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stealing privacy for profit

Among others, actor George Clooney has recently stepped to the podium to address the issue of paparazzi – those aggressive photographers who track celebrities and sell their pictures to tabloid publications. The general consensus among the celebrity community is that these photographers are not only intrusive, but dangerous. In my mind, we may never know whether the Princess of Wales was killed in Paris on 31 August or not, but the issue remains: even if her accident was a fraud, something similar could easily have happened for real. In recent months, overzealous photographers have been responsible for running the car of Arnold Schwarzenegger off the road, attempting to snap his picture as he returned home from heart surgery. It is not hard to imagine this sort of incident escalating to one more injurious, or perhaps fatal.

But let us put aside for a moment the threat of physical harm that the paparazzi pose. In terms of mere intrusion, they overstep the bounds of morality and civilization on a daily basis. Theirs is a world of stolen moments: they sleep in cars to be in the right place when a celebrity steps out into the open where their long lens can capture his or her every move – unnoticed and unauthorized. They live to capture celebrities in private moments with family or loved ones, outside the world of glamour which is considered their workplace. And this is unnecessary in itself. Nobody needs to keep tabs on our movie stars or TV personalities. As Clooney states, there is a difference between a Public Official and a celebrity. An elected Public Official is in place because of promises he made about his beliefs and his character, which his voting public must hold him to in order to assure that he is carrying out the tasks for which he was elected. He spends money collected in taxes on projects intended for the public good. Celebrities, on the other hand, merely entertain. A celebrity makes his money if someone elects to support his film or television program. It's a voluntary system, and after the film is over, once those credits roll, his obligation is over. What he does when he goes home at night is nobody's business but his own.

But it is not merely these ethical distinctions which the paparazzi tread upon. They also threaten celebrities who live in a truly scary world of stalkers and unpredictable maniacs. The incidents of suicidal stalkers threatening celebrities in recent years are too many to count. One especially publicized case involved an adolescent boy hell-bent on murdering musical artist Björk. As in the case of Alec Baldwin, when a paparazzo comes hurtling toward you as you walk to your car, you cannot immediately be sure that his highest threat is to photograph you. Baldwin contends that he feared the man who confronted him outside his suburban Los Angeles home may have been carrying a weapon. This man did not display credentials; he did not travel in a marked van; he did not carry professional equipment like the videographers for the local news have. In the poor light of the dusk hour, Baldwin could easily mistake a small camera in his hand for a gun or knife. His actions against the paparazzo were out of protective instinct for his wife and child. More than trampling upon his privacy, this photographer posed a viable threat to the celebrity he ambushed.

Celebrities are not hiding. How else would they attain celebrity status, how would they be so well-known if they did not make public appearances to promote themselves and their work? Outside premieres and at press conferences, celebrities offer themselves up for photography. Celebrities pose for photo spreads in special sessions when they are featured in a magazine like "Rolling Stone" or "Entertainment Weekly". At these times they are prepared and available for their likeness to be documented. But at the end of that day, they reserve the right – as you and I do – to go home to their own room and enjoy some privacy with their families and themselves.

The paparazzi are pathetic and troubled individuals. Their very name is taken from the character Paparazzo, in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a film that chronicles an endless search for happiness that can never be found. Many blame tabloid publications for supporting the immoral escapades of the hungry photographers. But these are people that know better. Clearly, the concept of privacy is not a difficult one to grasp. Many of these photographers are very talented and could easily find work in legitimate photography – in sessions with models the way photography should be. If high-speed cameras and super-long lenses are all they know, surely they can cover sports, politics, or the space program. It is not as if the public will suffer any dearth of celebrity images. Photos taken at legitimate events and occasions overflow from teen magazines and entertainment journals, all taken with the authorization of their subjects. If morality and civic decency cannot compel these people to be respectful of the privacy of other persons, perhaps – as has been discussed – criminal legislation is necessary. If so, it can surely be phrased so as to respect the First Amendment rights of both parties. A free press can still serve this country without blurry pictures of Brad Pitt's member. There is a distinction between legitimate news and trashy gossip. We can all immediately identify which are conveyed in which magazines with one glance at the supermarket shelf. This should not be a difficult industry to regulate. We should all be able to agree on some simple rules that will make life much easier for all involved.