Have we as a society gone too far in our thirst for information about the lives of others? I begin to question this when I read stories like this one about Elizabeth Fritzl, the woman whose father raped her and kept her and the children she bore him in a basement dungeon in their Austrian home for nearly a quarter of a century. Miss Fritzl has agreed to do a television interview about her ordeal, “in part to reduce the pressure on the family from photographers camped at the door to Amstetten-Mauer hospital where Miss Fritzl is in a secure ward with her mother Rosemarie, 69, and five of her six children.”
Apparently it’s gotten so bad that at least 17 photographers have been caught trying to sneak into the hospital to take pictures that would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a hospital staffer allegedly took photos which were then offered for sale at an outrageous sum. (The hospital has warned staff that legal consequences for such an act would far outstrip the profitability of the sale of the photos.)
Like anyone else with even a modicum of decency, I was outraged and repulsed when news of this case first broke the international scene. And it’s human nature to be curious about it and devour the latest news stories when they become available. (What I’m really anxious to know is how the perpetrator, Josef Fritzl, will be punished for his heinous and disgusting crimes that ruined the lives of so many.) Yet should this woman and her children, who are trying to cope with a horrendous past and an uncertain future, be subject to the greed of the paparazzi that is looking to supply an equally greedy public? Should their faces be splashed across television and print tabloids so we can all get a good look at them — as though they were freaks in an old-fashioned carnival sideshow?
At this stage, I’m waiting for the obligatory “take it all off” offer from Playboy.
Look at the celebrity paparazzi beat. It’s almost gotten to the point where the celebrity du jour can’t have a bowel movement without a hidden camera in the bathroom recording their posterior for posterity. Yes, those who yearn to become famous movie stars, singers, and so on should expect that not all of their moments will be private. But some moments should be private. I don’t need to see Miss A’s cottage cheese thighs as she sunbathes in what she thinks is the privacy of her fenced-in backyard.
The wealth of reality television shows that have cornered the entertainment market hasn’t necessarily helped when it comes to public voyeurism. Millions of people tune in to see others made fools of or have personal foibles exploited for cheap thrills. How else can you explain the ratings for American Idol — especially the audition episodes? If viewers were really as disgusted with Simon Cowell’s cutting comments to contestants as they say they are, the show would have folded after its first season. (Full disclosure: I must admit to a weakness for several reality shows, including Ghost Hunters, How Clean Is Your House?, and You Are What You Eat.)
Of course, there is a small difference here between reality TV and reality: the participants on these shows volunteer to be a part of them. And if you feel embarrassed when Dr. Gillian McKeith is describing how revolting your stool sample is, or when Kim and Aggie bawl you out for not having cleaned your kitchen for ten years, you did bring it on yourself by signing on the dotted line.
Most people love gossip. It seems to be an ingrained human trait. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first intelligible words uttered by cavemen were, “Did you hear that Ogg’s wife is leaving him?” It used to be that gossip was relegated to backyard fences, the office water cooler, and local gossip columns. But as modern society has given us more leisure time and the technology to spread the word, peeking in on the lives of others has gone beyond idle curiosity, becoming fodder for mass consumption entertainment. As I said earlier, it’s one thing when individuals allow themselves to be exploited on reality television. It’s quite another thing, however, when individuals find their personal tragedies in the spotlight through no fault of their own.
Think of it this way: How often have you felt like punching the reporter who shoves a microphone in the face of a victim’s relative in the aftermath of a murder and says, “How do you feel?”
Victims like Elizabeth Fritzl deserve our compassion. Part of that compassion means that her privacy and that of her family should be respected if they are to have any semblance of a normal life going forward. We need to know when to say “no” if common decency is to survive the 21st century.