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Insights: Culture—Rumor Has It

Gossip's redeeming qualities make it a cornerstone of democracy
By Liz Smith | From Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00
Insights: Culture—Rumor Has It

Some months ago, controversial Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote an amazing book about the Baby Boomer mystique, the sex/drugs/rock and roll generation and the Bill Clinton impeachment trial. In American Rhapsody, Eszterhas relied on gossip, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's records and his own imagination to re-create the history as it affected the Washington-Hollywood axis.

I sit at home, wreathed in cigar smoke and smile as I contemplate the very nature of gossip. Whether we like it or not, gossip is the chief ingredient of the information age we live in. It informs, enlightens, irritates and engages us. But gossip is nothing new. Eszterhas certainly didn't invent it, although he makes great use of it in American Rhapsody.  

When I entered the newspaper business in the late 1950s, I thought I would become a columnist in the nature of the Duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote down everything about the Court of Louis XIV and gave history an enormous shot in the arm. But when I received my own gossip column in the '70s, my friend and critic Taki Theodoracopulos took me to task for being too nice, too inhibited and pulling my punches. I tried to explain to him that it was one thing for Saint-Simon to write gossip in a secret diary. If the Sun King had found out about it, we would never have benefited from it and the diary keeper would have died in the Bastille. Writing for daily newspapers puts certainrestraints on the practice, restraints suitable to libel laws, taste and refinement, and the vagaries of the important publisher one inevitably works for.  

I have had 30 years to study and print gossip and I have concluded that for all its extremely poor reputation, gossip has an unprecedented popularity and use. Why? Gossip is good for us. It is actually cathartic. It keeps our juices flowing and it is a medium of power to the max, an incredible instrument of the exchange of ideas, news and events. In addition, it has its place in the formulation of moral judgments and tells us what we really think and feel.  

Can gossip actually be good for you? One might be surprised to learn that scores of serious academics say it is. Many scholarly papers, reports and university thesis papers bear this out. What can gossip do for you? It can relax you and establish who you are by how you react to and use it. It can make you feel better or worse. It is as cathartic in our modern times as comedy and tragedy were for the ancient Greeks. Some academicians even say that gossip makes you live longer. (This, they harrumph, is why women outlive men!) Gossip is an enormous form of information exchange and thereby has its own power. There is a lot of power and possibly prestige in telling something you know, or think you know. (Like all great and meaningful conformations, this could also backfire and scorch you.)  

"Gossip empowers both the tale carrier and the recipient--gossip answers a wide range of human needs. It bonds both teller and listener together with a sense of sharing something slightly forbidden," writes respected New York Times columnist Gail Collins in her gossip tome Scorpion Tongues. Professor Gary Alan Fine of Northwestern University says, "Gossip is a bit like Greek tragedy, an emotional release valve that allows us to express a whole range of human findings--envy, anger, compassion--and to find solace in other people's woes." I believe it was Joan Rivers who said, "It's nice to know when everything is going wrong in your household, that Elizabeth Taylor has problems, too."  

There's no point in being high-minded about it, although some people are. I always admired President Harry Truman, who, when handed the FBI files in which J. Edgar Hoover had written "pervert, commie, sex fiend" in the margins of the department's uncensored gossip files, refused to read them. "I don't care about that stuff!" Truman said.   But most of us do care. We feel as if we need to know everything. I recall a conversation I once had with Lyndon Johnson aide Horace Busby. He told me that when JFK and LBJ were running for the White House, Johnson's men followed and made note of everything naughty the would-be president did. "Why?" I asked. "What did you do with this information?" Horace shrugged, "We didn't do anything with it. We felt we just had to have it!"  

The notion of how much we crave news and our need to know what's going on is illustrated by the old houses in New England, most of which are situated very close to the road with expanses of property lying behind. They were constructed thus so a passerby might give a homeowner, hanging on, say, the fence, the latest on-dit. "Hey, didja hear? They shot Lincoln a month ago down in Washington. He was at the theater and I understand Mrs. Lincoln had forced him to go; he wanted to stay home!"  

