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Gossiping About Gossip View other pieces in "Harper's"
By Mark Danner , Lewis H. Lapham, Liz Smith, William F. Buckley, et al. January 1986
Tags: gossip | Media | Foreign Affairs Print
The immortal power of gossip was already well understood in ancient Greece - "lt too," said Hesiod, "is a kind of divinity" - but it required the particular talents of the present age to make money off it. From the great cauldrons of public gossip - People, Us, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Entertainment Tonight, etc. - are ladled out weekly portions of anecdote, rumor, and celebrity scandal to the voracious millions. Gossip, once thought to be personal by definition, has been miraculously transformed into a profitable industry.

A great repertory company of the titled, the rich, the famous - in short, people who are gossiped about - perform endless variations on a theme: the delights and dangers of the charmed life. But massproduced gossip inevitably undermines its own power to titillate: what shocked yesterday no longer shocks today; the crowd becomes restive, bored, ever-more jaded.

Why is modem gossip so popular and so pervasive? What vacuum does it fill in the nation's public life? Should the material in People and its rivals be considered gossip at all? Harper's invited a group of literary critics, social historians, and gossip columnists to consider these matters - to gossip on the peculiar nature of today's gossip.

The following Forum is based on a discussion held at Maxim's Restaurant in New York City.
Lewis H. Lapham served as moderator.

is the editor of Harper's.

writes a syndicated gossip column that appears in the New York Daily News
and over sixty other newspapers across the country. She is author of
The Mother Book
and appears regularly on the New York television program Live at Five.

is New York correspondent for the syndicated television
Entertainment Tonight and author of
Laughing All the Way and Making Ends Meet.

is the editor of National Review and the host of Firing Line.
His most recent books are
Right Reason, See You Later, Alligator,
and a children's book called
The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey. High Jinx,
his latest Blackford Oakes spy novel, will be published in March by Doubleday.

is a daily book reviewer for the New York Times and former editor
of the London
Times Literary Supplement. His books include
The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and The Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

teaches in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.
He has written on mass culture for the
New Republic, the Atlantic, and the Nation,
and is currently working on a book about American advertising,
which will be published by Poseidon/Simon & Schuster.

is a professor of history at Princeton University. His books include
The Business of Enlightenment, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime,
The Great Cat Massacre.

LEWIS H. LAPHAM: I grant that there is a delight in gossip, which is older than Greek philosophy and more entertaining than most jokes, but why have we come to the point where there seems to be nothing else? The media revel in the wonder of celebrity, and the audience for magazines like People or Interview or Us, as well as for television shows like Eye on Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, appears to be insatiable.

Perhaps gossip has somehow come to substitute for the more demanding forms of literary, cultural, and political discussion in a society that has an ear only for names. The books that lead the best-seller lists are those written by and about celebrities; authors once thought of as "real writers" now make their reputations for what they do - stabbing a wife, hosting a game show, befriending hoodlums, going to partiesinstead of what they write. The news from Washington relies on a high quotient of rumor, blind quote, and inside dope, suggesting that politics is mostly a matter of who said what to whom on the way out of a peace conference, a television studio, or a men's room. What void does gossip fill, and why do we care so much about the images of people few of us know? How do the engines of fame actually work? How long is it before a name loses its luster or a personality fades into the lost company of last year's people?

Most gossip these days seems to me to lack wit and edge. I no longer can tell the difference between genuine gossip and an amplified press release, so I tend to discredit even the gossip columns as reflexively as I discredit the official versions of events. When gossip has an honest ring to it, it suggests the presence of the truth, but in its plastic, commercial forms it turns into propaganda. At what point does gossip become indistinguishable from hype and therefore boring? Is gossip in the true sense possible in a mass market? What sort of behavior can still be said to shock?

Liz, do you agree that gossip has become the measure of all things?

LIZ SMITH: I agree that gossip has become prevalent in a way we've never seen before, partly because it helped fill a vacuum in our national life that arose during the mid-seventies. Americans had been through a lot: the pain of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the great upheavals over the Vietnam War, the wrenching public drama of Watergate. Then suddenly Nixon resigned and Watergate was over. As Sally Quinn of the Washington Post said, "We were hooked on the heroin of the Watergate scandal, and now we need the methadone of gossip." We were no longer involved in a great national crisis, which drives gossip underground by making it seem trivial, and gossip rushed in to fill the vacuum.

BARBARA HOWAR: But that partly depends on what we mean by gossip. Lewis offered Entertainment Tonight, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Eye on Hollywood as examples of television programs that deal in gossip, but I think distinctions must be made between them, just as distinctions are made between Harper's, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy. I don't think Entertainment Tonight deals in gossip; it simply reports on the entertainment world.

SMITH: Lewis did neglect to make the now-customary distinction between gossip and what has come to be called, disgustingly enough, "personality journalism." But the two tend to run together. I don't agree that Entertainment Tonight does not do gossip. You use gossip in the same way I do: you report a lot of hearsay and rumor.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: But isn't tone the crucial determinant? Suppose I were to say I had lunch with Lewis Lapham today and he had four eggs. This would simply be passing along information that really had no tendential status. But if I said I had lunch with Lewis Lapham today and he had four dry martinis, that would have the slight element of spite that Barbara is alluding to. Suppose, Barbara, you were reporting that a well-known star, Mrs. Jones, just had a baby. Wouldn't it be necessary for you to add, "Mrs. Jones was married four months ago"? Of course, that would be gratuitous in a normal news story.

