Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Families in the Media: Reflections on the Public Scrutiny of Private Behavior

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Families in the Media: Reflections on the Public Scrutiny of Private Behavior

Article excerpt

Families come by a variety of pathways to be families in the media, and each provides the setting or opportunity for the public scrutiny of private behaviors. This address discerns underlying connections between the disparate experiences of families who have come to be in the public eye and reasons toward some deeper truths about the interweave of our public life and private selves. The address is organized around three themes: the family as the proper domain of private behavior, the social functions of public scrutiny of private behaviors, and the structural dimensions of public scrutiny. I conclude that morality is the bridge that brings public sensibilities into our private lives and private sensitivities into the public domain, and as such it needs to be taken up as a topic for empirical exploration, demystified, and explained.

Key Words: family privacy, media, morality, public scrutiny, social sanction.

The theme for the annual NCFR conference in 1998 was "Families in Global Context: Media, Environment, and Peace." When this theme was announced at the board of directors meeting in November, 1997, 1 began to shape ideas for a presidential address that could support the theme and at the same time allow me to pull together and synthesize my reflections on the experiences of families who happen to find themselves in the public eye, that is, families in the media. I did not know then that the revelations of President William Clinton's sexual affair with a young White House intern would dominate both politics and the media during the summer and fall of 1998 and conspire to make this topic far more timely than I anticipated. Nor when I began to write this address could I have predicted the intensity of the media frenzy and the bitterly partisan political skirmishes that would accompany the unfolding sexual scandal. So, I start with a disclaimer: My objective in this address was not to add to the litany of others who have opined about the President's values and sexual behavior or the subsequent impeachment hearings that opened that behavior for all the world to share, although I confess that I have drawn on the imbroglio to illustrate certain points. Rather, my motivation for considering the public scrutiny of private behaviors as a sociological phenomenon grew out of several seemingly unrelated personal experiences and observations. My hope in addressing this topic is that together we might discern some underlying connections in meaning across these disparate experiences and reason toward some deeper truths about the interweave of our public life and private selves. Let me recount a few of these experiences and observations for you.

First, those who know me well may recall that my father was murdered almost 14 years ago. That experience thrust my family into a public situation marked by nightly news casts carrying visual images of my father's body on a cloth-draped gurney and being moved into an ambulance by uniformed officers. These were followed by several days' worth of stories in the local newspapers about my father's career, his second marriage, and intimate details of his last minutes of life. The barrage of intrusive publicity was repeated 5 years later when the murderer was brought to trial.

Now, fast forward to last summer when I was disturbed by the sounds of a raucous argument coming from my living room. I was puzzled because the shouting and loud bickering were in voices completely unfamiliar to me. Upon checking, I found both of my daughters completely absorbed in the Rikki Lake Show, one of the ubiquitous programs of the shock-TV genre. I sat with them as we watched three mother-daughter pairs duke it out in verbal fisticuffs on national television. The daughters were accusing their mothers of trying to steal the daughters' boyfriends and were appealing to the studio and television audiences for support.

Another set of observations comes from the field trips I take with my family violence students to the Fourth Circuit Court in Knoxville, which bears petitions for orders of protection and divorce petitions. …

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