Gossip goes public

National Post   Saturday, April 1, 2000

In his rather delightful 1996 memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend,  John Irving recounts an incident where author Gail Godwin is compelled to ward off the advances of a fellow writer. in a school parking lot. Please leave me alone, Ms. Godwin says to the offender, or I shall be forced to wound you with a weapon you can ill afford to be wounded by in a town this small. And what might that weapon be? asked the man. Gossip, Ms. Godwin replied.

Until fairly recently, gossip was by definition what wasn’t printed in newspapers or seen on television. Figuratively speaking, it was a mis­chievous chatting with one’s neigh­bour over a back fence at the expense of a mutual acquaintance. It was a unifying or communitarian activity that actually drew people together, albeit at the expense of the subject in question. It was also a private activity which, as a result. did not necessarily have to be true, although, to be paid attention to, it had to possess the ring of truth. To­day’s gossip -as this writer well knows- has gone public. Not only that, it appears to be everywhere.

One of the problems with public gossip is that it must cast an ever-wider net. To be purveyed in large amounts to a wide segment of the public, and thus be commercially viable, it must be about very well-known people -which means it deals with actors, politicians, television personalities and rock stars.

There  is a certain repertory of celebrities that is trotted out again and again because of their identifi­able names.  But  gossip about celebrities can be boring – their lifestyles  manufactured for the very purpose of selling movies or getting votes. As gossip has turned into a commodity,  it  has  also turned into hype. It doesn’t neces­sarily deal with people’s minor or major sins or their crossing the line of acceptable behaviour, but in­stead involves gaping at their lifestyle, their possessions, their four houses and expensive cars. 

Another problem with the mass production of gossip is that it sometimes takes over and crowds out what is really important. A famous person’s life,  especially a scandalous  one, becomes more talked about than his work.  

One reason for the present prevalence of gossip may be that we are not in the throes of some great na­tional crisis. When world events take over the news, gossip tends to lose its front-page status and goes underground. 

The trivial nature of gossip cannot withstand the presence of larger, weightier subjects. In the past at least, powerful fig­ures tended to be protected from gossip, whereas those who had no power or who offended the establishment were fair game. That seems less true now. Clinton supporters argued that his affairs were not much worse than the extra-­marital hijinks of Kennedy, who got away with such behaviour.

In the ’50s and ’60s a political candidate knew his sexual activi­ties were off-limits to the press; in the ’90s such activities had become fair game. Whether one gets jumped all over by the gossip press depends on whether one abides by the operative protocols, which don’t just vary from decade to decade but also country to country. It was well-known in France that Francois Mitterrand had fathered a child out of wedlock during his term as president, but the French have always kept mistresses. It is doubtful such behaviour would be acceptable in a U.S. president.             

But these days even the currently accepted conventions are shifting so fast it’s hard to keep up with them. So much that used to be considered scandalous is no longer. As gossip has gone public , it has lost the power it once had to shock. In the 1940s lngrid Bergman was banned from Hollywood when it was re­vealed she had had an affair with her director. Bill Clinton, post Monica Lewinsky, is still president. There are many second or even third acts in people’s lives.

Common currency has it that gossip’s standards get lower and lower every day. Journalists worry that if they fail to go for the jugular they will be scooped by their competi­tion. Even Frank editor Michael Bate has been heard to complain that he is afraid of losing his niche because of competition from main­stream journalists .

Until very recently, it seems, there was another requirement before gossip could go public. Often the excuse given to write about a subject’s sex life or private affairs was that his behaviour was affecting his public performance.

Some, however, argue this stance is hypocritical and that the co-relation between sexual purity and leadership is zero. But for respon­sible reporters who worry about crossing the line between scandal and significance. the fact gossip has become saleable for its own sake without any real political sig­nificance is cause for concern.

As is the possible effect of the Internet, whose relentless technology is more likely to lower, rather than raise, the bar of what is permissible. In addition, our rights to privacy seem to be diminishing as gossip-writers and paparazzi  gain more and more access, often with their subjects’ collusion. But, even in its diluted public form, gossip remains an enormous social cor­rective. It punctures pomposities and reveals hypocrisies. It can in­fluence public opinion and make politicians act. Besides its corrective purpose, its humour should not be discounted.