HOWAR: Well, I myself would not want to be in a position to have to say that, because it touches on the kind of gossip I feel is beneath me. There's a certain level of gossip I wouldn't touch with tongs. What I consider the legitimate level is "so-and-so just had a baby," "so-and-so just signed a contract," "so-and-so has just been arrested on drug charges."

BUCKLEY: What if so-and-so in Congress was boozing when he voted?

HOWAR: My dear, we'd have to have a computer to keep track of all the congressmen who did that. That wouldn't even be a good piece of dirt anymore, Bill. But, frankly, when someone is betraying the public trust, that should be public knowledge.

BUCKLEY: Is chastity a public trust?

HOWAR: No, not unless a congressman's fooling around "with a dead woman or a live boy," as the charming Washington phrase puts it.

BUCKLEY: Yet surely many people derive a certain salacious satisfaction from knowing a child was born four months after the marriage.

HOWAR: I'm sure they do. But if I were doing the story, I wouldn't go out of my way to point to it, unless I felt it was germane for some special reason. Liz and I are the only people here who deal in day-to-day celebrity reporting, and there are certain things I won't stoop to do and I know she won't stoop to do.

JOHN GROSS: We're talking about the difference between public and private gossip. There are
things that one simply wouldn't want to say publicly, things that hurt people. When we repeat these things to ourselves privately, we don't substantiate and double-check them before passing them on, which is one reason gossip is a great private pleasure. But as soon as it's public, one has a responsibility to check and verify. I agree with everything you say about your public role, Barbara, but if you were claiming that was your attitude in private life, I'd be a bit skeptical. Private gossip is different.

HOWAR: Sure, I could sit and dish the dirt with you all day, and I'd love to do it. In Washington, when I was working in politics, I dealt in gossip all the time. What was gossip at the lunch table at Sans Souci on Thursday was often the law of the land on Monday. Everybody, whether he's a political columnist or a reporter, deals in gossip. In every so-called newsmagazine I pick up, half the articles are based on unidentified sources. After all, the more information a columnist for the New York Times can bring his readers from sources at a "high level," the more people read his column, the more prominent he becomes, and the more money he makes.

MARK CRISPIN MILLER: As soon as TV and other mass media are brought into it, traditional categories of gossip tend to change. Gossip as it has been practiced, and condemned, over the centuries - a kind of mean-minded detraction of others, "dishing the dirt" - is a communitarian activity that draws people together, albeit at the expense of the "gossipee." It has very little to do with public gossip as it's shoveled out by television and magazines.

GROSS: Until quite recently, gossip was by definition what wasn't printed and what wasn't televised. Balzac observed that every day in Paris a paper with 100,000 subscribers was produced yet never printed; he meant the news that was distributed by word of mouth. The so- called permissiveness and pseudo-openness of the last twenty years or so may well have helped breed more gossip. But much of today's gossip is the product of a concerted effort to construct a commercial public institution out of something that is traditionally very private and unstructured. It's terribly difficult to do. One of the problems, as Lewis mentioned, is that gossip tends to become bland when people try to institutionalize it. Of course the institution is built on what people have for thousands of years assumed gossip to be: someone vaguely whispering behind someone else's back.

LAPHAM: Forgive my innocence, Liz and Barbara, but what are some examples of the low, disgusting gossip you wouldn't touch?

SMITH: Gossip about who's on drugs, about who's gay, about who's cheating on whom. An old example is the Kennedy brothers' involvement with Marilyn Monroe. Many people talked about it at the time, but nobody really wrote about it. Back then, the American press had an innate respect for the President. Reporters just didn't write all of the bad things they heard about the Kennedys while they were in office. But after Chappaquiddick, the dam really broke, and all bets were off. You couldn't find a reporter in Washington who didn't want to go for the jugular. They had all been observing Teddy Kennedy for a long time; both Time and Newsweek had reporters on that trip to Alaska in 1969 where he got drunk on the plane and misbehaved quite badly; and nobody reported it because they didn't want to hurt him. But Chappaquiddick was the end.

LAPHAM: Am I to infer then that Teddy has lived a blameless life since Chappaquiddick?

MILLER: I'm sure Teddy still gets away with a few things today; I wonder about this notion that
"all bets are off." I don't think that applies to the very powerful, who generally don't get smeared, while those who are powerless and appear dissident are fair game. Sure, the journalists were very discreet about the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, but they weren't quite so tactful about the private life of Jean Seberg. Because of her views, the FBI was out to get her, and the newspapers were only too happy to comply. Could we have some more examples of the sleazy stories that supposedly have shaken our faith in the powerful?

HOWAR: How about Wilbur Mills making tax policy while he's running around with a stripper
called the Argentine Firecracker who leaped fully clothed into the Potomac tidal basin? I'd like to know about that. I don't want him drunk while he's closing my loopholes.

LAPHAM: You might not mind if he were reviewing your return. Many members of Congress apparently have alcohol problems, and we can safely assume a great many public officials lead unconventional sex lives. Yet that's not in the papers.

HOWAR: Sure it is. What about that scandal when congressmen were caught having affairs with male pages?

ROBERT DARNTON: And what about The Private Life of Louis XV? I mean, such behavior is a constant in history; you can find gossip of this sort in any period. What is new is that it's commercialized now. That's really the operative distinction: gossip today has a market value it didn't have before..

