In the latest case of tabloids sensationally disclosing information about celebrities’ private lives on Nov. 20, People magazine published excerpts of an intimate letter written to Marilyn Monroe. While the letters will be auctioned off this month, it is troubling that we live in a culture where we literally buy into celebrity fame. Magazines like People feed this culture, and present themselves as tabloids, exploiting the personal lives of celebrities for profit. As such, readers expect interesting, scandalous information. For the most part, the reporting these magazines do is harmless, but there are instances that are revealing simply for the sake of being revealing. Regardless of intention, publications that have disseminated private details about famous people raise concerns about personal privacy in America in the age of tabloid journalism.
When seeking to justify the publication of intrusive reporting, journalists often cite newsworthiness as sufficient legal defense. Although a variety of lawsuits can result from the publication of private information, if the journalist can argue that the information published serves the public interest, then the material’s newsworthiness invalidates legal issues. However, the claim that a publication serves society’s interest is a legal defense, not an ethical one. The decision to circulate Monroe’s correspondence, like the publication of President Warren G. Harding’s love letters, seems ethically indefensible. Too many modern journalists hide behind misinterpreted legal doctrine to rationalize their prying, claiming their duty is to inform the public even if their work needlessly defames an individual or group.
While this objective implicitly defends sources such as the Washington Post, CBS or NPR — at least principally, since even stories published in these reputable outlets unnecessarily expose private facts — it largely excludes publications like People. Even if a reader hopes to stay updated on celebrity life, it does not need to be through the publication of private letters, which is an invasion of the most intimate aspects of any life, particularly posthumously.
Every day, journalists weigh the benefits of exposing revealing details against the accompanying impact on the subject’s privacy. Although tabloids are not held to the same standards of journalistic integrity as major news publications, their contortion of established legal freedoms has gone too far. People magazine claims that the public deserves to know this information in a context that presents a logical invocation. In writing stories such as the one on Monroe, the publication disregards the intended purpose of journalistic freedom, exploiting legal freedom as an excuse to peddle to society’s voyeuristic desires. But because the market for certain types of stories exists, the stories keep coming. Rather than supporting the unnecessary monetization of her life, magazines and newspapers should preserve the ability for Monroe and other famed individuals to exist as people, not exhibits.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 2 print edition. Email Dan Moritz-Rabson at [email protected]