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Testimony to the House (1998)

Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee
United States House of Representatives
May 21, 1998

The following was written and presented by Michael J. Fox:

First, Mr. Chairman, let me thank you and the members of the Committee for addressing this issue and giving me the chance to testify, not only on my behalf, but for my peers and for those private citizens who are first victims because of a tragedy or accident and then victims of the dangerous and intrusive tactics of certain paparazzi. I would like to extend a personal thank you to Representative Gallegly for initiating this effort.

Let me begin by saying that I feel fortunate to have my job. I know many in this country would be happy to trade places with me. Still, there is a reality that I, my loved ones (including defenseless children), and others in our position deal with on a regular basis. I’m speaking of the intrusive, harassing and mercenary tactics of tabloid photographers. This is often conveniently written off as “the price you pay.” I have heard people say “those celebrity types, that’s why they get the big bucks” and how “if they didn’t want the attention they shouldn’t have become actors,” as if any legal vocational choice came with a waiver of basic rights of privacy.

Personally, I work very hard to entertain an audience, and when they enjoy my work, I am deeply gratified. I am polite to those who are polite with me, and I try to deflect some of the attention that comes with my celebrity toward worthwhile causes. I also maintain a positive and cooperative relationship with the legitimate press. Beyond that, I’d like to think of my life as my own. I strongly disagree with those who would argue that some sort of Faustian bargain has been struck whereby “public” figures are fair game, any time, any place, including within the confines of their own homes.

Of course this point of view is actively promoted by the major tabloids and those who work for them. The positioning of celebrities as the non-human “other” discourages their readers and viewers (in the case of TV tabloids) from perceiving us as people like themselves, with feelings and families, and from recognizing that tactics employed by these publications are often cruel, destructive and criminal. When something like the Princess Diana tragedy occurs, people begin to see the truth and the tabloid spinmeisters go into overdrive.

Over the past 15 years or so, my own experiences with illegal and intrusive news gathering methods have been too varied and numerous to list completely. Being a performer who often poses for photographs in prearranged sessions and at public events, it took me awhile to understand the intensity with which candid, surreptitious and invasive pictures were sought out. I soon found out that the more suggestive a photograph is, the angrier and more stressed the victim is, the more value it has. They have chased me on foot and in my car, yelled obscene comments at my entire family, and literally staked out my home, on a 24 hour basis, in hopes of capturing that one photograph that will win them the bounty. They can literally invent any story they want to accompany it. I’ll give you a personal example of this methodology and of the damage it can cause to an individual or family.

In 1987, while leaving a New York City film premiere with my (then) future wife, Tracy Pollan, there was a great deal of tumult as the paparazzi jostled with security (and each other) to take their shots of the many media figures exiting the theater. As they pressed forward, a photograph was taken of a N.Y.P.D. Officer directing us to our car. Here’s how that seed grew when exposed to the nuclear radiation of tabloid “journalism.” A fiction was concocted in which Tracy and I look to police for help in dealing with “death threats.” At that time, I had never received a single death threat in any form. Shortly after the story was published a disturbed young woman in Southern California began to write a series (approx. 6,200 in all) of graphic and terrifying hate letters that threatened death to Tracy, myself, and to our unborn baby. We were frightened, panicked and suspicious of any new contacts. During this period, instances of harassment by paparazzi were especially unnerving as a pursuing vehicle is, in and of itself, a deadly weapon and a metal camera aimed out of the window or quickly pulled from a bag or coat can be cause for alarm. We hired a private security firm to protect us and investigate the source of the letters. This woman was eventually arrested and served jail time. I firmly believe she would not have acted had the tabloid not provided an irresponsible, fictional precedent.

There were stalking laws that protected us from her, but no deterrent or law to protect us from aggressive paparazzi, who by chasing us and keeping us under surveillance at our homes, exacerbated our fear. They created the environment for a stalking, and benefited from it throughout the incident.

Another occurrence took place in 1988 when Tracy and I were married in a small inn in Vermont. We did not publicly disclose the location and date, but the tabloids ferreted it out and pressed for details. We told them it was a small family gathering on private property, they were not invited and there would be no opportunities for photographs. We were not hypocritical about this; we did not give (or sell) an exclusive to anyone.

Apart from the wedding itself, the circumstances around it were a nightmare. Locals were bribed to infiltrate the ceremony. Our cars were chased, a number of helicopters recklessly jockeyed for position directly above our assembled families, and my wife’s confused and frightened 85 year old grandparents were isolated by photographers posing as locals and pumped for information. They tracked us down on our island honeymoon, parked a boat within camera range of our suite and fired away with high-powered cameras. Frustrated by the measures we undertook to ensure our rights of privacy, these photographers and so-called journalists launched an assault on our family that continues today. In fact an entire documentary film was made about their pursuit of our family.

In 1991, Blast’em was released and it provides a rich look at the very topic addressed today. It features scene after scene of paparazzi harassing and stalking us in private and public. The film is quite disturbing. Though this legislation doesn’t address all of the behavior documented in the movie, it at least looks at the most egregious – the terrifying chases and technological invasions of privacy. What’s most telling is the constant references to the incentive to break or bend the law in pursuit of a picture: bounties that range from hundreds to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars.

For years, we have spotted photographers around the edges of our personal property and trailing us in the streets and parks with high-powered lenses, taking pictures of private moments and of our children who have no concept of what it means to be a “public figure.” It is difficult to explain to a youngster why we must interrupt what we are doing and go inside to wait for our pursuers to leave – which sometimes does not happen.

In 1989, they tried to pose as medical personnel at the hospital where Tracy was giving birth to our son. They did the same in 1995 when our twin daughters were born.

In 1990, they intruded upon my father’s funeral under false pretenses, carrying cameras with which, presumably, to take pictures of his body and my family in mourning. They also pretended to be mourners and snuck into the wake at my mother’s home.

I have seen freelance photographers intentionally frighten children of celebrities (including my own) in order to provoke a distressed reaction. Such a shot can inspire fantastic copy. As a result of early experiences like this, our 8 year old son, Sam, is leery of cameras, dislikes having his picture taken, and even his class photo can be an uncomfortable experience.

You don’t even have to be in a photographer’s sights to have your privacy violated. A reporter once entered the Records Office in our town and photographed the blueprints (including electrical and security systems) to the new home we were building. The plans were published and clearly could be used as a map by someone who wished us harm.

I could go on and on with further accounts of harassment, intrusion, provocation, endangerment and trespass. I said earlier that this activity was difficult to explain to a child, but frankly, I know that it can be hard for anyone to grasp when they have not experienced the feeling of violation these assaults leave with you. Recent events, however, show us that anyone is vulnerable, not just those who have chosen to work in the public eye. Time and time again, we’ve seen “ordinary folks,” through one unexpected circumstance or another, burn in the white-hot glare of uninvited and relentless media scrutiny. Tabloids, TV tabloids, and even some members of the so-called “legitimate” media will go to any lengths and use the latest technology to obtain the pictures or soundbites that will give them advantage over their rivals in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The laws on the books don’t seem to take into consideration the incentives or bounties for this abusive conduct. Tabloids are rich and therefore can withstand simple trespass or harassment cases. The courts will interpret what this Congress sets as law, hopefully based on the hearing we are having today. It is clear that the legislation dealing with both persistent chasing and intrusion into private property with long-lens cameras is needed. I offer you my support to see this legislation enacted.