BUCKLEY: It all depends on whether you abide by the operative protocols. French kings were expected to have mistresses, and therefore it was not resented by anybody when it transpired that indeed they did. In contrast, Catholic mayors of New York - such as Jimmy Walker - were not supposed to have mistresses. Even when it became clear that Mayor Walker did have one, it was all right as long as it was kept discreet. But when he started riding here and there with her in his car, the cardinal let the guillotine drop, and we had an ex-Mayor Walker.

So it depends on what is generally accepted. Ken Galbraith objects to the protocol that seems to protect drunken congressmen; he thinks it ought to be repealed, that journalists should report who is drunk. Still, the perception of what is a public scandal has changed greatly. The phrase "outrageous behavior" describes stuff that's almost hard to imagine now. So little, really, is still outrageous. I mean, Gerry Studds, the congressman who did it to the page boy, later got reelected, didn't he?

SMITH: He just said mea culpa and they put him back in office.

BUCKLEY: He didn't even say mea culpa. He said he shouldn't have done it to a page boy but that it was otherwise O.K., presumably if the child had reached eighteen.

Of course, the extent to which the protocols are widely shared affects gossip's exclusivity as well. When Alexander Pope wrote his long polemics, identifying each character by some mythologically appropriate name, the cognoscenti were supposed to know who he was talking about; thus he was necessarily restricting his clientele. That doesn't mean, however, that the early eighteenth century could boast less gossip·than we can today. Rather, gossip moved on different levels: Pope spoke to a certain group; other groups spoke to others. Until the television age, a sort of class system was inherent in gossip.

DARNTON: Speaking as someone who lives mainly in the eighteenth century, I would say there was more gossip then than now. During a time of mass illiteracy, without television or radio, the networks of communication arising naturally in neighborhoods became elevated to a serious political phenomenon. Eighteenth-century police, for example, posted in various cafes and neighborhood meeting places spies who reported to them on what was being said. Gossip had tremendous political importance because it often erupted into what were then known as "public emotions."

LAPHAM: I'm prepared to say that the very best gossip is usually the most malicious and the most exclusive, though of course its very exclusivity means it can't sell in large enough volume to be profitable.

SMITH: That fits into "Liz's theory," which says that bad gossip drives out good. Today, there are so many vehicles conveying gossip, so many media carrying discussion and chatter about people's lives, that we have become surfeited with it; it isn't fun and entertaining, as it once must have been. In the time of Dr. Johnson it must have been just heaven.

DARNTON: It depends on the organization of communications. Court scandal at the time of Louis XV first spread by word of mouth. As the gossips entered certain salons, they wrote the latest tidbits down on an open register, reading and correcting the entries made before their arrival. Domestic servants then copied the registers onto manuscript news sheets, nouvelles d la main, which circulated "under the cloak" in cafes and public gardens. Nouvellistes in the garden of the Palais Royal gathered under a certain tree - the Tree of Cracow, as it was called-to swap stories. Their choicest morsels were sometimes put into rhyme and adapted to popular tunes like the French version of "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." And much of this material eventually appeared in print, in illegal chroniques scandaleuses.

So gossip passed through many media. It was talked , sung, written, and printed. Yet newspapers in the modem sense did not exist, because censorship did not permit open discussion of events and public figures. So news and gossip became inextricably entangled in a vast underground system of communication; and I think you could find similar systems in other times and places, including Eastern Europe and Latin America today. But these systems of "paranews" did not operate in the marketplace, and so gossip did not have the cash value it has in the media today.

GROSS: One problem is that today there must be more and more gossip produced about fewer and fewer people. When purveyed in large amounts by the mass media, gossip generally has to be about very identifiable people. They always include kings and princes, of course, as well as what we might call "people who are gossiped about." Unfortunately, these are often the least interesting people. I don't especially want to hear anything about Margaret Trudeau, for example. Yet everyone knows people no one has ever heard of but who are magnets for gossip in his or her particular circle. That's what real gossip is.

HOWAR: I would love to tell what the bag ladies in my neighborhood are doing, but no one out
there wants to know.

LAPHAM: There does exist a sort of repertory company of celebrities, whether we call them the "beautiful people" or something else, whom public gossip is mostly about. They are the titled, the rich, the famous; and they constitute an easily recognizable cast of characters for the media gossips to chatter about. For the writer, they also provide convenient symbols. I often write about celebrities because they're the only names I can be sure more than twelve readers will recognize. Henry Kissinger or Michael Jackson can become handy metaphors.

BUCKLEY: You become a beautiful person if it turns out you're the richest man in America. A beautiful person was created last week. I never heard of him before. His name is Mr. Walton and Forbes said he is the richest man in America.

GROSS: There's nothing like the Forbes 400 list anywhere in the world. The actual document, and the interest it assumes people have in the wealthy, is just extraordinary.

HOWAR: And a shopgirl from Bloomingdale's reads the Forbes 400 as avidly as a corporate vicepresident. The captains of industry and commerce are the new celebrities.

SMITH: Money is the new sex in America. Even Helen Gurley Brown admits that her Cosmo girls are much more interested in reading about women who make it in business, like Diane Von Furstenberg, than about multiple orgasms.

