How gossip took over the news

Salacious reporting used to be the freak show of journalism. Now it\'s everywhere. How did this happen?

Published November 26, 2011 6:00PM (EST)

    (Laurie Rosenwald)
(Laurie Rosenwald)

This article is an excerpt from the new book "Gossip", from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Sometimes, there’s news in the gutter” was the condescending headline of the public editor’s piece on the New York Times’ failure to pick up the adultery story of John Edwards. I write “condescending” because, as anyone who reads the daily press and watches television cannot fail to recognize, journalism, electronic and print, is itself everywhere more and more in the gutter. The day on which I write this, the Times has a small item in its Arts section about the actor Richard Dreyfuss suing his father and uncle for return of an $870,000 loan he made them in 1984. Why is that, in a serious newspaper, news, and what does it have to do with the arts? Isn’t this a matter among Dreyfuss, his family and the law courts, and distinctly not that of the New York Times?

Apparently not, at least not so long as Richard Dreyfuss has achieved modest celebrity in his career as a movie actor. Because of the way we now live, Dreyfuss is probably better known to lots of Americans than people who live down the block from them in the suburbs or one floor below them in an urban high-rise. One of the dubious rewards of celebrity is that strangers become interested in aspects of your private life that, strictly speaking, are none of their business.

How this came about is a long and complicated story. Let us consider a drastically shortened version, limited to the spread of the professionalization of gossip only in Britain and America. It begins, as noted earlier, with the rise of printing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The growth of literacy soon enough created a hunger for news, and the news for which new readers hungered most was that of the bad behavior of their betters.

Grub Street, as the lowlife journalist fraternity in England collectively was known, was quick to supply this demand. As early as 1681, a London newspaper reported a ménage à trois with a woman, her maid, and her dog, a large mastiff. After 1695, the Licensing Act was revoked, which put an end to censorship and stimulated the advent of more newspapers, many of them purveying scuttlebutt, much of it of a scurrilous sort. Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe" and "Moll Flanders," was among the writers who trafficked in this realm, and was himself placed in the public pillory (for three days, in 1703), thence to Newgate Prison, for publishing libelous material. Richard Steele and Joseph Addison’s Spectator, much read in the coffeehouses of London, a paper that stakes a claim as genuine literature and survives to our day, also appeared in these years, the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century, and it, too, went in for gossip.

Many of the new specialists in gossip, Defoe among them, camouflaged their victims by describing them but not mentioning their names. Much of this new journalism divided itself by political party, with Whig publications digging up dirt about Tories, and Tory publications doing the same with Whigs. Then there were the calumniators who worked gossip for purposes of blackmail, threatening to release damaging information about a person unless he or she agreed to pay to suppress it. (In "The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon" (2010), Robert Darnton has shown how a similar operation was at work in France.) Retaliation could be vigorous. The professional gossip in those days had to know how to use his fists and be an adept duelist.

With the spread of literacy to the lower classes, the great subject for gossip, in those days as in ours, was the wretched behavior of the rich and wellborn, going from royalty on down to patricians, simple gentry, writers, and actors. The point, for the readers of such stuff, was to show that one’s betters weren’t, at bottom, really any better at all; they were rather worse, actually, perhaps no surprise given that they had more money and more gracious margins of leisure along which to behave badly.

Female readers supplied a new audience for gossip, and their news interests were not always the standard ones of politics and crime. They preferred the details of everyday and of private life, with a special interest in the so-called polite world and its denizens: who was seen with whom at assemblies, playhouses, operas, and the rest of it. Naturally, anything scurrilous that could be turned up was a bonus, and as such much welcomed.

James Boswell, author of the "Life of Johnson," put in his days as a gossip columnist, and wrote some seventy columns under the name “The Hypochondriack,” between 1777 and 1783, for the London Magazine. In his excellent book "Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip," the English writer Roger Wilkes recounts Boswell’s subject matter, which ran from public hangings to the soup-swilling habits of Scots lairds. Very little that was human was alien to Boswell, who was himself a grand carouser and whoremonger, which gave him a natural instinct for gossip. This he supplied to his readers, like the gossip columnists of our day, in short, chatty paragraphs.

Later, Charles Lamb wrote gossip paragraphs for the press. Charles Dickens hired one of the first women, Lady Blessington, who was a member of the nobility, to supply gossip items for his newspaper, the Daily News. William Hazlitt, having been made the victim of gossip by the Tory press, strongly disapproved of gossip; so did Anthony Trollope. And Henry James loathed it, at least in its public version, though he gained much good material for his stories from private gossip picked up at the tables of the rich, with whom he often dined in London and at their country estates.

The nineteenth century, Roger Wilkes notes, ushered in the “age of personality in journalism.” The advent in 1814 of the steam-powered press, making it easier to print great numbers of newspapers, gave gossip an addition boost. Readers wanted the inside story, which meant the personal story behind events. The personal story meant the details of private lives. Creating sensations became as important to the mission of the press as conveying information—best of all was information that made for sensation.

