Some love or hate it, others write or repeat it. But the obsession with gossip seems here to stay.
From what we read about the unholy and unchanging trinity of the subject, the reporter and reader have stoked the human appetite for gossip, dating back to the salad days of the silver screen magazines to the instantaneous communication of the scoop-filled Internet.
On the Internet, some enterprising users could pursue “news” without the constraints and rules of editors and institutions. From the scandals that are too juicy to ignore, too tawdry and salacious, the headline bonanza poisons the atmosphere of real reporting. They go where the stink is, peddling filth as self-styled town criers, versions of Thomas Paine on the Internet and cyberspace, media linchpins, hatchet jobs and exposés. This “news” could be malicious, embarrassing, or humiliating, yet true — that’s what hurts.
The fuzzy line between news and gossip becomes a complete blur when tabloids sometimes repeatedly overshadow serious news. Neither the inaccuracies nor mistakes angered many, rather it was the stories that reporters got right.
The real journalists pride themselves for getting it first and right. They get to the bottom of the story and bend more than backwards to get the other side. That is what we call as fair reportage.
Publishing and disseminating scandalous information about the rich and powerful have existed as long as the written world. Cuneiform tablets from the 15th century discussed 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 1830s with the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the penny press. Although these papers are filled with scandal, their information usually come from official sources, such as court proceedings and arrest records.
In the late 19th century, society columns debuted, which contained information of yacht trips or guest lists at debutante balls that were usually sanctioned by subjects. Walter Winchell is often credited with the invention of the modern gossip column by printing private and sometimes salacious information about famous people, mixing in scandalous, unofficial information about pregnancies, divorce and liaison — the keyhole stuff that riveted his readers.
Then came Matt Drudge, who began by emailing his tidbits to friends calling it “The Drudge Report.” What started off with a few readers transformed into a couple of dozens and within no time, over a thousand subscribers. In 1996 he was getting 10,000 hits a day and soon AOL offered him $36,000 a year to carry “The Drudge Report.” He had to quit his job to work on his website full-time. By the summer of 1997, he was averaging 15,000 hits a day, getting hundreds of emails daily with his rouge status that gave him freedom and flexibility that more established journalists didn’t have, but 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 included the most revered journalists in the country. It was appalling that the show regarded Drudge as a cyber columnist who could give the scoop on stories.
He insisted that his only allegiance was scandal, saying “I go where the stink is. I’m a partisan for news,” which seemed to dismay many people — journalists, celebrities, the rich and powerful, and ordinary citizens.
Gossip co-existed vigorously, if not always easily, with more serious news during Walter Winchell’s heyday. Gossip disappeared from newspapers and TV in the 1960s, only to re-emerge in the 70s then spread like a virus in the media in the 90s to now.
Understanding how modern media could have reached this bizarre state and how someone like Mr. Drudge could come to play a pivotal role in American journalism at the end of the millennium could shape the direction of journalism for decades to come.
As the legendary media critic A.J. Liebling once said, “Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
E-mail Mylah at email@example.com