The Ethics of Outing the Movie Star

My least favorite website, the ethically challenged Gawker, became the latest media source to publish rapidly spreading tales of the gay sexual escapades of a well-known Hollywood leading man who is also married, has children, attracts a great deal of positive publicity because of his family life, and, to cap it all off, is a high-profile member of a church (the Church of Scientology) that has in the past treated homosexuality as a curable malady. A book is coming out, and the author is pumping up interest in the tabloids.

The ethical question: is this legitimate news? Should it be reported? If it isn’t news, but rather a vile and mean-spirited invasion of privacy, then Gawker, as usual, is wading in slime. If, however, it is news, then why is the mainstream media ignoring the story?

This is a messy ethical conflict. I think outing any individual against his or her will is generally unethical and an invasion of privacy. This includes doing so because an individual has taken an anti-gay position, such as opposing gay marriage. A gay politician has a right to oppose gay marriage, just as a black politician can oppose affirmative action; there is no necessary hypocrisy in either case. When politicians are outed, it is usually done punitively, to hurt them personally and politically.The exception is when sexual orientation implicates trust, as when a politician uses his family as a prop, and poses as a faithful and loving husband when he is something else. If a politician is lying about who he is (as opposed to keeping some aspects of his personal life private), then indeed, the public has a right to know, just as the public had a right to know about John Edward’s mistress once he publicly denied that he was having an affair. We have to be able to trust our leaders, and leading a double life is not an indication of trustworthiness.

But we don’t have to trust actors, do we? Since we don’t, do we really have a right to know what they are “really” like? Do we really even want to know? John Wayne, off camera, was a chess playing, philosophy-reading, quick-witted intellectual by Hollywood standards, a Southern California boy who declined to serve in World War II and who was more comfortable in a blazer and slacks than in spurs. Danny Kaye, the gentle, funny, child-loving performer who was the public good will ambassador for UNICEF, had a dark, mean and paranoid private character that would have horrified and disillusioned his fans. Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Carol Wayne made their livings playing dumb blondes and acting the part in public as well, when in truth they ranged from very bright to brilliant. So what? Hollywood is about illusion, and  manufacturing a public image that supports the on-screen illusions is hardly unethical. Did Rock Hudson have an obligation to tell the world he was gay? I don’t see why.

Yet the current case is a little different, in part because the times are different. Celebrities today trade on their private lives, use them to enhance their popularity and salaries, and seek fan support and interest by revealing aspects of their lives that past stars would have never revealed. This male star routinely goes on talk shows to discuss his marriage and children, putting forth a traditional image of a heterosexual family man. In legal parlance, hasn’t he “opened the door” to inquiries about his sexual orientation? Does the public have to accept an outright lie? Jodie Foster, to take a contrasting example, has always insisted on keeping her private life private. She is widely believed to be gay, but has never represented herself  as either straight or gay—her sexual orientation is private, and should remain so.  If she manufactured a fake public image of being a heterosexual party girl, however, that would change the equation.

I see four ethical considerations in the case of the about-to-be outed  movie star:

  1. News value. Is the fact that a Hollywood leading man, married with children, engages in gay sex news, something of legitimate public interest that the public truly has a right to know? Maybe not. If Lindsay Lohan, in the midst of rehab, takes a drink, is that news? What business is it of ours? Prurient curiosity is not the same as legitimate interest. Do we have a right to know the sexual practices the male star engages in with his wife? If not, why would his other sexual activities constitute legitimate news?
  2. Media fairness. Reporters, editors, commentators and talk show hosts do not have consistent standards for what constitutes news, as the liberal media demonstrated by initially refusing to pursue the John Edwards story. The media will report what Britney Spears buys on a shopping spree or what Kanye West sends in a Twitter feed, but withhold embarrassing information about a celebrity that it likes or respects. That’s an abuse of the news media’s power and function. Whatever the standard for worthy news is where celebrities are involved, the media should  employ the same one for all. Would the revelations of a kiss-and-tell gay lover of Rush Limbaugh or Chuck Norris be treated as news? You bet.
  3. Privacy. Celebrities today cannot have it both ways, using the media to keep themselves in the limelight, reaping the benefit of personal tragedies (as this star has), and yet insisting that some areas are off-limits when they are embarrassing or undermine a carefully crafted image. In the case of this star, his sexual proclivities have been widely known in Hollywood for years, apparently. Why do they still qualify as “private,’ then?
  4. Honesty and integrity. There is no right to deceive or mislead the public. If it was discovered that Rosie O’Donnell was secretly contributing to the NRA, that would be legitimate news, even though her position on gun control has nothing to do with her intrinsic entertainment value, such as it is. The religious beliefs of entertainment figures are private matters, but if it was discovered that Glen Beck prays to Mecca every day, I’d say that would be legitimate news.
  5. The Church of Scientology. The Church of Scientology uses the star, also is a vocal and active member, for recruitment and promotional purposes. Scientology is widely believed to be anti-gay, since its founder, L.Ron Hubbard, once argued that gays should be quarantined from society (though that is evidently changing); it also attracts gay members based on claims that Scientology can “cure” homosexuality. The Church of Scientology is controversial; critics maintain it is a cult and a fraud, but the line between any organized religion and cults is filament thin. The outing of the star will harm the credibility of a religion that many believe needs to be discredited. Does that consideration push the story into legitimate news territory?

We are not just talking about artists; we are dealing with celebrities. Celebrities, by definition, trade on their private lives and character. They sell products, services, ideas, and policies—as well as their art— to the public based on the public’s perception, often distorted, of who the celebrities are and the presumed content of their character. Audie Murphy, the most decorated of all World War II heroes, became a Hollywood leading man purely on the basis of his war record; he was short, unremarkable looking, and was a boring actor at best.  The facts of Murphy’s life did affect how the public felt about his art, and fairly or unfairly, who an actor is will change how the public feels about him in various roles. Had the public known that Robert Reed, the father of “The Brady Bunch,” was gay,i t probably would have affected the popularity of the show. Like Rock Hudson, Reed had no obligation to reveal his sexual orientation, but the fact that it shouldn’t have made a difference doesn’t alter the reality that it would have. Personally, I prefer not to know about the details of artists’ lives; intellectually, I know the product of an artist’s talent is distinct from the character and private life of the artist. Nonetheless, I am vulnerable to the “irrelevant” details when it come to performers. I can’t enjoy “Hogan’s Heroes” any more, because of the sordid details of star Bob Crane’s obsession with hard core pornography that came out after his death. WoodyAllen’s real life sexual obsessions have pretty much killed the ability of his comedies to make me laugh.

The outing of the Hollywood star is news, because it does affect how many of us feel. Balancing all the factors—news value, journalistic objectivity, privacy, truth and the controversial involvement of scientology, I reluctantly have to conclude that it is ethical to for the media to report the secret life of the movie star, and unethical not to do so.

20 thoughts on “The Ethics of Outing the Movie Star

  1. Dear Jack — Interesting analysis. Reading between the lines, it seems you believe that the ethics of this situation have evolved over time due to the saturation of celebrity journalism and the symbiotic nature of the relationship — at least with respect to those celebrities that cooperate to some extent with the press. I note that in many cases, that cooperation is contractually required. Sean Penn, for example, does not like to do press, but when he does a film, his contract will require that he does some minimal amount. One question — given your conclusion, why do you not reveal the name of the actor here? Defamation concerns? Best.

    • I think the fact that he is being outed is needlessly mean-spirited, and I don’t want be a part of it, frankly. I’m NOt a journalist….I don’t have an obligation to report, just to discuss the ethical implications of doing so. I don’t need to use his name, so why do it?

      • Well, I would argue as an ethicist you do not necessarily have an “obligation” to discuss the ethical implications of this story either. You could chose to ignore it. By posting on the matter, you are adding to the story’s dissemination. That said, I have no objections to the post, I was merely curious about your reasoning. Thanks.

        • Kurt: It’s an issue with ethical implications. It raises unusually complex issues about the interaction among journalism, privacy, celebrity, art and integrity. I don’t have to write anything at all, but if I’m going to meet the mission of this website, I can’t ignore an issue like this.

