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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 02/24/2012

National Enquirer: It’s done far worse


The public’s view of the Whitney Houston funeral. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images) (Michael Nagle - GETTY IMAGES)

CORRECTION:

The photos that leaked to the Enquirer came from a funeral-home viewing of Whitney Houston that was apparently restricted to a smaller circle than was the funeral. That consideration changes completely the privacy expectations outlined below. My most sincere apologies to all.

Could the condemnation of the National Enquirer for publishing photos of Whitney Houston in an open casket be more universal?

The Detroit Free Press headline from today: “Coffin photo of Whitney Houston draws more criticism.” A colleague of my own here at the Washington Post has tsk-tsked those line-crossers at the Enquirer:

In the opinion of this writer, a line has been crossed. It seems highly unethical to me to publish a photo of this nature in the first place, but especially without permission from the person’s family. That seems to be the consensus on Twitter, as well. But where should the line be drawn to begin with?

Even a somewhat contrarian take at the Los Angeles Times slaps the tabloid: “It’s completely consistent with the National Enquirer,” said an expert quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that the National Enquirer would publish that. This is not something terribly far afield from what their standard is.”

Jezebel — edgy Jezebel! — condemns it too:

The context is upsetting (though, to be honest, not terribly surprising), since we can assume that the Houston family did not grant permission for the image to be printed, and someone made a wad of cash from its sale. It’s also disturbing because Whitney’s “last photo” is in the same issue as a story about Courtney from The Bachelor’s “pregnancy drama” and an article titled “Ashton Kutcher Goes Cougar Hunting Again.”

Forgive me for failing to generate any internal umbrage over this alleged journalistic overstepping. The National Enquirer may be guilty of something here, but if so, it’s a misdemeanor. Perhaps a jaywalking offense.

Much of the outrage over the Enquirer boils down to privacy: The Houston family made a point of declaring that the funeral services would be a private affair, invitation only. Yet as the Associated Press reported, 300 mourners shuffled into New Hope Baptist Church in Newark for the ceremony. I reached out to the church this afternoon to verify that figure and to get other details on the service; the woman who answered took issue with the 300 count but didn’t offer another figure.

Whatever the count, a sizable crowd attended the services. And once you have a crowd, you have little privacy. When an event takes on more than 10 or 15 participants, it becomes a de facto public matter. Nothing can be feasibly kept off the record because numerous sources can give accounts to enterprising reporters; images, too, are easy to come by. Who doesn’t carry a cellphone camera at this point?

Do those considerations exonerate the National Enquirer for capturing an unauthorized photograph or two? No, they do not. But they do mean that the Houston family has fewer legitimate expectations of privacy. Putting a crowd of hundreds within view of Whitney Houston’s open casket verily invites a photographic leak. After all, the transaction that put those photos on the Enquirer’s front page had two parties.

Now that the photos are out, we can gauge just how minor this transgression is. The pictures show a dignified Whitney Houston at rest. The family and the funeral home did a stupendous job of displaying this pop-culture icon. They did it for the eyes of 300 people, but it works well for 300 million people too. Now regular old fans of Whitney Houston can see the same scene that the privileged few got to behold — citing that benefit, a clever editor could string together a pretty compelling public-interest case for publishing the photos.

National Enquirer Publisher Mary Beth Wright got it right when she told FoxNews.com: “I thought it was beautiful.”

The Enquirer refused to talk to me about this dustup. “Sorry we are not commenting,” wrote a publicist.

By  |  06:00 PM ET, 02/24/2012

 
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