Honor thy reporter: On the Gay Talese question

Gay Talese, one of journalism’s most revered figures, has gone from writing the news to making it.

First, sloppily worded comments at a Boston journalism conference ignited a social media firestorm and accusations of sexism. Then a teaser for his new book “The Voyeur’s Motel” in the New Yorker revealed that Talese may have known about a murder for decades and said nothing – not to mention all the other perverted goings on at that Colorado motel run by a dishonest voyeur. Did he breach journalistic ethics  — or ethics more generally?

Most recently, the Washington Post discovered errors in his new book’s timeline, calling into question the veracity of his reporting. Talese moved quickly to distance himself from the book saying, “I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”

But now, he has decided that maybe it’s not so bad after all, and is standing up for his work, which was given a glowing review in the New York Times.

At LLNYC, we are glad to hear it. “The Voyeur’s Motel” is a well-told story and the moral complexity only strengthens it. Besides, Talese made it clear again and again in his New Yorker piece that his source was probably lying. For instance, Talese discovered that there was never a murder reported at the hotel and that it probably never happened. He also points out that the hotel’s property records don’t match the timeline in the subject’s diary. All of that was in the New Yorker piece. Talese should be proud of the decades of work that went into writing this jaw-dropping piece of non-fiction.

It’s also worth remembering that Talese is no stranger to controversy. For decades, his boundless curiosity has taken him to the fringes of society. His investigations into American sexuality in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” led him to manage his own massage parlors.

“I was seriously interested in obscenity. Nudity was shocking. Of course, it was breaking into pop culture little by little with ‘Hair’ and ‘I Am Curious (Yellow),’ but it was still in the area of scandal. And I was scandal. I was Mr. Scandal himself,” he told me during a recent interview, referring his life and work in the 1970s.

His book “Honor Thy Father” on the Bonanno crime family led to dinner parties with mobsters at his home with his young family. You don’t get to where Talese has by playing it safe.

And Talese certainly didn’t hold back during LLNYC’s recent interview. Everything from masturbation to class politics were on the menu. Read the full interview with the master himself here.