MSNBC, whose brand depends on the perceived progressivism of its broadcasting, was well within its rights to suspend Alec Baldwin, who had begun hosting a new late-night show on the network, after a confrontation with a photographer captured by TMZ, in which he appears to use anti-gay slurs. Baldwin disputes in part, though not entirely, the words he’s accused of having used. But the outburst, and Baldwin’s long response to it on Huffington Post, which includes a suggestion that the U.S. should outlaw paparazzi photography, raise two additional important issues beyond the question of Baldwin’s language. Do celebrities have a right to be protected from the public’s interest in them? And in incidents like these, what responsibility do people like Baldwin have for their own self-control?
It’s one of the many hard truths of adulthood that, once we’re out of the classroom and our parents’ care, we’re largely responsible for restraining our own worse selves. And unless those worse selves incline towards criminal activity or extreme dislikability, few people are going to intervene to prevent you from acting on your worst impulses. Ultimately, a law that restrained the paparazzi from approaching the Baldwins in public might provide Baldwin with fewer opportunities to lose his temper in dramatic fashion. But that is not the same thing as curing Baldwin’s temper, which he’s lost on private occasions that have subsequently been reported publicly, like his 2007 tirade on his daughter Ireland’s voicemail, occasioned by an unpleasant custody dispute with his ex-wife.
And as unpleasant as I find the conduct of very, very many celebrity photographers, I’m not sure Baldwin makes the case (or that anyone has, really) that inconvenience to celebrities justifies laws restricting the press, especially when other legal remedies are available for many of the concerns he expresses. New York City has laws making available restraining orders, handing out driving violations, and governing permitting for shooting film on city streets, all of which are potential avenues Baldwin and his peers could explore to make their lives more livable. If photographers have, in fact, fallen on a babies in Baldwin’s neighborhood, New York State has reckless endangerment laws. During Britney Spears’ very public breakdown, I would have seen very little problem with aggressive traffic enforcement against paparazzi whose driving endangers motorists and pedestrians. Baldwin recently won a court case against a woman who’d been stalking him. He’d be well-off trying a similar approach to photographers who approach him and his wife.
It may be frustrating to fight back against the intrusions of photographers and videographers piecemeal rather than banning them from doing their jobs wholesale. But it’s a more appropriate remedy, particularly for people with Baldwin’s financial resources, than banning practices that, while often unattractive, may be necessary for outlets to provide competitive coverage or to pursue evasive sources in times of genuinely breaking news. One of the privileges of being wealthy is that it’s easier for you to pursue even an unsuccessful prosecution than it is for your target to withstand it. That’s quite a bit of law and financial advantage to have on your side, even without enhanced limitations on the conduct of the press.
And the truth is that the best way for Baldwin to deter the paparazzi that would have the least impact on press freedom would be for him to render himself boring. Baldwin himself appears to know this, suggesting in his Huffington Post piece that “ They provoke me, daily, by getting dangerously close to me with their cameras as weapons, hoping I will react. When I do, the weapon doubles as a device to record my reaction. And then, apparently, I lose every time.” He laments that “ If quitting the television business, the movie business, the theatre, any component of entertainment, is necessary in order to bring safety and peace to my family, then that is an easy decision,” but it’s hardly his only choice.
It’s undoubtedly unpleasant and anxiety-provoking to be pursued this way, but Baldwin is pursued not simply because he is famous–there are New Yorkers more famous than he–but because celebrity outbursts are a commodity. And if you provide them regularly, as Baldwin does, and as Jude Law and Kaney West have in the past, you become a reliable source of income. If Baldwin, who as a trained actor has better tools to put on false emotions than most of us do, simply went inert at the sight of a photographer, or if he and his wife traveled primarily by car and driver, they would almost certainly diminish their value to the people who presently harass them.
It’s possible that Baldwin sees confronting photographers, as he does in this video, as a masculine obligation, a means of protecting his family. But rather than get out of a chauffeured car and walking down the street after his pursuer, why not simply slam the car door shut and drive on? If it’s emasculating to do that, rather than to cause a scene in defense of your wife and infant child, then the standards of masculinity are ridiculous.
I understand that being asked not to respond to people who are provoking you doesn’t feel fair. But being a celebrity, and being compensated at a high level are privileges that are accompanied by disadvantages. If you want to retain the respect of millions of Americans, and convince them to follow you to other projects, than your part of that bargain involves making yourself palatable to them. If you’ve failed once to keep the ugliest thought that springs to mind firmly confined to your own head, you have to acknowledge that you’ve forfeited the benefit of the doubt going forward. And while it’s frustrating to be accused in a way you feel to be wrong, stating your version of events and then accepting that you can’t convince everyone is the most effective and dignified thing to do moving forward. It’s even better to internalize and learn from the criticism directed at you than to stay fiercely on the defensive.
Baldwin may wish that audiences didn’t assume that his go-to response when his temper is ruffled is homophobia or ugly insults. But it would be wise for him to recognize why some people believe that to be the case, and to accept that many of them will going forward. Making large donations and losing control of your mouth are not mutually exclusive propositions. Neither is being a progressive and knowing that anti-gay slurs remain some of the worst, ugliest things you can call another person. But laws to diminish your own inconvenience are not a substitute for control of your own mind and tongue.