Jack Shafer

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The excerpt from Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel that unfortunately ran recently in the New Yorker was more than enough for me–way more than enough–and I won’t be investing the time to read the dodgy book. Absent journalistic and personal ethics, the story has been further muddied by revelations of fabrications that basic reportage would have uncovered. Excuses have been made, but the work is stained by the worst excesses of New Journalism, which opened the craft to a wider style, sure, but also made reporting prone to dubious veracity and methods. It’s odd the piece ended up in the New Yorker, which under David Remnick has largely been an impenetrable fortress against such slipshod narratives.

Jack Shafer has read the book so we don’t have to, reviewing it for the New York Times. His opening:

The average reader will greet more with anger than sadness Gay Talese’s disclosure — almost halfway through his book The Voyeur’s Motel — that the detailed sex journal underpinning this zany work of nonfiction can’t be trusted. 

Talese — whose use of the tools of fiction to propel factual accounts helped found New Journalism in the 1960s — drops the self-impeaching evidence casually. Calling into doubt the veracity of his book, Talese writes that the suburban Denver motel owner Gerald Foos claims to have started observing and transcribing the private business of his guests in 1966, peering down at them through 6-by-14-inch surveillance grates he installed in the ceilings of a dozen rooms of his 21-unit motel. The problem with the Foos account, Talese adds, is that he didn’t buy Manor House Motel until 1969, meaning that he must have imagined several years of the wild motel bed-sports described in his journal. 

Further evidence that the Foos story is cooked: “And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan,” Talese writes, stating that Foos “could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.” 

Ordinarily when a journalist discovers profoundly discrediting testimony like this, he utters “Whoa,” itemizes the discrepancies and digs deeper. But not so Talese, who only shrugs at the revelation that his main source has lied to him without detailing the fibs. “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” he writes.

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Edward Snowden’s participation in a recent dog-and-pony show about government surveillance with Vladimir Putin confirms what has long been apparent: He’s not the most astute fellow who thinks things through in advance of his actions. Russia under Putin isn’t just a place that spies on journalists but one where they mysteriously wind up dead. But even if Snowden is his own worst enemy, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an enemy of the state. In his new Foreign Affairs piece, “Live and Let Leak,” Jack Shafer acknowledges that whistleblowers can be dangerous but not nearly as dangerous as a government not held to account by them. An excerpt:

“With little or no public input, the U.S. government has kidnapped suspected terrorists, established secret prisons, performed ‘enhanced’ interrogations, tortured prisoners, and carried out targeted killings. After the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pilfered hundreds of thousands of documents from the NSA’s computers and released them to journalists last summer, the public learned of additional and potentially dodgy secret government programs: warrantless wiretaps, the weakening of public encryption software, the collection and warehousing of metadata from phones and e-mail accounts, and the interception of raw Internet communications.

The secrecy machine was originally designed to keep the United States’ foes at bay. But in the process, it has transformed itself into an invisible state within a state. Forever discovering new frontiers to patrol, as the Snowden files indicate, the machine molts its skin each season to grow ever larger and more powerful, encountering little resistance from the courts or Congress.”

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In a recent Reuters column that reminds that hard news was never commercially viable in America, Jack Shafer makes an excellent suggestion that will almost definitely be ignored: that ABC become a non-profit arm of ESPN, doing serious journalism as a public good. An excerpt:

“As philanthropists take the seat in the story room once held by politicians, we should be glad. But not too glad, because there will never be enough philanthropists to restore the status quo ante. Nor will the market create enough billionaires like Jeff Bezos who are willing to rescue drowning newspapers like the Washington Post. Wishful thinkers — I’m one — can hope for media giants like Bloomberg and ESPN, now the most valuable media property in the United States, to be persuaded to add noncommercial news to their bundles. (Perhaps ABC News, which is owned by one of ESPN’s co-owners, could be repositioned as the noncommercial face of ESPN.)”