HOWAR: Still, our lives are dictated to a great degree by what we see on the big screen, the little screen, in the newspapers. Today, we are bombarded by various media, from newspapers and magazines to television and movies and music videos. Our mores-how we think, what our
fashions are, what we eat, how our children are raised-are swayed by these media to a great

It would be ridiculous to pretend that we are not interested in those people who are responsible for the great fashion waves that come out at us from TV and movies and so on. That's why so many columnists write about people in the media - rock singers, television personalities, political people. It's not so much gossip as it is that people want to know more about those people who have such influence over their lives. They become a sort of royalty for us. We have to strip away the hypocrisy here. Just because Entertainment Tonight reports on movie stars and sports figures doesn't make it any dirtier than a Bill Safire column on what some presidential aide leaked to him. A hypocritical double standard prevails within the media and is shared by a lot of readers. It says, "If you're writing about Madonna, it's trash." Well, in my opinion, if you're writing about Imelda Marcos, it's still trash.

DARNTON: There's also a principle of selection at work beyond the beautiful person principle. Call it the "taboo principle." Gossip operates at the borderline of the permissible, and as soon as someone, preferably beautiful, steps over it, it's a subject for gossip.

SMITH: People are harder to shock now, so it's harder to write shocking gossip. But we're still a bit shocked when people play around, get pregnant, get divorced. It must just be our human incredulousness. That brings us to another, less obvious principle of selection. I could write a wonderfully juicy and entertaining column if I had no compunctions about it. I don't want my paper to be sued, so I can't print many of the things I can't prove. But as soon as something gets into the public record, it's fair game. Take the Pulitzer divorce case: no one would have written those stories about adultery and lesbianism and taking trumpets to bed if the Pulitzers hadn't gone to court and accused each other of those things.

HOWAR: I think the judge should have sentenced those two to a reconciliation, they so richly deserved each other.

MILLER: A lot of gossip that relates to the beautiful people doesn't have anything to do with misfortunes or peccadilloes or crossing the boundary of the permissible. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous shows very little suffering. It's mostly just a tour of the beautiful people's commodities. We look at their five houses, hear praise of their shrewd business sense, learn how much this or that painting cost. In effect, it's almost indistinguishable from advertising. What it's advertising is consumption itself.

GROSS: That's the "they're like us" kind of gossip, which is different from gossip based on morbid curiosity about people's misfortunes. The purpose of it is to satisfy people's curiosity about the lofty.

During the nineteenth century, there were fierce taboos on what could be published; most
of the gossip that worked its way into the mass press was of the "they're like us" sort. You know, what the queen had for breakfast and all that. Such gossip was regarded as low but not as scandalous. Some people, of course, particularly the people who got written about, regarded it as almost blasphemous.

SMITH: That attitude persists in some quarters. Recently, somebody told me a story about Jacqueline Onassis going to a New York restaurant and congratulating the chef on his granita, whereupon he gave her the recipe for it. I thought this was very charming, so I wrote it up. After it ran, she called the restaurant and complained bitterly: she was there as a private person, they shouldn't have given this information out, she didn't think it was right. I think that's amazing, that she feels her private life is so private she doesn't want anybody to know she asked for the granita recipe in some restaurant. Lauren Bacall is another example. She has always taken horrible exception to anything written about her, even if it's absolutely true - and even if it's flattering. Yet in her own book she revealed things about herself I would never have written. This astonished me.

HOWAR: Lauren Bacall is funny. I suppose she thought, If it's going to be written, I'll be the
one to write it. She got paid for her own story rather than let somebody else make money off

MILLER: She's evidently a follower of Elizabeth Taylor, who once proclaimed, "I am my own

LAPHAM: Can any of these people have any claim to be private persons anymore? It seems to me that the Faustian bargain implicit in modem celebrity is that the chosen one must offer himself freely to the public feast. And the consumer, in return for his curiosity and esteem, is allowed to devour the flesh.

BUCKLEY: But you can draw a line. I think one can be a public figure, as Mrs. Onassis is, and yet say, "What I ask a chef to do in a particular restaurant I consider a private transaction." Some matters can still be considered h'ors de combat. I was once asked to do an hour and a half with Dick Cavett. I said, "Let me see a transcript of the show you did last week with John Lindsay." It began - I kid you not - "When you were at prep school, John, were you popular?" Surely anybody who consents to go on a program on which such a question is asked has it coming. Of course, the interviewer also has an obligation to make his rules clear. On my television program, someone once asked Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "How dees it feel to be rich?" "No," I said, "that question can't be asked here. Anything having to do with Watergate or their book or whatever, fine; but no personal questions."

HOWAR: You have to know your format and your interviewer. If you do Bill Buckley's show, you know he won't ask you about sex and drugs. If you do Phil Donahue's show, you know that's what he will ask you.

MILLER: Then Firing Line is a very unusual interview program. In general, such shows thrive on the fact that television as a medium cuts through certain kinds of defenses:  For example, you can always tell when somebody's lying on TV, which is what makes programs like 60 Minutes and The People's Court so much fun. And more and more TV interviewers and journalists are, as it were, continuous with the medium in this sense. They have no sense of shame; they will ask anything in order to expose or undress their subject before the lens. In a society pervaded by a medium whose "undressing" capacity is its greatest strength, it becomes harder and harder to imagine anyone who ultimately refuses to undress - and impossible to imagine any regular viewer being shocked by much. TV conduces to a world in which all will reveal all to all.

