Friday, April 15, 2016

Nobody's perfect :(

By now, it would have become obvious to regular readers that I dish out the criticism if it is warranted.  That approach, in the pursuit of what it means o do the right thing, means that I have even wondered if my grandmothers could be called racists.  The grandmothers' who were and are dear to me, and whose stories I carry inside.  If I subject my grandmothers and myself to tough standards, then you think a magazine that I love has any chance?

That's what happened last week, when I tweeted this after reading an essay in the New Yorker:
At this point, you are perhaps thinking: Does anybody care whether I tweeted or if I felt disgusted with the essay?  Hey, it is no different from when I blog, right?  ;)

Why was I pissed off?  First, what is the essay about?  It is:
 about a strange man named Gerald Foos, who owned and operated a motel in Colorado. With the help and knowledge of his wife, he modified many of the motel’s rooms in such a way that he could watch his guests from above the ceiling. Although he admits to being sexually aroused by his spying, he is also intellectually curious: He fastidiously records details about the occupants (especially about their sex lives), and believes himself to be gleaning a great deal of sociological insight into them. As the story moves from the 1960s through the 1990s, he witnesses and catalogs various societal changes, such as an increase in interracial couples, that are compelling but ultimately unsurprising and never revelatory. The real interest of Talese’s piece, in other words, is Foos himself.
How did Talese get to know this?
Foos wrote to Talese in 1980, hoping someone would tell his story without revealing his name or blowing his cover. It’s here that things get murky. Talese traveled to Colorado to meet Foos and see the motel for himself. Immediately upon arrival in the state, the journalist also signed a document promising that, in his words, “I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver.” 
Yes, journalists want to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.  But, that is when there is a greater good that the report is about.  What is the greater good here?  How does protecting the privacy of the voyeur who was observing people in their most intimate moments contribute to a greater good?
There’s no greater good here; Talese has captured a strange and (briefly) compelling story of one man’s obsession and the extremes to which he will go to satisfy it.
Exactly!  The reporter is as much involved in this crime as the perv/perp was.
Talese was complicit in Gerald Foos' violation of his guests’ privacy, and not only because in the initial reporting of the story, he climbed into the motel attic with its owner and watched a young couple having sex. By failing to report Foos’ actions – either in an immediate story or to authorities – Talese enabled Foos' unethical and, indeed, illegal action to continue unabated for at least 15 years longer.
In addition, through his continued correspondence, Talese provided affirmation of Foos’ activity, helping him maintain the myth that his actions served some higher purpose, some noble societal goal, rather than simply gratifying his own sexual desire.
How did the editor of the New Yorker respond to people like me?
While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’s account of it to the reader.
It was a bad, bad, bad editorial call.

But, it does not mean that I am going to cancel my subscription.  I recognize the blemish.  Nobody's perfect!


Mike Hoth said...

Such is the state of modern journalism. Ethics and facts are less important than sales, and so we get people following voyeurs into their motel attic. The ensuing outrage is sure to work for the publisher, since those upset by the essay will tell people about it. I hadn't heard of the essay until reading your blog, so the New Yorker gained a view on their web page. You aren't cancelling your subscription, so from a business standpoint it's a net gain!

Ethical considerations have no place in economics, after all.

Sriram Khé said...

Like I wrote there, nobody's perfect :(

Ramesh said...

Mike is dead right. The outrage will work for the publisher, as all controversies do. I don't read the New Yorker, and I am not going to start.

On the bigger point about journalists not revealing their sources , I believe that the "right" stops when they come to know of a crime that is going to be committed. All rights have limits and this right is not immune to that principle.

Sriram Khé said...

It is about the "greater good" ... in this case, there was no greater good that was served by "honoring" the promise to a perv :(

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