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Voyeur Nation: media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture

Clay Calvert. Voyeur Nation: media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 2000. 274 pages. ISBN 0-8133-6627-5. US$25.

Reviewed by Dr. Ralph D. Berenger, the American University in Cairo.

As transnational broadcasters rush toward privatization, calling for more democratization and transparency by more laissez-faire governments, Clay Calvert's Voyeur Nation should be thoughtfully considered to prevent a "race to the bottom" by sacrificing cultural tastes in the pursuit of greater audience numbers.

Calvert is a lawyer as well as a professor of law and communications and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. The latter credit is important because Calvert does not believe the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution-an international model for liberalized news and entertainment-should protect the "mediated voyeurism" rampant in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. The argument is as important as it is provocative.

Calvert lays the groundwork for his argument with a recitation of what the mass media have done to damage the concept of privacy rights, often willingly abdicated by "victims" seeking fame and fortune, their fleeting Warholian 15 minutes of recognition-both in front of and behind the hidden camera.

The author decries the rise of "reality" shows on U.S. and European television where cameras go along and confront various miscreants and straying spouses. Those caught in the glare of camera lights almost never are advised of their rights to an attorney and often react badly-which, of course, is "good" television. In some cases, especially on tell-all/show-all programs like the Jerry Springer Show or the Ricki Lake Show, participants are asked to bare their most private thoughts on syndicated TV. The result is a growing class of exhibitionists performing in real life for a growing class of audience voyeurs, he says.

Calvert cites uses and gratifications theories as a reason people tune into such programs as The World's Most Amazing Videos, Cheating Spouses Caught on Tape, Cops, The Osbornes (a new entry into the voyeurism field where the camera follows rocker Ozzie Osborne and his family around all day long-and showed in real time the family's reactions to the wife's newly diagnosed cancer) and dozens more. This voyeurism even has a game-show flavor as demonstrated last summer when Maury Povich and Montel Williams each aired a series of shows on "Who's the Father?" Using DNA testing, unwed mothers with babes in arms found out which among three former lovers was actually the father of her baby while a cheering live studio audience made their own guesses. The programs drew huge audiences, which, in the Western media tradition, resulted in huge company profits. Legal scholar Robert Bork must have had programs like these in mind when he wrote Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

The Internet has pushed the envelope on voyeurism, Calvert writes. Some of the more popular sites on the web are those featuring webcams or surveillance cameras that catch participants in various aspects of day-to-day living, from bed and board to bath in real-life Truman Shows, including their most intimate minutes. Sexual voyeurism is one of the more popular Internet activities worldwide, whether some cultures are willing or not to admit it, he says.

The public's right to know is limited to officialdom, not to their neighbor's bedroom behind closed curtains. While "peeping" might be a human "want" it is not a human "need." Mediated voyeurism involving the space band spectrum opens the door for regulation, he says. In that regard, Calvert might be suggesting a role for governments or critical discussion by community in the mediation process. Communitarians such as Robert Putnam and Amitai Etzioni would heartily agree since they would consider mediated voyeurism contrary to the best interests of a civil, community-based society.

While building a strong case of greater government influence in broadcasting of programs that violate privacy rights, Calvert wimps out of the argument at the end, suggesting instead self-governance by media outlets by redefining broadcasting ethos and codes of conduct.

Despite the weak ending, Calvert's work raises key issues for transnational broadcasters and is worth a read by students seeking an understanding of what could happen to transnational programming if ratings races become their raisons d'otre.

About Ralph D. Berenger

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