What do we, the public, have the right to know about celebrities?
Last week, Prince Fielder, the Tigers superstar, was defended by a teammate, Torii Hunter, during a radio interview. Hunter suggested that Fielder, who has struggled at the plate, was dealing bravely with off-field issues and continuing to work hard every day.
It was only a few words, Hunter trying to defend his pal, but the effect was to pop a cork on a bottle. Suddenly, people breathlessly wondered what could be plaguing the highly paid slugger? And while Fielder himself said everything was fine, the news media began scurrying.
Soon after, a blog report surfaced that Fielder had filed for divorce back in May. Fielder did not reveal this. But someone did a search through court records near his off-season home in Florida. There, because the law demands it, paperwork had to be filed. And there, because the law demands it, that paperwork is accessible to anyone who knows how to properly search for it.
The result? Bang! Instant headlines across the country, including in the Free Press. Fielder’s divorce, quiet for months, was suddenly worldwide news. And just as suddenly, fans started speculating on things like: how bitter, how much, who was at fault, etc.?
It’s human nature, right?
The cause-and-effect factor
Well, perhaps we should think more about human nature in this right-to-know era of news reporting. No one apologized to Fielder. No one hesitated to report his divorce. Once it was out there, it seemed fair game.
But why? What does his married life have to do with baseball? Could the divorce be affecting his play? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it’s a sore shoulder. Maybe it’s a swing adjustment. Maybe he’s fighting with a sibling. Maybe a business deal went bad. Maybe he needs his eyes checked. Maybe it’s just – how about this for a radical concept? – a slump or an off year.
Not everyone reacts the same way to issues. Miguel Cabrera was arrested for drunken driving in February 2011; with that hanging over his head, he had one of his best seasons. You simply cannot assume connections.
I am glad I was not assigned to ask Fielder about his marriage issues, because I wouldn’t have done it. I refuse to ask him about his love life unless he says he wants to talk about it or his wife pulls on a uniform and bats cleanup.
Maybe this is my age showing. Or maybe it’s my weariness at our business thumping its chest over what public figures “owe” the public.
Divorce’s pain for children
First of all, what’s a “public figure” anymore? With reality TV, everyone is a camera lens away from celebrity. Does that mean everyone surrenders all rights to privacy? Second, we in the news media sometimes treat the Freedom of Information Act as a tacit blessing to report anything, shirking our responsibility to one another as human beings.
FOIA, it should be remembered, was established in the 1960s as a means to keep the federal government from hiding sensitive information from its citizens. Not so we could pull up every Internet morsel of a person’s existence.
But that’s what it has engendered. Decades ago, a Detroit reporter would have had to travel to Florida, find where Fielder lived and sift through files of courthouse paperwork – if allowed – just to locate a document concerning his divorce. Chances are no newspaper would bother with the time or expense.
But today, it can all be done with computers. And since everyone seems to be a blogger, all it takes is one overly curious person and the cyberspace monster is globally fed.
I feel bad for Fielder. I know his parents. Know they went through a tough divorce. And I imagine that affected him, as divorce affects all children. Now he has children of his own facing a similar hurdle.
He doesn’t owe me details. He doesn’t owe you. We may watch him play, but we don’t pay him. If his bosses want to ask how divorce is affecting his swing, that’s their issue. Last I looked, being a celebrity didn’t mean you lost the right to have problems – or surrendered the right to confront them in peace.
I actually saw a recent “Nightline” report on two famous actresses pleading to protect their children from paparazzi. The response from a celebrity magazine editor? “No one told them they had to have children.”
Fielder is just another statistic in the envy-based, build-them-up-then-knock-them-down world we live in. But someday, this right-to-know attitude is going to bite enough people that the right to other things finally will effect a change. I hope I live to see the day.