Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.
The Washington Post was not facing bankruptcy when Jeff Bezos, the man who made billions with his start-up of Amazon, bought the paper in 2013, but it was facing declining revenues and plummeting print circulation as management by Don Graham simply wasn’t up to the transformations the digital age had wrought on the newspaper industry. Mr Bezos spent some of his pocket change — $250 million — and became the owner.¹
Mr Bezos was not going to interfere (much) with the editorial policy of the Post, but then comes this OpEd column:
By Elizabeth Bruenig | Opinion columnist | February 11 at 5:27 PM
We live in an era rich with sexual documentary evidence. Mass text-messaging combined with the rapid spread of hand-held cameras and photo-sharing technology have produced a world where every sexual relationship has a much higher likelihood of producing its own historical record than the trysts of a generation ago. Consequently, we’ve all become archivists of others’ sexual lives: readers of leaked sexts, viewers of dubiously released private photos, knowers of once-secret things.
It’s an easy hole to fall into, because eavesdropping is thrilling and snooping even more so, especially when the subject is otherwise remote. The latest example is, of course, Jeffrey P. Bezos — the founder and chief executive of Amazon, who owns The Post — whose intimate text exchanges with Lauren Sanchez were recently leaked by the National Enquirer. Last week, Bezos published a Medium post alleging that the Enquirer has also obtained private, explicit photographs of him, and that the tabloid has threatened to release them unless Bezos ceases his private investigation into how the Enquirer got ahold of the texts and pictures in the first place. To which Bezos said thanks but no thanks, meaning the pictures could potentially emerge at any time. He wouldn’t be the first celebrity to turn up dishabille in the press against his wishes.
Well, the story is newsworthy, and Mrs Bruenig followed standard journalistic norms by identifying the subject of her article as the owner of the newspaper
Nor will he be the last, and neither will the stanchless trickle of sexts and nude photographs and the occasional video flow from the accounts of celebrities or other people in whose lives there is arguably some public interest. So it makes sense to develop some kind of principle for dealing with these materials as they emerge. And that’s more complicated than it may initially seem.
We tend to make (helpful) distinctions between thinking and doing, which in its best form serves a bulwark against detecting and prosecuting thought crimes. Thus, having a gander at the daily catch of ill-gotten erotica seems hard to fit into any preexisting category of wrongdoing. After all, looking at it doesn’t make you responsible for the initial invasion involved in stealing it. Not looking at it won’t put it back where it was, so to speak: What’s public is relentlessly public. Looking also doesn’t mean you have to participate in any kind of public shaming or pile-on. So what’s the harm in simply knowing what somebody texted to somebody else?
Perhaps Mrs Bruenig did not consider that just downloading and looking at child pornography actually is a crime, the rationale behind such being that by downloading one is participating in the sexual abuse of children, and that includes pictures of minors taken as late as the day before their 18th birthday.
But Mr Bezos is an adult, as is his mistress, Lauren Sánchez; there is no crime involved in looking at nude pictures or sex tapes of them.
When it comes to viewing leaked sexual ephemera, the knowing is its own harm. This doesn’t necessarily count for every kind of secret; being aware of somebody’s private dislike of a mutual friend, for instance, doesn’t represent the same kind of violation as having ungranted sexual knowledge of them, because sex is different from other things. The exclusivity, the secrecy, that’s all part of the point — they’re the essential ingredients of intimacy. And simply knowing the details without invitation jeopardizes that.
Without quoting the rest of Mrs Bruenig’s column, I’ll summarize: it is just wrong for the rest of us to look at the salacious pictures, if the National Enquirer does publish them. (Even if the Enquirer doesn’t publish them, I’ll bet you euros to eclairs that they get leaked.) We will be harming Mr Bezos and Miss Sánchez — both of whom are married to other people, though both are listed as separated — if we look, and Mrs Bruenig’s concluding advice is, “But as for the never-ending reel of things we ought not see ever-flickering across our screens — ignore them, don’t look. There are things better left unknown.”
What didn’t she say? She didn’t say that the best way to protect yourself from having nude photos or your sex tape made public is to not take or pose for nude photos or a sex tape.
It ought to be obvious: no one can steal your intimate photos if you don’t have any. We’ve come to expect the immature, teenagers, and in some cases, preteens, to be stupid and take and send nudes via their not-so-smart phones. But Mr Bezos is 55, and Miss Sánchez 49; they aren’t teenagers. Mr Bezos owns a media company, and Miss Sánchez has spent her entire career in the media spotlight, including having “been featured in People magazine’s ’50 Most Beautiful’ issue and Us Weekly’s ‘Hot Bodies’ issue.” Neither of them is a naïf, and if either expected that such photos would remain private, they were being just boneheadedly stupid.
My sympathy for them is extremely limited.
But what catches my attention is the fact that Mrs Bruenig did not include that obvious piece of advice, don’t take such pictures, in her article. Copying and pasting the entire thing into this writing, Red State’s composition software told me that her column was 694 words long, significantly shorter than the standard 750 word column length; it wasn’t as though Mrs Bruenig couldn’t have included it.
Who knows; perhaps she did include it, and it was removed by an editor for the Post, though, considering two typographical and spelling errors that a first-year journalism student should have caught, I have to wonder if there was any editorial review at all.²
Did Mr Bezos ‘order’ this OpEd piece? Did an editor tell Mrs Bruenig to write it, or write it like this? I have no way of knowing, of course, but it certainly looks to me as though something along those lines is likely. Why, it’s as though ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ never occurred to the writer.
¹ – By way of contrast, in 2006 Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for $515 million. By 2012, the year before Mr Bezos bought the Post, the Inquirer and Daily News were sold for a paltry $55 million.
² – I have to concede that, were this diary reviewed by an editor, he might rewrite that paragraph into two separate sentences.