Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Privacy: an endangered species

It used to be that gossip columns in the newspapers and supermarket tabloids were reserved for TV & movie stars promoting their next project(s). In the last 30-odd years, that has changed, and the environment in this regard is getting worse.

Today, our society has been conditioned to learn every minute detail, no matter how irrelevant it may actually be, about every celebrity, be they an athlete, musician, or actor. Scandal sells papers and boosts television ratings, but it still gets old awfully fast. In the case of the ongoing imbroglio over golfer Tiger Woods, it took the sudden death of actress Brittany Murphy to knock Woods off the front pages of the New York tabloids. More relevant news, such as the President's health care reform package, or the ongoing war in the Middle East, doesn't sell enough copies.

But now, it's a case of "what hath Tiger wrought?". It's being reported that TMZ.com, founded by lawyer-turned-television personality Harvey Levin (The People's Court), is mounting a spin-off site dedicated to sports. Given all the pro & college athletes in trouble with the law in recent years, this was bound to happen, but it shouldn't. It's bad enough that TMZ.com and its ilk can't go a day without reporting something, no matter how minor, about what Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan are doing, for example, but now they'll chase down any number of athletes already accustomed to tabloid micro-scrutiny. Their justification is that being a professional athlete, much like an actor/actress or musician, makes that person a public figure, and as such, the public has a right to know what's going on. There's a limit to that, but that limit is being pushed further and further away, until that line is completely blurred out of existence. At that point, no one is safe.

It's as if George Orwell's vision of "Big Brother" watching everyone, as chronicled in 1984, is being fulfilled, step by step. Where, then, do we draw the line that separates respect for privacy from an overly obsessive need to satiate "public curiosity"? Andy Warhol once said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Truth be told, not everyone wants the spotlight on them, and would rather take the Greta Garbo approach, preferring to be left alone. And, yet, one gets the feeling that may not be a viable option much longer.

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