The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Gay Talese
Author Gay Talese (Wikipedia photo)

Update: “I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book,  a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.

By Casey Bukro

One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.

By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.

It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.

Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.

“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.

At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.

The New Yorker piece begins: “I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago (in 1980) in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvered aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.”

Upon meeting Foos, the voyeur insists that Talese sign an agreement that he would not identify Foos or the location of his motel until given permission. Talese agrees. Next, Talese takes a room at the motel, then accompanies Foos into the attic to watch a young couple from Chicago engage in sex.

“Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bringing my head further down for a closer view,” writes Talese.

Later in the story, Foos tells Talese that he witnessed a man choke a woman in 1977, believing she had stolen drugs and marijuana. When they were out of the room, Foos says he flushed drugs in the room down the toilet. When the couple returned, the man accused the woman of stealing the drugs and choked her.

Foos insists she was breathing after she fell to the floor while he watched from above, but he did not notify police. A maid discovered her body in the room the next day, said Foos. The Aurora Police Department was called to the scene, he says.

He did not tell police what he saw, and Talese realized the motel-owner indirectly might have caused the incident. Talese says the woman was “strangled,” meaning she was killed by choking. Since Foos said she appeared to be breathing, that could be open to debate. But why get technical? It’s Talese’s story.

At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.

Talese, thinking he was bound by a confidentiality agreement, never mentions the incident to police.

“I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in,” Talese wrote. “But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the voyear’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator.

Years later, Talese says, he contacted the Aurora Police Department, asking for information about the alleged homicide. A lieutenant answered that he could find no record of such an event.

Foos tells Talese he began watching guests during the winter of 1966. Talese said records in the Arapahoe County clerk’s and recorder’s offices showed Foos bought the motel in 1969, a glaring discrepancy. He supposedly sold the motel in 1995.

During that time, Foos said he believed “there’s no invasion of privacy if no one complains.” Foos wrote and sent his “research” to Talese for 33 years, then gave Talese permission to write about him, believing the statute of limitations had expired for his invasion-of-privacy crimes. Talese calls Foos his pen pal and decided to use Foos’ records to write the book. He says Foos received a fee from the book’s publisher.

More instructive than this exercise in New Journalism is what professional journalists make of this tale.

Gary Graham, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, blogged that the Talese story in the New Yorker “has prompted a vigorous discussion about journalism ethics.”

More instructive than this exercise in New Journalism is what professional journalists make of this tale.

“The Talese-Foos partnership is an odd one, to say the least,” writes Graham. “We would never have allowed a reporter to violate the privacy of someone by secretly watching them have sex. Talese compounded the ethical problem by failing to notify police of the apparent homicide at the motel.

“Reporters are not and never should be considered an arm of law enforcement. If one of our journalists observes, receives evidence or word of a serious crime, our first step would be to begin asking questions of law enforcement. If necessary, we would share with authorities what we know.”

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post points out journalists occasionally witness unsavory or even illegal behavior in the course of their reporting, often producing important stories.

“But Talese’s story presents a variation on the theme: Does a reporter have any responsibility to protect a source when he knows the source isn’t telling the police all he knows about a serious crime? Does his silence, as Talese himself acknowledged, make him complicit?” writes Farhi.

Farhi exchanged emails with Talese, who declined to comment directly, and with New Yorker editor David Remnick, who defended Talese. Talese was not a witness to a murder, Remnick replied, but knew of it by reading Foos’s journal some six years after the supposed event.

Journalists should know they don’t need a code of ethics to warn them against engaging in illegal conduct.

Farhi also quotes Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists, who said the case underscores why journalists should be careful about promises made to sources.

“I don’t think any journalist should blindly promise to keep information off the record without some negotiation,” he told Farhi.

The SPJ ethics code warns journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” This would include joining a source in questionable conduct, as Talese admits he did.

Journalists should know they don’t need a code of ethics to warn them against engaging in illegal conduct.

As a legal matter, Seaman said some states compel journalists to come forward when they are aware of a murder. Seaman added: “There is no universal answer. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.”

Some scholars might prefer to be guided by what is lawful, since that tends to be in writing. Ethical judgments can be more difficult, requiring some consideration of morality and what is right.

Fahri added: “The upshot of the motel murder is that it may not even have taken place,” since the police department had no record of it.

“Talese doesn’t address the implications of this finding in his article: Did Foos make it all up? If so, how credible is the rest of his account? Neither Talese nor Remnick replied to that question.”

For my money, forget New Journalism. Give me that old-fashioned Old Journalism, where provable facts tell a reliable story. Or as reliable as an objective journalist can make it, without fanciful embellishments.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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