The murky ethics of Gay Talese's 'The Voyeur's Motel'

April 27, 2016
Kim Walsh-Childers

Journalism professor Kim Walsh-Childers comments for The Conversation on a recent story published in The New Yorker and the murky ethics involved in writer Gay Talese’s reporting.

Imagine yourself being observed, without your knowledge, while having sex. Have you been harmed?

The answer, I would argue, is yes. Your privacy has been violated. The voyeur has taken something from you without your consent.

Then, if a journalist tells the voyeur’s story years later, is he contributing to that harm? That’s the issue in Gay Talese’s story about the Manor House Motel.

(Here is the backstory: In order to report on a motel-owning voyeur who, for years, secretly spied on guests having sex, writer Gay Talese agreed to not identify the motelier, Gerald Foos. Talese even signed a confidentiality agreement that Foos had prepared.

With this agreement in place, Talese got access. He visited the motel, witnessed the motel sex from the voyeur’s secret viewing perch and would go on to interview and correspond with Foos for years. In 2013, after 23 years, Foos waived the confidentiality agreement; last week, The New Yorker ran Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel.”

The story is gripping and salacious. But since its publication, some readers have expressed uneasiness with both the content and the measures taken to report on – and protect – Foos. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, has defended the article, writing “the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’ account.”)

In my opinion, 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.

Signing Foos’ confidentiality agreement – in effect agreeing to protect Foos’ privacy even as Foos violated the privacy of his guests – left Talese in an ethical bind. Revealing Foos' activity meant breaking his promise. Keeping that promise allowed Foos to subject hundreds, perhaps even thousands, more guests to his voyeurism, judgment and scorn.

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.

But even if the initial voyeurism had caused no harm, Talese’s approach to telling the story after gaining Foos’ consent did. First, the story contains details from Foos’ notes that, while titillating, are not necessary to what is presumably the story’s purpose: helping us understand the mind of the voyeur. Second, telling the story with Foos' blessing no doubt satisfies the voyeur’s need to feel that he is important, that he has accomplished something noteworthy.

In that way, it’s much like the decision to publish or broadcast the rants of someone like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof or Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho.

Finally, and in some ways, most troubling, Talese’s story offers a primer to others who might want to copy Foos' voyeuristic ways. He details exactly how the motel’s viewing platform was constructed and how successful it was in hiding Foos' behavior.

It’s one of many aspects of the story that, I suspect, will have journalism ethics professors discussing it – as an example of behavior to avoid – for years to come.

Kim Walsh-Childers was one of three journalism professors asked by The Conversation to give their take on the “The Voyeur’s Motel, Talese’s reporting and the ethics involved. You can read the full story, published in The Conversation on April 14, 2016, at https://theconversation.com/the-murky-ethics-of-gay-taleses-the-voyeurs-motel-57614.

To see all commentary published in The Conversation by UF faculty members, go to https://theconversation.com/institutions/university-of-florida.

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