing and criminal nature of the people who appear to be behind this. From a journalistic perspective, it would be more attractive to make publishing decisions which at least factor in the source of the information.”

Abrams brought up the subject of those e-mails about the President’s presumed taste in movies: “One of the thoughts that occurred to me is that I wouldn’t write a private e-mail like that — it would not even occur to me to think in those terms, even to make a bad joke.”

Because these days, as Chris Rock pointed out, a bad joke can be your undoing.