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Opinion Should Gay Talese have reported perverted motel owner to the police?

Author Gay Talese (Evan Agostini/Associated Press)

More than 30 years ago, Gay Talese met Gerald Foos, the proprietor of the Manor House Motel near Denver. No average motelier, Foos had bought his inn with the intent to spy on its guests. The structure’s pitched roof, in fact, facilitated Foos’s hovering above his customers’ rooms, whose custom-slanted louvred screens enabled him to watch them without fear of detection.

The renowned nonfiction writer happened upon the Manor House Motel after Foos had contacted him about his pursuits. “Since learning of your long awaited study of coast-to-coast sex in America, which will be included in your soon to be published book, ‘Thy Neighbor’s Wife,'” Foos wrote to Talese in a 1980 letter, “I feel I have important information that I could contribute to its contents or to contents of a future book.” In his tour of the facility, Talese saw a couple engaged in oral sex; his necktie had slithered through the screen into the couple’s room — a close call.

We learn of this creepy moment in Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel,” published last week in the New Yorker. Rarely has longform been so long. The story not only stretches out over 15 pages, but it spans decades. In the world of longform writing, patience is a chest-beating type of virtue. Writers who sit with their subjects for days on end; who watch their interviewee change and evolve over extended periods; who immerse in a town, a social group, a cult for years — they enrich their journalism and secure bragging rights on journo-podcasts. In this milieu, Talese wins some kind of medal with “The Voyeur’s Motel.” It was in the works for upwards of 35 years. Foos was 45 when Talese first hung out with him; when the former motel owner in 2013 told him he was ready to tell his story on the record, he was 78.

Only in journalism would one seek to cultivate a three-decade-long relationship with a motel pervert. “The Voyeur’s Motel” reflects the anxiety of a writer doing just that. After his spying on the couple, for instance, Talese recalls saying to himself, “What was I doing up here, anyway? Had I become complicit in his strange and distasteful project?” Maybe: As Talese recounts in the story, he signed a confidentiality agreement with Foos upon his 1980 trip to the motel, before his trip to the peepholes. It was a “typed document stating that I would not identify him by name, or publicly associate his motel with whatever information he shared with me, until he had granted me a waiver,” writes Talese. “I signed the paper. I had already decided that I would not write about Gerald Foos under these restrictions. I had come to Denver merely to meet this man and to satisfy my curiosity about him.” And to watch some oral sex, too.

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All these considerations intensify after Talese learns that Foos had reported witnessing a murder. The circumstances make for compelling storytelling: Foos had spied on some drug-dealing in Room 10, so he went into the room later and flushed the drugs down the toilet — something he’d done before “with no repercussions,” writes Talese. In this case, however, the dealer ended up accusing his girlfriend of stealing the contraband, setting up this scene witnessed by the voyeur, who documented it in his journal:

After fighting and arguing for about one hour, the scene below the voyeur turned to violence. The male subject grabbed the female subject by the neck and strangled her until she fell unconscious to the floor. The male subject, then in a panic, picked up all his things and fled the vicinity of the motel.
The voyeur . . . without doubt . . . could see the chest of the female subject moving, which indicated to the voyeur that she was still alive and therefore O.K. So, the voyeur was convinced in his own mind that the female subject had survived the strangulation assault and would be all right, and he swiftly departed the observation platform for the evening.

A maid later found a woman dead in Room 10, prompting Foos to call the police. He didn’t confess that he’d witnessed the event.

Talese by no means discovered these events in real time. “I came upon this account in Foos’s typescript a few years after I’d visited him in Aurora—and nearly six years after the murder,” writes Talese, who goes on to describe the bind in which he found himself. In a telephone call, Foos felt uncomfortable remarking beyond what he’d written, “and he reminded me that I had signed a confidentiality agreement. I spent a few sleepless nights, asking myself whether I ought to turn Foos in. But I reasoned that it was too late to save the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Also, since I had kept the Voyeur’s secret, I felt worrisomely like a co-conspirator.” Talese, again, did nothing. He later checked with police, who found no record of the murder.

For all this activity, Foos — and Talese as well — stands to cash in. “The Voyeur’s Motel” isn’t just a massive New Yorker story; it’s a book due to be published on July 12 by Grove Atlantic. As Talese notes in the article, the publishing house is paying Foos a fee for his “manuscript.” And as the Denver Post reports, Foos is hoping that the publicity surrounding the book will pump up interest in his collection of sports memorabilia.

A full appreciation of the story requires a timeline: Foos professed to have started his spying in the mid-1960s; he met Talese in 1980; he sold the motel — along with another one — in 1995, apparently because he couldn’t snoop anymore: “He had sold his two motels in 1995, when arthritis in his knees made it too painful for him to climb the ladder and crawl around the attic,” writes Talese; and in 2013, Foos decides to void the confidentiality agreement and go public with his life. Just how many people had their privacy violated over the 15 years after Talese found out about this activity?