          I do disagree about adding to the dissemination. This has been out in publications and websites that have millions of readers…my rarefied corner of the web discussing the issue without naming names is supposed to get people to think about the ethical conflicts involved without adding to the dissemination significantly enough to matter. There are a few benefits of having an esoteric orientation and a select reader base. Let me enjoy them.

          When I’m getting 10,000 visitors a day, my calculations on a story like might be different. It will also be different when I learn to fly by flapping my ears like a hummingbird’s wings…

    • Don’t know where else to reply: Re Audie Murphy: I thought he was gorgeous- I had a big crush on him while in my teens- and beyond. I got to attend the premiere of “To Hell and Back” and was so thrilled to stand within a couple of feet from him. He was a true “southern gentleman”; one older lady had gushed and then asked him if she could shake his hand: he answered “May I shake yours?” and then did so- as I watched this my crush deepened.

      He was a good actor. Perhaps in the right roles he might have been shown to have been an excellent one.

      When he died I was devastated.
      BTW, he gave all his medals away. He suffered from PTSD-which impacted his and his family’s life greatly- as it had to have done.

  2. Jack, I’ve been reading on your website for a couple of years or more now (well back in the day when there was just ethicsscoreboard.com), and find this article unusually thought-provoking, as it touches on issues I’ve wrestled with since high scool.
    Like you, I believe that, intellectually at least, an artist’s personal life should have no bearing on the worthiness of their product. Mostly, I do separate the two successfully, but not always. My own personal case in point in John Denver. Great singer and songwriter and a guy who could work an auditorium like few before or since. Great feel-good music, to boot. But the guy was flakier than a snowstorm. He loved his wife, and spoke of that very publicly to an extent that she found uncomfortable. But he was a drunk, and a mean one, who abused her verbally and emotionally and, toward the end of the marriage, physically. He was hypocritical in a number of his public positions. The list goes on (and on, depressingly), but need not be repeated here, the basic point having been made. Anyway, knowing all that, I can no longer bear to listen to his music, much less buy it. But why should I care that such a talented person couldn’t measure up to his public image? Why not just enjoy the music and forget the rest? I don’t know, precisely, and it does bother me that I don’t.
    Nor am I 100% consistent in all this. Like you, I was appalled at Woody Allen’s very public failings and hypocrisies. Yet, occasionally, I see a clip from one of his films and chortle. I can’t help meself, it was FUNNY. And yet, and yet and yet and yet, I remember just who it is was who produced that stuff, and what he did, and am appalled (sp?) with myself. Yet the opening bars of a Denver song on the radio is enough to induce me to change stations. Why so extreme with one and not the other?
    I have no answers to any of this, including the many other excellent points you raised, but there was a lot in the article to keep me thinking.

  3. I don’t like “outing,” unless of course a gay man trades publicly on his supposed masculinity and family life and his “traditional” life style, when it’s false. Then, I think, he’s fair game. The John Edwards story is a good comparison.

    I do think it’s difficult to separate the “private” man from the “public” man. FDR was instrumental in saving the US economy and the world from Adolph Hitler. But he was a philanderer, hard on his wife, his children, and in some ways, a sociopath. Was he a great president? Yes. Was he an admirable man? Up for grabs.

    Do we ask the same questions about Martin Luther King? A minister, a man of God, who changed the racial landscape in America forever, but also a known philanderer himself, for years. What does the latter have to do with the former?

    Sometimes, for me it’s black and white (no pun intended). I refuse now to watch any Woody Allen movie. Any many who has an affair with and then marries his own adopted daughter is beneath contempt. “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Bullshit. He set psychiatry back 30 years: his entire life in analysis and then does that? Clearly he grew not at all and remain the selfish adolescent he has always been. Not worth my time, my respect, or my money, regardless of any artistic talent he may have.

    I can’t answer any of the questions posed. I don’t think there’s any easy answer. Situational ethics are a slippery slope. If you choose to be in the public eye you pay for it. Caesar’s wife and all that. We can’t expect leaders, celebrities, etc., to be totally above reproach, but we can expect them NOT to live the big lie and think they can get away with it.

