Playing at Peeping Tom  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2001

Playing at Peeping Tom   

Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture

By Clay Calvert
Westview Press

288 pages; $25

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Call up your favorite Web search engine and type in "voyeur." On the day I do, my search draws 245,645 pages. Try "bondage" (975,230) or "fetish" (947,470).

Is there any doubt that we are indeed a "voyeur nation" where more and more parts of more and more people beam from more and more screens?

Clay Calvert easily demonstrates this general development in "Voyeur Nation." But he brings the issue to a sharper point for journalists by homing in on what he calls "mediated voyeurism," or voyeurism abetted by the media.

Calvert traces the steady progression of voyeuristic behavior, starting with the legendary ride of Lady Godiva 1,000 years ago. A young man who stared at her, the original Peeping Tom, was supposedly either put to death or blinded for the offense. Today's peekers encounter few such penalties.

Instead, voyeurism has become such a central part of modern entertainment that Calvert wonders whether it should be enshrined with First Amendment protection.

It is such an integral slice of mainstream--not just fringe--media that he links it to the "destruction of discourse, privacy, and journalistic standards of news."

Calvert separates voyeuristic images into four increasingly risqué categories:

• Video vérité voyeurism, which he calls "unrehearsed, unscripted moments of real life played out before...a video camera." Think of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles or the Fox network show "Cops."

• Reconstruction voyeurism, or the dramatization of a real event, such as those done by the "America's Most Wanted" television show.

• Tell-all/show-all voyeurism, such as Jerry Springer-type talk shows or even--and here journalists must pay attention--segments of "Dateline," "20/20" and "60 Minutes." Remember the "60 Minutes" segment of Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisting in the death of a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease?

• Sexual voyeurism, the outright eroticism of Web sites featuring cameras in people's bedrooms, photos taken through bathroom windows, and "upskirt" and "downblouse" sites.

This never-ending cascade is influencing the legitimate news media. For example, Calvert contends that people may turn to more extreme fare because they lose faith in journalism. "What passes for news today often is little more than infotainment," he writes. "Even if the truth is out there, as 'X-Files' fanatics would have it, there is little reason to believe that journalists today give it to us."

So consumers move toward "reality-based, mediated voyeurism--to give us the truth about what takes place in a mediated world."

The apparent demise of standards pushes the trend along, to the point that "only new, more graphic and real images will satisfy audience demands." Barbara Walters' "20/20" interview with Monica Lewinsky is a "voyeur-fest" of "sordid details." Diane Sawyer goes behind bars in a women's prison for 48 hours. A Denver television station invites students trapped in Columbine High School to call in and tell their stories live. "Survivor" becomes a national sensation.

Calvert's conclusion is tough-minded. "What broadcast journalists think of as news today often has very little to do with truth seeking or promoting democratic self-governance. Instead, it has much to do with using videotape that panders to our voyeuristic proclivities and, at the same time, produces a profit for the stations and networks. News amounts to little more than whatever it is we want to watch."

This book thoroughly explores reasons behind the rise in voyeurism: the chance to see other people facing challenges, to see justice doled out to bad guys, to feel superior to others, to make up for declining conversation and social visiting, and simply to get hedonistic pleasure. He also details the role of technology, the easy availability of cheap Web cams, pinhole cameras and spy equipment.

It is especially relevant for journalists that Calvert, who teaches at Penn State University, has degrees in both law and communication. While his analysis strikes me as sometimes self-consciously overacademic, he is onto a vital issue: How far will the Constitution--and our national patience--go in protecting anything-goes content, especially if the news media are perceived as turning their backs on serious coverage?

As of now, he makes clear, government shows little inclination to step in. The Federal Communications Commission is content to let the market determine public-interest standards, and courts tend to defer to editors' judgment of what is newsworthy. In one case Calvert cites, a federal judge concluded that nude photos of "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson Lee were "newsworthy as a matter of law."

As to the future, two alternative lines of thought occur.

One is that we are on an unceasing downhill plunge into smutville. I have been keeping an eye on the Internet, interested in how both the law and the market will set its standards. So far, openness is winning. Within seconds, any competent Web user (including children) can find free access to images not just of sex and nudity but also of bondage, bestiality and all sorts of fetishism. About the only thing that isn't found quickly are explicit images of children; sites that promise so-called teen nudity appear to be age-of-consent adults made up to look younger.

And this leads to the second line of thought. Historically, we have tolerated a high degree of controversial material, but tended to isolate it, behind the frosted-glass windows of porn shops or the multiple screens of Web sites. We outlaw the worst stuff, such as child pornography, and tolerate the rest in its little corner.

Granted, the little corner is getting bigger. But maybe there is hope in context. Call up "exhibitionism" on a search engine, and you get 55,215 hits. Call up "culture," and you get 5,778,840.

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