Unreliable source

A terrible development in a long and distinguished journalism career.

Author Gay Talese disavows his latest book amid credibility questions

Paul Farhi, The Washington Post:

In his forthcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” acclaimed journalist and nonfiction author Gay Talese chronicles the bizarre story of Gerald Foos, who allegedly spied on guests at his Colorado motel from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

But Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw — enough that the author himself now has deep reservations about the truth of some material he presents.

“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.

The Voyeur’s Motel

“I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations.”

“The Voyeur’s Motel” is a brilliant and disturbing “New Yorker” article from 84-year-old journalist Gay Talese:

I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago 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 louvred 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.

The voyeur, Gerald Foos, says in his 30 years as a peeping Tom, he witnessed a murder that he unwittingly instigated. He never reported it to police.

30 years of voyeurism made Foos a cynic.

… basically you can’t trust people. Most of them lie and cheat and are deceptive. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public. What they try to show you in public is not what they really are.”

Foos considers himself a scientist.

“I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.”

Talese also did a little peeping while visiting Foos to verify the story, although he does not describe himself as being aroused by it. Like Foos, Talese no doubt considers himself a dispassionate observer working for a greater cause. The difference between the two is that Foos worked in secret, while Talese has as worldwide audience, respect, and acclaim.

Gay Talese’s questionable ethics

“Talese had an obligation as a citizen to reveal Foos’ creepy, dangerous, illegal behavior, and did not do so.” [Isaac Chotiner – Slate]

Gerald Foos owned a motel with an intricate series of peepholes through which he spied on his customers’ sexual liaisons for 30 years. Journalist Gay Talese kept Gerald Foos’s secret for years. Talese even participated in the voyeurism at least once. Talese did not intend to write about Foos, though eventually Talese did.

What public interest is served here?

Motel owner spent 30 years spying on his guests’ sex lives, considered himself a “researcher”

In a handwritten note to writer Gay Talese in 1980, Colorado motel owner Gerald Foos described how he had been spying on customers’ sex lives through a network of peepholes in the rooms’ ceilings. Foos said he’d been taking notes, which he offered to share for Talese’s upcoming book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” in exchange for a confidentiality agreement.

True to his word, Foos had taken meticulous notes, filling reams of paper with his observations of cheaters; closeted gay people; swingers; forbidden interracial couples; gigolos; feuding holiday makers; fetishists, and more, across a wide swathe of human sexuality. Foos’s notebooks — which he began to send to Talese — were full of self-serving and increasingly cynical and detached observations in a mock-clinical style that chronicled Foos’s slide into a kind of obsessive misanthropy that left him hating the people he couldn’t look away from….

Foos is a bizarre and fascinating character. He considers his own spying to be harmless, but rails at state surveillance, lauding Snowden as a heroic whistleblower and deploring the NSA’s mass surveillance. He eventually released Talese from his confidentiality agreement, believing that the statute of limitations had run out on his last act of spying (he was forced to quit in 1995, when arthritis made it too difficult for him to ascend to his surveillance attic).

Should a journalist’s confidentiality agreement extend to knowledge of criminal acts?

Motel owner spent 30 years spying on his guests’ sex lives, considered himself a “researcher” [Cory Doctorow – Boing Boing]