BUCKLEY: Perhaps it's more difficult for it celebrity to guard his little sanctuary of privacy once he is otherwise exposed. Yet J. D. Salinger enjoys a degree of privacy, Norman Mailer does not. After all, there must be certain things that Norman Mailer would just as soon not talk about.

LAPHAM: I can't imagine such a subject.

MILLER: It's not just a matter of what certain celebrities will or will not say. Consider a TV show like the one in which a sex therapist talks to couples about their marital problems.

BUCKLEY: But they're not public figures.

MILLER: No, they're so-called real people. But that such a show exists - and there are many of them - suggests the degree to which people have become acclimated to the incisiveness of TV. People really have no such thing as a public reputation anymore. There has been a profound change in our notions of the self and of privacy.

BUCKLEY: What does such exhibitionism have to do with our notions of privacy? I mean, you can't say that the Playmate of the Month is in any sense private, can you? She's an exhibitionist.

MILLER: She's a commodity, really.

HOWAR: I, for one, am not interested in anybody's sex life, unless he's been arrested for it and it's part of the story. Many people give me interviews they won't give anyone else because they know I'm going to be straight with them, that I'll make them interesting without making them cry or discuss something beyond the bounds of good taste.

How long I'll survive with that attitude I don't know. I am undercut every time by the reporter who goes for the groin.' I loathe groin journalism - the "running-mascara interview" and the rest-but plenty of people don't mind doing it. After all, that's what the public is looking for; and if you don't give it to them, they'll switch you off and somebody else on. You know how that works, Lewis, You say to.your writers, "Hey, Newsweek got the dirt on this guy. Why don't we have it?" You have to flog your writers to keep your magazine competitive.

LAPHAM: Harper's is a somewhat different sort of magazine, Barbara. It's not like I have all these deadbeat writers standing around in flophouses, waiting to go out and bury the competition ...

SMITH: Barbara and I are just sensitive because we don't go for the jugular. We're always being scooped, killed, blown out of the water.

HOWAR: I don't know how long I'll last being Miss Niceperson, because that's not the way this business is moving. The public wants groin journalism, and the people in charge want to give the public what it wants. So your editors say, "Get out there and get a three-handkerchief interview, or don't come back." You can't win. I just like celebrities. I like meeting them, talking to them, finding out what gets them through the night. They're just people with dreams; they're not betraying the public trust. And I don't ask them about anything I wouldn't want to have discussed over my dinner table; I can get an interesting interview without making them cry and squirm.

LAPHAM: Does everyone agree with Barbara and Liz that the public's appetites are becoming increasingly decadent?

BUCKLEY: I see no evidence of it. Thirty years ago, Confidential was a truly nasty magazine. Every single issue was devoted to muck. It was certainly as bad as anything available now.

MILLER: Barbara says she won't do groin journalism but that everybody else almost has to, because the system forces the people working for it to be as disrespectful and salacious as possible. the implications are extremely depressing.

BUCKLEY: At our level, groin journalism becomes iconoclasm. Harper's, National Review, the Nation - all take the cherished icons and give them a good going over. When Lewis pretends that Alger Hiss is innocent, for example, he's engaging in a form of iconoclasm that indeed succeeds in catching the attention of all sober people, who thereupon say, "Well, what's the matter with Lewis Lapham?"

LAPHAM: And Bill does the same thing when he runs a cover story by Richard Nixon in National Review.

BUCKLEY: It Is a form of groin journalism at another level.

GROSS: Cerebral. Our groins seem to be rather higher.

HOWAR: But particularly in your world, Bill, can't high-level political gossip be used to put pressure on lobbyists, on congressmen, on members of the cabinet? Can't gossip move public opinion and force issues to come to a head politically?

BUCKLEY: No doubt about it. Rumors are often used to weaken a particular candidate.

SMITH: People also use gossip to make themselves more powerful. If I meet Bill for lunch and I tell him something about, say, Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times, that's not only more interesting than if I talk about the weather or the stock market, but it also makes me more powerful and more interesting to Bill, whether the gossip was negative or positive.

HOWAR: You'd be more likely to be invited out to lunch again.

BUCKLEY: As Churchill said, "I thrive on indiscretion." So does Henry Kissinger, by the way. Kissinger often tells people interesting things - and they are usually true, which makes them all the more interesting. In that way, he has notoriously kept his hand in an awful lot of places.

DARNTON: That gossipy remark illustrates the phenomenon - a sort of "meta-gossip." We're gossiping about gossip, with Kissinger and company as the subject.

HOWAR: The self-aggrandizement that goes with it is very important. When you say, "I was at Le Cirque yesterday, sitting next to Bill Buckley and Liz Smith, and I heard them talking about Abe Rosenthal, and then Buckley said something about Kissinger," you are also saying, "I've been out to swell lunches, I know swell people, I've heard swell things, I'm wonderful."

GROSS: Which iswhy so many people find it impossible to keep secrets.

HOWAR: By the way, what is this dirt about Abe Rosenthal?

SMITH: Would you believe it: Bill Buckley and I have never had lunch!

DARNTON: I can give you a counter-example that contradicts all the principles of selection we've posited. It's called the Seattle Windshield Pitting epidemic. A few years ago all the people in Seattle thought their windshields would become pitted by mysterious forces. They believed these forces were moving down the Pacific Coast, inexorably approaching Seattle like a tropical storm. Reports of pits appearing on car windshields came nearer and nearer until, sure enough, they hit Seattle. Thousands of people reported that pits had appeared, and then the epidemic passed on to the south. Social scientists were on· hand to trace this phenomenon, which turned out, of course, to be a mass delusion. As a result of the spreading rumors of the epidemic, people began looking at their windshields instead of through them, and discovered pits that had been there all the time. It was an extraordinary demonstration of how gossip can work: the word just naturally spread from Canada down into the American Northwest that this epidemic was going to hit. And thus it did.

