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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.