Suddenly in the gossip paragraphs of the racier English press lesbian relations were hinted at, as were ill-timed pregnancies and intemperate drinking and bad debts. The human-interest story began to suffuse newspapers, and what could be more human than the private lives, with a heavy emphasis on their miscreant behavior, of the rich and famous. Judgment was implicit in all personal gossip. Gossip writers ultimately set themselves up as judges of character. In the 1930s, the English critic Cyril Connolly would refer to “the gossip-writers who play Jesus for 25 pounds a week,” but such writers got their start a full century earlier.

In America, the first gossip columnist was Benjamin Franklin, who under the heading “Busy-Body” in his own newspaper ran whatever items he could dig up about the foibles of folk in Philadelphia and beyond. “As most people delight in censure, when they are not the objects of it,” he wrote, “if any are offended by my publicity exposing their private vices, I promise they shall have the satisfaction, in a very little time, of their good friends and neighbors in the same circumstances.” Rather boastful talk, this, and as it turned out, Franklin failed to deliver on his promise, and his gossip column soon petered out.

In the realm of public gossip, America had over Britain the advantage, as mentioned earlier, of more lenient libel laws. Truth was a defense against libel in America, which means that if the person committing the libel believed the libelous statement to be true, he can mount a defense against litigation; if a person who felt himself libeled could prove that what was said about him, in print or (later) over radio or television, was untrue, he would win a lawsuit, with appropriate fines and punishment to follow. In England, a plaintiff feeling he had been libeled need not prove that what was said about him was untrue but prove only that the libel had damaged his professional, business, or family life to cause him to win damages. In England, therefore, you can tell the truth about someone and still be guilty of libel.

Such go-go, given-them-what-they-want American newspaper publishers as James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, the man who sent Henry Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone, pressed home this advantage by running interviews with celebrities and profiles about their lives at home. Americans who considered themselves well bred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had nothing to do with such stuff. John D. Rockefeller, for example, hired a public relations man, Ivy Lee, whose main job was to keep his name out of the press.

Soon it became evident that the best stories were those that people didn’t want out in the open. (Here we return to our earlier definition of gossip as something someone doesn’t want known.) The hottest subjects for gossip were those who were most vulnerable—those, that is, with the most to hide. America, however, did not have an aristocracy through whose peepholes gossip columnists might profitably gaze. But it did have an ever-replenishing plutocracy, whose children were notable for marrying badly, drinking incontinently, acting stupid generally. A rising celebrity class, created by newspapers to begin with, came into being. This class increased vastly when, with the aid of newspapers, there was less and less connection between achievement and fame; a celebrity became, in Daniel J. Boorstin’s formulation, someone known for his well-knownness. Newspapers, even serious ones, understood that if they were to stay in business they must not only inform but entertain. And not many things were thought more entertaining than gossip about the rich, the well-born, and the celebrated.

Some gossip writers felt that they were in fact offering moral instruction. A Civil War hero who fought at Gettysburg, Colonel William d’Alton Mann arrived in New York in the late nineteenth century and published a sheet called Town Topics. He claimed he printed gossip “for the sake of the country,” adding that the people he wrote about were “an element so shallow and unhealthy that it deserves to be derided almost incessantly.” Later, Nigel Dempster, an English gossip columnist, remarked about his own discovery and spread of gossip about politicians that they much deserved to be exposed, since they were all “liars, cheats, and fools,” a point not easily disputed.

Curiosity about wealth itself became a regular feature of American gossip columns. A columnist named Maury Paul, who wrote under the name Cholly Knickerbocker for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, specialized in this realm. He coined the term “café society” to describe those wealthy and celebrated people, chiefly living in New York, who conducted their social lives in the tonier clubs and restaurants of Manhattan. For Paul and other gossip writers, the increase of divorce among the wealthy and celebrated enriched the content of their columns.

In England, many of the people who themselves might once have served as subjects of gossip became purveyors of it. The well-born Nancy Mitford, daughter of Lord Redesdale, supplied gossip for British newspapers. Later, Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, would do the same. A man named Patrick Balfour, who went to Eton and thence to Oxford, wrote gossip about his contemporaries, the so-called Bright Young Things, who also became the subjects of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. In America, Igor Cassini, the brother of Jacqueline Kennedy’s designer Oleg Cassini, took over the Cholly Knickerbocker column, and through his Kennedy connection had lots of inside dope to peddle to his readers. He coined the phrase “jet set,” which became the replacement for café society.

A strange change had meanwhile taken place: people in fast sets, in both England and America, began to crave being gossiped about; their names in the gossip columns reassured them of their own importance, or at least of their own with-it-ness. They befriended the columnists, who had become celebrities in their own right and who found themselves invited to the dinners and parties, to make sure that everyone there received proper mention in the next day’s columns.

One of the most successful of the twentieth-century British gossip columns was that written under the pseudonym William Hickey, and one of the most readable scribblers to work under the Hickey name was Tom Driberg. Driberg was uncomplicatedly, even militantly, gay, very left wing, and a spy for the Soviet Union; he may also have been a double agent. The people he wrote about and by and large trashed, the so-called smart set, were fine fodder for his Marxisant views — look what swinish people capitalism has turned up now — simultaneously amusing and stirring up class hatred in his readers. The only rule he followed was that laid down by his boss, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Evening Standard and Sunday Express, in which Driberg’s columns appeared. The rule was “All fucking is private,” so sex wasn’t to be mentioned in the column, which may on balance have been a good thing, since Driberg himself was more than once picked up for propositioning men in public lavatories.