LAPHAM: But how is the essentially private - in this case, almost natural - form of gossip transformed into a public institution or commodity? Liz goes to lunch with Bill and they talk about Abe Rosenthal, somebody both of them know. How is that made into public gossip?

SMITH: Simple. If Bill told me something really amazing at lunch, I might go back to the office and - without citing Bill as the source, of course - call Abe. "Abe," I'd say, "I hear you're going to retire this year." This would never happen, of course; he won't even retire when he's supposed to, let alone before. But I would call him, and he might give me an interesting statement, and I might get an item out of it that would be of interest to New Yorkers. I don't see this as negative or hurtful; it's just part of the news process, like many of the things Barbara and I do. We operate within a standard that's not too different from other kinds of journalism.

MILLER: Your hypothetical story about exchanging inside news at a restaurant emphasizes the traditional communal nature of gossip. Once gossip is supplied to people waiting in line at the supermarket, however, or sitting in front of their television sets, it tends to atomize them. The experience of gossip as it is dolloped out by TV or by the newsmagazines is a passive, isolating one - like putting your mouth over a running spigot - as opposed to the communal experience of chatting mischievously over the back fence.

LAPHAM: It's true I can read your column some days, Liz, and not know any of the people. I don't feel any kinship with them, so I don't care about the items.

HOWAR: Well, Lewis, we're just going to have to bring you into the world. I'm very worried about this isolation of yours.

MILLER: And as TV makes gossip more of a visual experience, it has even less to do with personal sharing, less to do with hearing about somebody else's misfortunes or transgressions, and more to do with looking ori hungrily at their five houses and their twenty-seven cars.

HOWAR: But that's not even gossip. As you said, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is more like advertising, and they're laughing all the way to the bank. It's voyeurism, everyone taking a look-see at what somebody else has. Entertainment Tonight, on the other hand, talks about "the industry," a big money-making industry that has a huge impact on our everyday lives. We don't really tell who's sleeping with whom. Television is a visual medium, and since you can't show celebrities fooling around, those stories don't have much impact.

MILLER: Surely Entertainment Tonight, while not as tawdry and embarrassing as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, does have voyeuristic dimensions. Vanity Fair and People do too. In both cases, the consumer is given a glimpse into a golden realm where privileged people have a lot of fun and own a lot of things. That's part of Entertainment Tonight's appeal.

HOWAR: Look, when Bruce Springsteen is packing them in or Live Aid is raising millions, that's news - news that may have more impact on how the world works day by day than what comes out of Washington. MTV probably has as great an impact on America's kids as what goes on in the schools.

LAPHAM: Bill, how would you define your book Overdrive? It seems to me Mark could cite it as an example of giving readers a glimpse into a "golden realm."

BUCKLEY: Well, if Mark meant that Overdrive was partly a confession that I don't suffer a lot of creature discomforts, I would say sure. But I don't think a book could be all that revealing if that's all it had to say. I don't think Overdrive deals with gossip. It tells things about myself and my life that are true, things you would not otherwise have found out. Liz, don't you think the gossiping in England is worse than here? That's certainly been my experience. No American reporter would ask an author how much money he made off his book, which was asked me in England. The very first question I was asked at a press conference over there when my first novel was published was: "Mr. Buckley; would you like to sleep with the queen?" While it did pertain to the book in a rather loose way, that is still an audacious, off-putting question. It required an awful lot of tact to answer.

SMITH: I think American gossip practices are gentler, or more sporting, than those in England, not to mention Italy, France, and Germany. Princess Grace was so furious about what the German gossip columnists wrote about her that she once said, "I'm not really surprised. After all, they allowed the rise of Hitler." Talk about decadence in reporting! The European press, with its longer bloodlines, certainly tends to be.more decadent. Remember the story about the Englishman and the Italian count arguing about who had the longest bloodlines? The Italian finally became exasperated and blurted out, "My dear fellow, when your ancestors were still painting themselves blue, mine were already homosexual." I also think the American people tend to defend the underdog or a star who's being attacked too much.

LAPHAM: In other words, though our gossip is often about celebrities, it remains more in the Horatio Alger tradition. We tend to enjoy praising success more than pulling people down.

GROSS: Displaying splendidly successful people arrayed before their worldly treasures is a crucial part of that tradition. The more effort that is devoted to building them up, the more relish is derived when they go tumbling down.

SMITH: Elizabeth Taylor calls that the "yo-yo theory" of American success.

MILLER: Many Hollywood actresses write their autobiographies according to that formula: "I was given this and this; I was privileged enough to have this and that. But I suffered so." Which is to say: "It's all right; I deserve all of it."

LAPHAM: Have the mechanics of.gossip changed during the last fifteen years? Has the business of trying to get one's name in the columns become more calculated?

SMITH: Actually, I don't think many people consciously try to get their names in the columns, except in New York. Among New York social people; there's a good deal of jockeying to get mentioned in the columns; "Be sure to say we were at Mrs. Reagan's lunch on Wednesday" - I hear that a lot. I suppose that has teal meaning to, say, a certain 25,000 New Yorkers, the creme de la creme.