Putting two and two together, Isaac Chotiner at Slate scolds the author: “Talese had an obligation as a citizen to reveal Foos’ creepy, dangerous, illegal behavior, and did not do so,” writes Chotiner. The Post’s Paul Farhi quotes a media-ethics type: “I think the main lesson for journalists to take away from Talese’s experience is to be careful when making promises.”

Proceed with care, however, when advocating that journalists call the cops. That is not their job; their job is to report. And as it happens, reporting is an activity often at odds with informing the police. As long as journalists have been around, they’ve been profiling miscreants, lawbreakers and cretins of all sorts, commonly through the use of anonymity or some other confidentiality pledge not unlike the one that Talese had with Foos. Such arrangements take place in situations where the subject has been breaking the law for some time and will likely continue breaking the law for some time — again, as was the case with Talese-Foos.

News organizations will give up the identities of these subjects under no circumstances. There’s jurisprudence out there to prove the point, too. In November 1969, the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., carried a story by Paul Branzburg on the activities of two people engaged in synthesizing hashish from marijuana. He granted them anonymity for the article, but the authorities read the piece and sought court testimony from the reporter. They wanted to know who the drug dealers were. The resulting fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, which issued its historic Branzburg v. Hayes ruling.

So just for the sake of context, Gay Talese is the twenty-thousandth U.S. journalist who has protected the anonymity of an apparent lawbreaker. Yet there’s another problem with retroactively insisting that Talese should have approached the cops, and it relates to the legitimacy of journalism itself: As soon as the public starts seeing journalists as police informants in abeyance, forget it.

What makes Talese’s relationship with Foos so media-column-worthy is its twisted nature. As Talese writes throughout the New Yorker piece, Foos thought of himself not as a pervert but as a voyeur, a guy who was painstakingly studying the human condition through peep-screens. “Foos made it clear to me from the beginning that he regarded his voyeurism as serious research, undertaken, in some vague way, for the betterment of society,” wrote Talese. The research project started more than a decade before Talese entered the picture. But by agreeing to engage with Foos, by receiving his journal entries and providing this fellow with a tether to the intellectual elite, Talese may well have animated Foos as he climbed the ladder to the three-foot-wide carpeted catwalk that he used to satisfy his desire to see women’s naked bodies.

And that’s what this is all about, of course: Misogyny, objectification, sexism — the labor of bad men. It’s right there in the text. At one point, Foos gets frustrated with a couple who’d turned the lights out during a romp, frustrating his attempts to see the woman in the raw. Foos shines the lights of his car on the room to shed some perverted light on the situation. As he writes in his journal: “I finally get to see her body when she un-covers to wipe the semen away on my bedspread. . . . She is very beautifully proportioned, but probably equally stupid and dumb.” A New Yorker source tells the Erik Wemple Blog that a number of women read the piece prior to publication; it was edited by Susan Morrison.

How does Talese defend all this? Read the story! he demands. “As for the New Yorker piece question, I truly have answered your question in the piece,” writes Talese in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog. “I don’t have the article before me, but I wish you’d refer to the article when you have time. I don’t want to go picking through my past decisions—I did all that before completing the article that I sent to The New Yorker. The story for me is over.” Indeed, Talese did address ethics in his piece. In addition to the instances cited above, there’s this bit of reflection:

Where was I in all this? I was the Voyeur’s pen pal, his confessor, perhaps, or an adjunct to a secret life he chose not to keep completely secret. Several times over the years, it occurred to me that I would be wise to discontinue our correspondence. Foos was not a subject I could write about, despite my curiosity about how it would end. Would he get caught? If he did, what would be the trial strategy of his attorneys? Was he naïve enough to think that jurors would accept that his attic was a laboratory in quest of truth? Moreover, might I be subpoenaed to testify?

Passages like that one prove that Talese considered the ethical implications of his actions — and ultimately resolved or steamrolled them.

In another email, Talese writes, “Gerald Foos is now being protected by the police. Phone callers predicted death for him and his wife, and, frankly, he is afraid to leave his house.I don’t want to talk and make things worse—i.e., give him more attention that he has had too much of this week. When the book is published in July, in which he is presented in a larger context, and seems to be a sympathetic character in some sections of the book…maybe I can talk to you, knowing then how Gerald Foos and Anita have survived being exposed….ironic isn’t it?”

Bolding added to underscore a tall order.

The New Yorker is standing by the reporting. Pressed by Farhi on issues surrounding the murder, New Yorker editor David Remnick noted, “While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’s account of it to the reader.”

Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove Atlantic, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that his participation in the Talese story dates back only to fall 2015, decades after the key decisions were made on “The Voyeur’s Motel.” “Whatever decisions he made 30-40 years ago are decisions that he made,” said Entrekin. He examined these same issues and came to yes. “I was comfortable publishing the book and I’m sure that there will be many people who’ll criticize me for it.” There are “hundreds if not thousands” of books written by folks — criminals included — with questionable pasts. “You can question the value of some of them or all of them,” says Entrekin. “I think you have to make a judgment on a case-by-case basis.”