Some love it or hate it. Others write about it or repeat it.
The obsession for gossip seems to be here to stay: from what we read and see, from the unholy and unchanging trinity of the subject. The reporter and the reader have stoked the human appetite for gossip, which dates back from the salad days of the silver screen magazines, to the instantaneous communication of the scoop-filled internet.
In the internet, some enterprising users could pursue “news” without the constraints and rules of editors and institutions. The scandals are too juicy to ignore, too tawdry and salacious: the headline bonanza which poisons the atmosphere of real reporting. They go where the stink is, peddling filth as self-styled town criers, Thomas Paine’s of the Internet and cyberspace, media lynch pens, hatchet jobs and exposes. It could be malicious, embarrassing and humiliating, but also true. And that’s what hurts.
The fuzzy line between news and gossip becomes a complete blur when tabloids, sometimes repeatedly overshadow serious news. It’s not the inaccuracy nor the mistakes that anger many — it’s the stories that reporters get right.
Real journalists pride themselves of getting it first and right: they get to the bottom of the story, they bend more than backwards to get the other side. This is what we call fair reportage.
Publication and dissemination of scandalous information about the rich and powerful has been in existence as long as the written word. Cuneiform tablets from the fifteenth century BC discuss allegations that a Mesopotamian mayor was committing adultery with a married woman.
But, the commercial publication of scandal and gossip, as we understand it today, began in the 1830’s.
With the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the penny press (although these papers were filled with scandals), their information usually came from official sources, such as court proceedings and arrest records.
In the late nineteenth century, with the debut of the Society column (which contained information: descriptions of yacht trips, guest lists at debutante balls that was usually sanctioned by subjects), it was Walter Winchell who was often credited with the invention of modern gossip column. He printed private and sometimes salacious information about famous people, mixing in scandalous, unofficial information about pregnancies, divorce and liaison – the keyhole stuff which riveted his readers.
Then came Matt Drudge, who began by emailing his tidbits to friends — calling it The Drudge Report. It expanded to a few readers, a couple of dozens and within no time, a thousand. His subscribers continued to increase.
In 1996, he was getting 10,000 hits a day and soon America Online offered him $36,000 a year to carry The Drudge Report. He had to quit his job and worked on his website full time.
By the summer of 1997, he was averaging 15,000 hits a day and getting hundreds of emails daily. His rogue status gave him freedom and flexibility that more established journalists didn’t have — journalists who went by the highest standards of journalism.
Then something even more astonishing happened when NBC invited Drudge to appear on Meet the Press — one of the oldest and most respected news shows on television, where other guests include the most revered journalists in the country, who regarded Drudge as an appalling cyber columnist who could scoop them of their own stories.
He insisted that his only allegiance was scandal. “I’m partisan for news, I go where the stink is,” Drudge said, which dismayed many people: journalists, celebrities, the rich and powerful — even ordinary citizens.
It is known that gossip co-existed vigorously (if not always easily) with more serious news during Walter Winchell’s heydays.
It disappeared completely from newspapers and TV in the 1960’s only to re-emerge in the 1970’s — spreading like a virus in the media in the 1990’s ‘til now.
To understand how modern media has reached this bizarre state (and how someone like Drudge played a pivotal role in American journalism at the end of the millennium) could shape the direction of journalism for decades to come.
To quote the legendary journalist AJ Liebling: “Freedom of the Press belongs to anyone who owns one.”
E-mail Mylah at firstname.lastname@example.org