Thursday, December 3, 2009

CLUB PRIVACY: WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT?

You will hear a lot of debate in the coming days about the issue of privacy for high profile people. The debate happens periodically, but this time it started shortly after 2:30AM on Friday, November 27. That is when golf pro Tiger Woods drove his 2009 Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree. Somewhere in the mix, his wife used a golf club to break the back windows. The exclusive Orlando, FL gated community in which they live has never seen so much nocturnal chaos. Tiger’s face was reportedly cut up, but there was no blood on the steering wheel or the dashboard, so some predatory media types concluded that Mrs. Tiger caused the lacerations when she confronted Mr. Tiger about his extra-marital affairs with various women. Of course, many of us already knew about Tiger’s affairs because the National Enquirer had conveniently informed us just two days earlier.

Since then, the Woods drama has played out on every television network, news show, talk show, tabloid, pop culture web site, celebrity magazine and even on the front pages of some major daily newspapers. Social networking sites are abuzz with chatter about the incident. Within a few days all of this will be ancient history. Does anybody remember Kate Gosselin? Richard Heene? Mark Sanford? John Ensign? John Edwards? Each could claim (and has) some level of intrusion of privacy during their own individual scandals. After all, we’re living in the high tech era of le scandale, are we not? Think back: Since we’ve all had access to countless online entities that keep us informed of everything, haven’t scandals just permeated our lives? Eliot Spitzer, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Chris Brown, Michael Phelps, David Letterman…need I go on?

Almost every time one of the above-mentioned people was caught doing whatever they did, they issued statements pleading for privacy. As a guy who teaches media ethics and admittedly reads lots of celebrity gossip, I’d just like to be the first to clear something up for them all: You traded off your right to privacy when you decided to ask us to love you. You can’t really expect to be able to go to Target to buy socks and deodorant without many of us surrounding you. You saw success and fame as synonymous, and with the fame comes loss of self. If you do not understand all of this, ask some of your elders for guidance. Consult with Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and Magic Johnson.

I predict each would tell you not to smoke out of a bong at a party, not to party with young women in Vegas and not to pay for sex while holding high office. They will no doubt tell you not to beat up your famous girlfriend on a public street in your car, not to use public funds to travel to see your paramour while you are governor, and not to have sex with anybody who owns a video camera. Don’t tweet, don’t Facebook, don’t text, don’t sext and don’t voice mail. If traditional media doesn’t get you, technology will. Any minute now, we’re probably going to see video tapes of the Tiger Woods incident from the very security cameras he had installed on his own property.

It is truly about bad behavior. This very morning, before I wrote this piece, I read all of the following: Rolling Stone Ron Woods, 62,(right) was arrested for assaulting his 21-year-old girlfriend. Louisiana GOP Senator and sex scandal veteran David Vitter cut in front of a line full of people waiting for coffee at the Russel Senate office building, without so much as an “excuse me.” And Tiger? Well, TMZ reports that Tiger and his alleged mistress were texting the night of the crash. Wife grabs phone, places angry call to mistress. Fight ensues, vestibule of the Woods mansion is badly damaged and, the rest is tawdry history.

A quick media ethics lesson: Privacy is a moral value. We define moral values in our culture as something held in high esteem, something honored and revered. Moral values are part of the cultural fiber that holds us all together. Other obvious moral values are elements such as truth, justice, autonomy and generosity. Bad behavior and moral values do not mix. In media we adhere to a moral value called “social utility.” That is the process of deciding which information is important to convey a story to the public and which is not. After deceiving the public with his façade of a squeaky clean image, social utility informs us that his personal behavior is viable fodder for news. So it is incongruous for Tiger Woods to issue a mea culpa that includes statements like this:

“…But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions.”

I have an abiding respect for the general public’s judgment. People like John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, Tiger Woods and Christian Bale will likely not gain much from asking the public for privacy. But when Mike Tyson’s child died, and he asked for privacy, we obliged. When the crew of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight asked for privacy, they got it.
When actor Owen Wilson asked for privacy after a failed suicide attempt, the press wrote about him, but did not pursue him for comment.

As a journalist and a media consumer, I would say this to Tiger Woods: All the gated communities, high-level press agents, public relations firms and athletic prowess in the world cannot protect you from the public’s disdain for deception. Success is not about how many tournaments you win, how many millions you earn or how many high profile endorsements you garner. Success is a cumulative, lifelong process that relies on a strong moral compass. Tiger, if you thought you lacked privacy before 2:30AM, November 27, you haven’t seen anything yet.

3 comments:

pomme said...

when someone always was low-key or never was a mediawhore,i understand why he wants his privacy.
I remember the mum story with Bale,not only he asked to respect his privacy but also said he won't speak because it was a private trouble

On Tiger Wood story,he sold his perfect family life to the media before but if he wants his privacy,he doesn't speak to the media

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