Lord Northcliffe, founder and owner of the Daily Mail, defined the essentially gossipy nature of contemporary news: “what people talked about in kitchen, parlour, drawing room and over the garden wall: namely, other people.” In the realm of gossip, England had over the United States the advantage of the royal family and their antics. Various Princes of Wales seemed to specialize in outrageous behavior, beginning with Queen Victoria’s son, later Edward VII, a man who passed the decades waiting for his long-lived mother to die by entertaining himself with several mistresses. His own son David, by all accounts a very boring man, made the hottest gossip writer’s item of the twentieth century by giving up the throne for Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée of less than obvious charms, physical or spiritual. More recently the gossip writers have been able to feast on the current, and also very long-standing, Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who seems to specialize in saying unfortunate things. His divorce from his wife, Diana, who was herself expert in disposing the gossip writers in her favor, gave the tabloid press one of its greatest field days of all. Whether Charles and Diana’s sons, William and Harry, will, to the gossip columnists’ delight, be scandal-prone remains to be seen.

By the late 1930s, American movie stars had become great magnets for gossip. The Hollywood gossip beat was divided between Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper — with Jimmy Fiddler and Sheilah Graham (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great good friend) comprising the second team — though both women were, in effect, in the pay of the movie studios, and released gossip of a kind that would titillate interest in, but rarely set out to destroy, the valuable property that movie stars had become. Hopper and Parsons also tried to enlarge their compasses to take in world affairs, à la Walter Winchell, but neither was ever able to bring it off. In their day, though, their power was genuine. “Only Hollywood,” David Niven wrote in his memoirs, “could have spawned such a couple, and only Hollywood, headline-hunting, self-inflating, riddled with fear and insecurity, could have allowed itself to be dominated by them for so long.”

The leading gossip sheet of the 1950s was the magazine Confidential, published by a man named Robert Harrison, whose background was in girlie, or so-called one-hand, magazines. Confidential specialized in Hollywood shenanigans, the raunchier the better. The magazine ran stories on Frank Sinatra’s presumably prodigious sexual appetites, Robert Mitchum’s pot smoking and other antics, Desi Arnaz’s philandering, Sammy Davis Jr.’s passion for blondes, and the secret gay lives of ostensibly heterosexual romantic leads, Rock Hudson among them. Some of the stories in Confidential were true, some possibly true but not provable—no one has ever worked out the truth-to-falsehood ratio in this magazine that everyone scorned and nearly everyone felt he or she had to read. Only a series of exhausting lawsuits caused its eventual demise.

The 1960s changed the nature of gossip in the press. Things began gaudily with the Profumo Affair of 1963 in England, in which John Profumo, a cabinet member of the Tory government, was shown to be connected with prostitutes and Soviet spies in a way that was thought to compromise national security. From a professional gossip’s point of view, the scandal had everything: aristocratic country estates, luscious hookers, international intrigue, kinky sex as only the English can do it. The Profumo Affair had much to do with bringing down the government of Harold Macmillan and elevated the interest in gossip as reported in the press. But long before this, nearly every large-circulation newspaper, British or American, felt it could not function without a gossip columnist.

In the United States, the National Enquirer picked up the scandal-mongering flag and ran with it — as it continues to do in our day. Paying for its stories and for insider photographs — cash on the barrelhead, and serious sums, too — it came up with relentless stories about secret love affairs, homosexual outings, AIDS roll calls, and much more. It supplied full-court coverage of such American sad freak shows as the death of Elvis Presley and the murder of O.J. Simpson’s wife and her boyfriend.

People magazine, Time Inc.’s entry into the field, started out to be gossip with a friendly face. The original plan was to feature the private lives of public people, but with the emphasis more on intimacy—that is, on the genial private lives of celebrities — than on exposé. Soon other entrants joined the field — Star, Us, Life & Style, In Touch, OK!, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair — and turned up the heat on People. No more Mr. Nice Mag, now it, too, goes in for dishing the dirt on celebrities wherever it can find it.

But the larger problem, the one with which this essay began, is how straight-up, no-apologies public gossip has infected standard, or what once might have been called respectable, journalism. More and more newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times are given over to stories that are little more than gossipy in their intent. The earnest-seeming television show "60 Minutes," with its celebrity interviews and political and corporate exposés, is increasingly gossipy in its impulse and interest. Television news generally, with its headline-and-pictures approach to the news, much of the time resembles nothing so much as tabloid raggery. Everywhere one looks in show business, politics, even business, gossip creeps more and more into the foreground. Once the freak show in journalism, gossip has now become center ring.

Excerpted from Gossip, © 2011 by Joseph Epstein. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

By Joseph Epstein

JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling "Snobbery" and of "Friendship," among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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