This week, friends shared with me two stories which display the wide range of how those in the media handle privacy concerns. In the first case, Adena Cohen-Bearak discussed the recent disappearance and recovery of Caleb Jacoby, son of Boston Globe writer, Jeff Jacoby. The second case concerned Bronwen Clune’s story on Anne Vanderbilt, an inventor who committed suicide after learning that a journalist planned to publish the story of her sexual reassignment surgery, instead of focusing on the previously agreed upon topic of her research.
The story of Caleb Jacoby will be well known to most readers. Or rather, the desperate search and the family’s jubilant reunion will be well known. For, of course, we know next to nothing about the circumstances which led a middle class white boy to leave his home in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent memory to crash in Times Square, despite a manhunt which would have impressed Dillinger. Shortly after announcing that their son had been found, the family asked that the public respect their privacy. And by shortly after, I mean somewhere in the second sentence after telling us that he was being brought back home. The general tone was ‘We got what we needed from you. Here’s a towel. Now go home.’
The Forward article argues that it does the community that participated in the search for Caleb a disservice to merely sweep the obvious problems that the family is facing under a rug. When a child who is part of the Jewish community, and even more so, a child in the Orthodox community, has struggles, we are far too likely to circle the wagons than to ask for help from the cavalry. And some of the comments from people with whom I was discussing the Forward article seem to bear this out.
One comment went something like ‘well, he will have to get married someday, and the Orthodox community is really judgmental. So they should just keep it private.’
Um, yeah. God forbid we hurt your shidduch chances by having you talk about your problems. Yes, Caleb is a minor. But once you espouse an idea that some things are better kept secret to preserve your chances at finding a mate, doesn’t it become more likely that you would support such secrecy into adulthood? And this is how we end up with people finding out after the marriage that their new spouse had problems which might have been resolvable, except that no one felt it was a good idea to bring them up, so as not to spoil a match.
On the other end of the scale is the saga of Anne Vanderbilt. She had invented a new kind of golf putter, and came to the attention of writer Caleb Hannan. Once Hannan learned that Vanderbilt had been born a man, he shifted the subject of the story from creation to creator, and disregarded Vanderbilt’s pleas to leave her personal life out of print. As Bronwen Clune points out in her article, Hannan cannot be held responsible for Vanderbilt’s suicide, as there are typically complex social, psychological, and biological components in play when someone takes her own life. However, that a journalist felt that a tangent was worth denying someone’s pleas for privacy seems callous, at best.
Human beings are geared by evolution to be curious. During our species’ beginnings on the savannah, finding out what made that rustling sound behind the nearby bush could have meant the difference between a successful defense, or being lion food. As we have continued to find out more about our world, we have come to a point where we either understand most of the things that we interact with enough so that they are not a threat, or we don’t understand them at all, and have determined that they are both safe and boring.
So how do we now satisfy our innate curiosity? By sticking our noses into the private lives of others. We watch 16 And Pregnant, and Honey Boo Boo, and we judge the participants unmercifully. We look down our noses at the teen mothers in the urban ghettos and shake our heads at what bad parenting they must have had.
Caleb Jacoby is, unfortunately, far from the first child who has ever disappeared, and typically, the media wastes little time in figuring out what flaws existed in the family. I remember Elizabeth Smart and JonBenet Ramsey, and just how willing reporters were to insinuate that the parents were to blame. Caleb’s family seems to have been largely spared this treatment, presumably due to Jeff Jacoby being a member of two highly protective cliques, the press and the Jewish community. Middle class white privilege at work.
The job of the journalist is to know the difference between when his questions are pertinent, and when they are just an unnecessary digression. In Anne Vanderbilt’s case, her gender at birth didn’t have anything to do with inventing a putter. With Caleb Jacoby, why he left is the driving force behind the entire story. The Jacoby family is well within their rights to choose not to answer any questions. As a parent, I wouldn’t want to answer those questions either. But don’t try to take the moral high ground because I want to ask them. Not unless you’re willing to give everyone else the same courtesy of discretion.