  4. I must object to your refering to Audie Murphy as “short,unremarkable looking and a boring actor”. It might not be the point of the subject but I am offended by what you say about a man who was a hero,but still a man. Not perfect by any means,who is? But he was 5’10″(not short) when he died,very handsome as many women will attest and an actor who was very modest about his talent.”I am working under a handicap,no talent”. Many will disagree. He was brilliant in “No Name on the Bullet”,better than Jimmy Stewart in Destry.
    As well as many others. He was a product of the studio system so some movies he was pushed to do and not allowed to break from the mold.
    Despite that he was very good,not academy award winning but dam good.

    • You’ll get no argument from me in standing up for Murphy. I visit his grave almost every time I go to Arlington, which is often (my Dad is buried there, and my grandfather.)
      He was not 5’10″…this was Hollywood PR nonsense. (Studios used to say Paul Newman and Sly Stallone were 5’10” too.) Most sources have his height entering the service as 5’5″ or an inch taller. You can tell he’s small looking at his films, and his co-stars. He was a good looking guy by everyday standards, nothing special by Hollywood standards; he also had a this voice. I coach professional actors—he was always self-conscious and really had no screen presence at all. (The one exception would probably be “Hell is For Heroes.”)

      None of that in any way diminishes the respect and honor Murphy deserves as a soldier, a hero, and an American. He was far from the worst actor to star in a film, and if audiences were entertained, that’s his achievement. Fame did Audie Murphy no favors. I am sad every time I think of him, but I would like to see him remembered as an A List American, not a B List celebrity.

  5. Hi Jack,

    Interesting point of view here. I’m not sure if agree with you but your argument is persuasive.

    My difficulty with the “outing” is that even where it may be warranted it is usually trumpedted by the sensationalist, gossip oriented muck raking press. They are not “outing” because of the newsworthiness of the “outing” but just to trade on voyeuristic gosip. An outing of a gay actor would hardly make the front page of the New York Times, if you know what I mean.

    I’m not sure how this situation can be avoided.

    You also must have had a long day before your Audie Murphy reply … he wasnt in “Hell is for Heroes”. You were obvioulsy thinking of “To Hell and Back”.

    Otherwise keep up the interesting and relevant discourse.

    Regards
    Frank
    a lawyer in Australia

    • She was. There was a Hollywood Squares rip-off called Celebrity Sweepstakes, where the audience bet on which celebrity was most likely to know the answer to a question, setting odds on each of seven stars. Then the contestants would pick a star to answer the question, wagering money in the process, and the higher the odds, the more money they won if he/she was right. When the show started, Carol always had long odds due to her bimbo image. Eventually audiences caught on that she virtually never missed, and she started getting 1-1 odds on every question from astrophysics to movie trivia. She was a sure thing. It was great to watch her deliver perfect answers in her patented air-head delivery.

      • Hmm, I think maybe she had most of the right answers is because she was SLEEPING with the producer of Celebrity Sweepstakes Burt Sugarman lol but still, a very quick-witted woman with tons of charisma. Celebrity Sweepstakes was my first aquaitance with Ms Wayne and how my “crush” came to fuition. Watched her in everything afterwards, especially the Tonight Show appearances. Not many “bimbos” could one-up the sharp JC, but she did time n time again. I was devastated when I heard shed drowned in Mexico in 85. She has tons of videos on YouTube that show her incredible comedic timing and otherwise OBVIOUS assets. What a woman. Thanks for the reply. And heads up, it was only SIX celebrities on the panel of CS wink wink. Mostly men too cuz Im sure alot of actresses didnt want to have to compete with her total sexiness on that show!!

  6. Just a little statement. I remember in the 70s John Wayne outed Rock Hudson. He didn’t mention him by name but he talked about working with a leading man who would run off the stage and vomit after kissing a woman. He gave enough information that there was no mistaking who he was talking about.

    • If that was true, then why was everyone surprised when Rock came “out” in the 80’s as having AIDS? Wayne worked with many, many, MANY gay actors, among them Monty Clift.

      Your anecdote is, to be blunt, bullshit.

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