Oscar Wilde wrote that history is merely gossip. Later, he added my favorite quote: "But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality!" If you don't believe gossip is history, consider the 1,000 days of John F. Kennedy's tenure in the White House. Hundreds of morsels of gossip were chewed over at the time, but the vogue then was not to write about a president's sex life or how he was trying to get the Mob to help him win elections or eliminate Castro. All of this later became grist for history's mill, long after his 1963 assassination. So, gossip remains an important, if sometimes startling and even inaccurate, historical reservoir. Because gossip is based on a common impulse--"Let me tell you a story..."--it becomes a basis for history, biography, autobiography, memoirs, romans à clef, novels, diaries and letters.  

After the invention of the written alphabet by the Sumerians in 3000 b.c., the forward-looking Greeks adapted written language even further. The very first things we know of, written in Greek, are two incisions left on Mt. Hymettus near Athens. They date back to the eighth century b.c. Seldom cited because they are "dirty gossip," the first one states, "So and So is a cocksucker!" The second reads, "So and So is a pederast." So you see, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The early pre-written language tales recited by the blind poet Homer about the Trojan War--The Iliad, The Odyssey--are filled with all the elements of gossip--murder, adultery, war, jealousy, rage, love, death, and the heroic and dastardly behavior of kings, princes and other leaders. Today, the need to know about our heros and villains at the top--the kings and queens of sport, politics, rock and roll, entertainment and, since the '80s, the titans of business--is just as great. Gossip fills the bill.  

Two psychologists, John Sabini of the University of Pennsylvania and Maury Silver of The Johns Hopkins University, have written a thesis titled "The Moralities of Everyday Life." Herein they state what may not be obvious in this regard:  

Gossip brings ethics home by introducing abstract morality to the mundane. Gossip then may also be a means of social control in that it allows individuals to express, articulate and commit themselves to a moral position in the act of talking about somebody else. Thus, it is a way that we come to know what our own evaluations really are. It is a training ground both for self-clarification and public moral action...a common, a cross-cultural universal, a curious pleasure. It highlights the idleness of talk. People gossip to advance their interest. Gossip also makes people more interesting. Gossip freshens the news. Sharing a secret has charm. Socially, one has an obligation to talk, and gossip is a pleasant, easy, universally accepted way to fulfill that obligation. Gossip means taking a stance, dramatizing ourselves, our attitudes, our values, our tastes, our temptations, our inclination, our will. Gossip helps get one to know people. Gossip lets people get things off their chests, get their outrage supported. It allows them to be the hero of a moral drama with a minimum of inconvenience. Gossip is a means we have to externalize, dramatize and embody our moral perceptions. It helps us at times to establish precedents for reasonable solutions.

I believe they are saying that you are more interesting to others when you have something to really tell them than if you just comment on the weather. Therefore, gossip makes you more fascinating and it should boost your self-esteem at having it to relate.  

Gossip has made us more cynical and less innocent in the last two or three decades and rabid gossip on the Internet has made that even more so. But is it necessarily bad? Isn't knowledge power? Isn't sorting out for ourselves what is true and what is false a good exercise? Do we really want the kind of press that covered up for important public figures? Or that had a "gentleman's agreement" with politicians not to report the realities about them? Isn't it better for us to know the truth and shouldn't we examine the feet of clay of our peerless leaders? Wasn't it better for Betty Ford to end speculation about her substance abuse and publicly declare it, thereby becoming a role model?

"Gossip is good. It is that most rare of guilty pleasures--completely democratic and fully participatory. It helps us sort things out." I don't know who said that, but I could kiss his hand and blow a little smoke in his direction. Gossip is the tawdry jewel in democracy's crown, the rhinestone of free speech. We need to set it in platinum.

Liz Smith is the author of a new memoir, Natural Blonde, published by Hyperion. She is the celebrated gossip columnist of Newsday, the New York Post and 60 other newspapers across the country.