Of course, performers have press agents; but many have them in a sort of grand way to do various jobs, not just to "get their names in the columns." Robert Redford is an example of a big star who won't say anything to the press. He won't even say anything to me, and I'm a friend of his. But when he has a movie to sell, I hear from hirn immediately. Of course he's not really a very interesting man; a very nice man, yes, but not all that interesting.

LAPHAM: It seems to me that gossip about a celebrity - information about his life - has assumed greater importance than discussion of his work. I mean, no one has quoted a line that Norman Mailer has written in twenty years. His books are hardly discussed; only his wives, his pronouncements, his social life. People can tell me a great deal about Henry Kissinger's attitudes toward women, the East Side, limousines, whatever, but not very much about his present policies and opinions. Gossip seems to have become a ready substitute for more relevant forms of knowledge.

MILLER: This is partly because, in the public eye, the work American celebrities do - the books writers write, the parts actors and politicians plav - soon becomes indistinguishable from their lives; and the name of that fusion is "image;" For example; after Henry Fonda died, all the fond reminiscences and evocations of the man spoke about the roles he played as if he were those roles.

BUCKLEY: That often serves as a certain protective cover for the subject's life, a cover that can be volunteered or not, depending on the affection people feel for him.

DARNTON: Another principle at work is the urge to simplify. The American press tends to reduce very complex issues to personalities. Issues don't exist anymore, but personalities do.
Knowing about those personalities makes the reader feel he's somehow on top of things.

SMITH: And creating a personality has become an art,especially in politics. During the 1976 presidential campaign, for instance, an unknown named Jimmy Carter was suddenly thrust into the national limelight. Nobody had ever heard of him; he had to be defined. Pretty soon he became identified with peanuts; Plains, Georgia; Miss Lillian; and all the rest.

GROSS: Obviously, none of this is new in regard to politics, but there's more of it now. Show biz seems to have taken over the whole thing; the business of America has become show business.

BUCKLEY: When I ran for mayor of New York twenty years ago, I was in a televised debate with Abe Beame and John Lindsay. Somebody pointed out that when the announcer said, "We will now have a debate between John Lindsay and Abe Beame and William Buckley," Lindsay
smiled and Beame smiled and Buckley didn't smile. Somebody said, "For heaven's sake, Bill, smile!" So I tried - and I couldn't do it. No matter what I did, I couldn't smile on command. It
was awfully depressing.

A couple of years ago I was terribly relieved when some brain specialist told me that the static smile is controlled by a different hemisphere of the brain than the extemporaneous smile. So to create a synthetic smile you are asking certain muscles to work for you. And they didn't work for me. I smile a lot, but not synthetically.

MILLER: I think the, phenomena we're discussing reflect a national distrust of the mimetic, of the performer, of anyone who can take on different roles and thus manipulate his personae. Actors in England aren't as tenaciously identified with their roles as, say, Clint Eastwood or Bill Cosby is.

SMITH: Media people are now often bigger stars than the people they interview. Barbara Walters is a bigger star than anybody she's interviewed during the last three years. Polls name her one of the ten most beautiful women in the world. I think even she thinks that's funny.

LAPHAM: There used to be something called journalism and something called literature and something called politics. Then, during the late sixties, everything changed. Today, there is only something called media, a national theater in which Mailer plays the brilliant writer, Kissinger plays the wise statesman, Reagan plays the strong leader. We all wear masks and play parts in a national theater in which all the other formerly distinct genres have been fused.

BUCKLEY: That blur imposes on the viewer an extra burden of finding out which role a character is playing in any given circumstance.

MILLER: It also puts pressure on the performers and the media machine itself to make every image as powerful, sensational, intense - and fast - as possible. A moment's boredom can never be permitted, or viewers tum off and the ratings dip.

BUCKLEY: That's not true of the print media. It's certainly not true of Harper's or National Review or the New Yorker.

MILLER: Those affect a relatively small number of people. Look at USA Today: the vivid color pictures on the front page are meant to help the reader reproduce for himself the experience of watching TV. In general, I think the media are not only increasingly coming to resemble one another, but are also tending to resemble advertising: fast-paced, explosive, made up of short, vivid takes. All this spectacle is becoming more and more like MTV; today, the media generally aspire to the condition of the rock video, which represents the fulfillment of advertising - highspeed, incessant change, constant titillation.

GROSS: That tendency is especially evident on the early-morning television shows. During a two-hour program, the viewer is given only a tiny bit of hard news. Most of the show is taken up by interviews, general chitchat, and commercials, all in rapid order.

HOWAR: I think the interesting question is: How long can a person stay a celebrity with this bombardment of media? I mean, look at Michael Jackson. He didn't even give interviews, and
now it's "Michael who?"

SMITH: Michael Jackson could come back anytime. All he has to do is make a wonderful movie. Let him make Peter Pan, he'll come back.

MILLER: Andy Rooney did a piece on 60 Minutes about how famous people aren't as famous as they used to be, that the fame of the movie stars of the twenties and thirties was more awesome and sustained.

GROSS: Immortals lived longer in those days.

