Friday, April 8, 2016

Gay Talese takes us inside "The Voyeur's Motel"

Gay Talese
     My use of the word "incredible" to describe Gay Talese's book "The Voyeur's Motel" in this column turned out to be prescient. When it was published in late June, journalists more rigorous than myself poked holes in his accounts, and Talese renounced the whole thing.  It sucks to get old.

     When I’m 84, I just hope to be somewhere. Sitting on a comfortable chair in the sun, perhaps, plaid wool lap rug neatly tucked, flipping through Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and someone to bring a fresh cup of tea. Sign me up right now.
     The thought of being Gay Talese, 84 and at the very top of his game, roiling the media world two, maybe three, different ways in the span of a week, well, it’s unimaginable.
     And no, I don’t mean the Twitstorm over his telling a crowd at Boston University on April 1 that, as a young man, he wasn’t inspired by female reporters. That’s called candor, and the shriek rising up from the Internet is only news because we’re still accustoming ourselves to it. It’s too omnipresent and witless to have actual value, and someday will be seen not as news so much as similar to how we view the writing inside toilet stalls: a trivial element of modern life of interest only to those who find themselves directly before it.
     No, I mean his article, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” in the April 11 New Yorker.  An incredible story, leaving behind important questions, something they’ll discuss in journalism schools 50 years from now (assuming, of course, there are journalism schools 50 years from now) the way we’re still talking about Talese’s profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published 50 years ago this month in Esquire (the anniversary being Talese’s third source of notoriety this week)....


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14 comments:

  1. I apologize for perhaps being slow and obtuse, but are you praising Talese here? Because to me it sounds like he aided and abetted numerous crimes over a number of years here by not alerting authorities, all for the sake of a story somewhere down the road. Numerous guests had their privacy violated. This is Talese at the top of his game? Am I missing a subtle sarcastic dismissal or criticism of him in your piece? I know you're conflicted by what you wrote near the end, but there's a lot pf praise and admiration for Telese in your column, and it sure sounds sincere.

    What he did wasn't journalism. What he did was let crimes go on for years, and now he's profiting off them.

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    1. I am praising him. While it's a judgment call, I think he made the right one. The crime he let go, voyeurism, is fairly well down the chart, and I think it's the oddball nature that even makes you question it. Had he reported on an illegal brothel, I don't think you'd be insisting he rat out the location to the police. I understand that people will disagree -- in fact, that's why I phrased it the way I did. I wanted to hear what people have to say.

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    2. I can't speak for Bill, but I disagree that voyeurism carried out over years, with much forethought and preparation, violating the privacy of hundreds of people who were entitled to it and paid for it, is all that far down the chart. In a brothel, theoretically at least, both parties consent to the activity. And if one were aware that one of the parties was not consenting, yes, I'd hope that it would be reported.

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    3. This isn't like a brothel; it's more comparable to someone spying on people who use washrooms in public or private institutions. There's an expectation of privacy. Talese will now profit off years of documented "voyeurism" he knowingly participated in and encouraged. My gut reaction is to throw up, though no offense implied to Steinberg's post on the subject.

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  2. Edit, because of poor punctuation on my part -- I know you're conflicted about Talese's project, not conflicted by the words you wrote!

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  3. Bill, you echo my thoughts almost to the word.

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  4. That issue of the New Yorker is on my coffee table. I'll get around to reading it soon. But just from the description...yuk! I always thought Talese was an overrated creep, and this does absolutely nothing to dispel that notion.

    Bitter Scribe

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  5. Neil: You seem to have invited us readers to answer the question headlining your column this morning. My answer is that he shouldn't have given his word in the first place, which is not to say that the book may not be a valuable contribution to literature, anthropology and sociology, but no matter how much good comes out of evil, it remains evil. Moreover, I would quibble with your assertion that journalists are a "social service." Certainly, you have performed the social service role many times through your columns and much more effectively than others perhaps more dedicated but less skilled than you.

    john

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    1. "...aren't a social service."

      john

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    2. "Sometimes even mighty Homer nods."

      Tom Evans

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  6. Just finished reading the New Yorker article. Talese's ethics aside, what I was most struck by was Foos's tendency to pass judgments on his guests/subjects/victims while assigning lofty motives to himself. I happen to have read something about Leopold and Loeb earlier this week, and it appears he shared their opinion that their own superiority raised them above the rules of ordinary people. I wonder if there are any examples of that mindset leading to a greater good, since there are so many instances of the reverse.

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    1. "Kill her. Take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of hmumanity and the good of all."

      A fellow student advising Raskolnicov. Leopold and Loeb had the sense of entitlement of Dostievski's university students, but not the idealistic rationale.

      Tom Evans

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  7. I'm uncomfortable with the conclusion, "We're not a social service." Most of the journalists I know take seriously their role in performing a public good (as I did, and I think you do). Lord knows it isn't about the pay scale, unless you're one of a handful of rock stars like Talese.

    It sounds to me like Talese, through inaction, allowed criminal activity to continue for years. Maybe it's not worth the bother of prosecuting him for being an accomplice, but it's an embarrassment to a profession that still maintains some pockets of idealism.

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    1. That's why I concluded that way. Though "allowing criminal activity to occur through inaction" is only a crime depending on the activity.

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