March 1, 2009 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Images of reality not all equal

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

Chat with Pitts

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. chats with readers every Wednesday from 10 to 11 a.m., Pacific time, at www.MiamiHerald.com.

Are you happy now??

All you eyes pressed to the window staring at the detritus of someone else’s life, all you mouths chattering together like birds on a wire, all you watchers and voyeurs, you Peeping Toms and Thomasinas, you eye spies and inquiring minds that had to know, did you get what you needed, did you see what you wanted? Are you happy now?

I’d think you would be. The photo, after all, is pitilessly explicit: a close-up of a woman facing the camera with eyes closed in a face scarred by bruises and abrasions, and what looks like dried blood in the corner of her mouth. L.A. police say it appears to be authentic, an image of singer Rihanna taken as part of their investigation of singer Chris Brown, who allegedly assaulted her on Feb. 8.

The department has launched a probe, continuing as of this writing, to determine how the picture could have made it from their files onto TMZ.com, the celebrity gossip Web site, on Feb. 22. There is suspicion that some cop or clerk stole it and sold it, trading a young woman’s misery for personal profit.

But hey, you had to know, right? All you fans and fanatics who scour the Web obsessively for the latest dish on Brad and Angie, Tom and Katie, Chris and Rihanna and other luminaries who don’t know you from Adam but with whom you are, nevertheless, on a first-name basis  …  you needed this information, did you not? You had a sacred right to stare into the battered face of a hurt and vulnerable woman on one of the worst nights of her life.

As a poster who fancies herself (maybe himself?) “Sultry Siren” puts it on TMZ’s site: “And for all you saying TMZ shouldn’t have posted the photo. Shut it up! We wanted to see it and TMZ always delivers.”

Amen. Because we all know that what you want is all that really matters.

I expect to get some flak for giving you flak, though. See, while you were debating whether Rihanna, in the view of one post, “was asking for it,” I was debating a Pentagon policy (overturned last week) that banned pictures of the ceremony they hold when caskets containing the remains of American military personnel are returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. I argued against the ban in this space, saying that we should not be shielded from reminders of what happens when we send our children off to war.

So yes, I’m expecting some folks to see a disconnect between that opinion and this one. But there isn’t really. On the one hand, we’re talking about a matter of compelling national interest. On the other, we’re talking about humiliating a woman so you can get your jollies.

And it strikes me now how quaint was the former debate over the morality of images, how anachronistic the attempt to balance public needs with private ones, in the world you are creating. In that world, there is no morality higher than “we wanted to see it” and no need to balance public and private because they are one and the same.

An ambulance comes for Britney Spears and You Are There. Paris Hilton has sex and You Are There. Robyn Rihanna Fenty is photographed as the victim of an alleged assault, in a state with laws that theoretically protect the privacy of assault victims. And yet, You Are There.

The lives of others are one big reality show to you, aren’t they? One more excuse to press your face against the window glass and gather chattering on the wire.

Excuse the rest of us if we don’t see it that way, if we think we have a right to reasonable control over how and when we are presented to the world, if we believe that our triumphs and sorrows are just that – “our” triumphs and sorrows, not an entertainment produced for your amusement. Because life is not a reality show.

Get one, and you’ll see.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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