SMITH: The people we think of as the great stars of the thirties and forties, and even some of the fifties, were manufactured by the studio system. These people went to studios as apprentices, making two hundred dollars a week, and they were taught how to dress, how to make themselves up, how to hold themselves. In many cases, they were even given names. These stars were named, groomed, and showcased in wildly popular movies that shot out of the studio like bullets. A manufactured star like Paulette Goddard might make four films a year. And if they got drunk in public or beat their wives or something, the studio covered it up. And there were few public scandals, at least compared to the number of those covered up.

GROSS: On the other hand, you usually hear that the gossip' columnists of the studio era - especially Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were pretty malicious.

SMITH: They were very good reporters and quite ruthless. Originally, they were creatures of the studios; then they turned on their masters like Frankenstein's monster. Finally, they grew so powerful that they frightened everyone. In those days their revelations had impact; they could shock the public. Hedda Hopper, for example, took a high moral tone; she was a typical redbaiter. Back then it was a very frightening thing for her to say that John Garfield was a pinko. That kind of allegation could ruin someone's career. No one can be so powerful today, simply because the moral tone is much more relaxed.

Anyway, there is no longer a studio system to protect the stars. Once the government made the studios sell their chains of theaters, they began to decline; they couldn't make product for their own theaters anymore, so they no longer employed contract players. A working actress today is lucky to complete one movie a year. She has nowhere to train, no one to tell her anything. No wonder today these kids act so crazy. They don't know how to dress or how to behave. So even if a lot of celebrities are bigger now than anybody was in the past, they tend not to last.

MILLER: Today, the public's expectations and desires are shaped by television, and the experience of TV is entirely different from that of cinema. People watch TV half-attentively; its format is small, the look cool and neutral. Celebrities can no longer have the titanic dimensions they used to have.

SMITH: TV can create celebrities so quickly and of such enormity that it's unbelievable. TV stars are also more "touchable" than the old movie idols. People love Bill Cosby, and they think they know him. They didn't think that about Clark Gable. The old stars were much more glamorized and more removed; they had a certain privacy about them.

Of course, they also lasted. Consider a present-day "titanic" celebrity - Erik Estrada. For several years he was a huge star on CHiPs; he was about as big as television can make you. Where is he now?

MILLER: On the other hand, it no longer seems possible to ruin a public figure by divulging sleazy things about him. Gossip may have been universalized by the mass media but at the same time it has lost a lot of its old intensity, its ability to shock. Think of Wallace Reid and those other stars of the twenties: when it became clear they were drug addicts, they were finished. Compare that to the Stacy Keach story today. Of course, it's true outside show biz as well: Richard Nixon seems firmly established in his role as avuncular elder statesman; Bernadine Dohrn, the former Weather Underground militant, is going to be a Yuppie lawyer. There truly are second acts in American lives.

BUCKLEY; But there are still offenses that are beyond the pale. Suppose another Rock Hudson existed today - someone who was a matinee idol - and it was disclosed that he was a practicing homosexual. Wouldn't that harm his career?

SMITH: As Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart, says, there are no gay actors, no gay leading men. I don't think there will ever be an openly gay leading man. Women are not going to go see someone kiss Elizabeth Taylor on the screen if they know he lives with Harry and his dog someplace. Some people may suspect, but the general public can't know.

HOWAR: The Stacy Keach comeback certainly couldn't have happened twenty years ago. I remember when I got a divorce, people would approach my mother in the supermarket and say, "We're so sorry about Barbara." It was as though I had died.

SMITH: Yet people always want to know if you've been married, divorced, if you have kids. That's a big part of the reason people gossip: to categorize other people, to put them in some kind of slot, to get a handle on them. If I were a younger woman, for instance, I would be very interested in finding out whether you five gentlemen are married or have permanent girlfriends.

HOWAR: And there are all sorts of clever stratagems to find out those things. You say, "This is a great tie, Lewis. Did your wife give you that?"

LAPHAM: And how would I ascertain your marital status? You aren't wearing a tie.

SMITH: Read my column. Barbara is one of the few people who was a star before she did anything. Back when she was telling Lady Bird Johnson how to do her hair, I could see that girl had something. I've kept track of her life ever since.

HOWAR: That's how I keep track of it: I read Liz's column. I did try to help the Johnsons - with a notable lack of success - but that was a long time ago. I've written two best-selling books and done a lot of things with my life in the years since, and I am still referred to as the "Washington hostess."

SMITH: You can't write a gossip column without writing cliches. Youdon't have enough room to describe people, so you keep referring to them as "actress," "model," and corny things like that.

LAPHAM: In a society as heterogeneous and fluid as ours, where people are up today and down tomorrow, where a fortune's here and then gone, and where a class system defined by money can change radically overnight, gossip is a kind of navigational aid that gives everyone a fix on everyone else.

HOWAR: We should remember the good things that come out of gossip, too. Look at Betty Ford. Because of the gossip about her drinking, she confessed to it and got treatment. Joan Kennedy confessed to alcoholism. Margaret Trudeau confessed to almost everything under the sun. This sort of gossip told people around the country that their heroes had faults just like they did. As a result, plenty of people sought help for dependence on drugs or on alcohol. And today, politicians and their wives are no longer bound by manacles because of some hypocritical public idea that they're somehow different from the rest of us and thus can never get a divorce.

So gossip has spillover benefits this society sorely needs. Apart from that, it's fun to fantasize that we all might be one-night celebrities. As Cher, that wonderful philosopher, once asked, If we're all going to be famous for fifteen minutes, will there be room for everyone at the Betty Ford Clinic?

© 2021 Mark Danner