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Dish:: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Showby Jeannette Walls
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One"Citzen Reporter"
"My reaction to having our speaker today at the National Press Club was the same as a lot of other members," Doug Harbrecht, the club's president and Business Week's Washington bureau chief, told the two hundred journalists gathered before him on the afternoon of June 2, 1998. "Why do we want to give a forum to that guy?"
"That guy" was Matt Drudge, who, said Harbrecht, "mucks through the hoaxes, conspiracies, and half-truths posted on-line in pursuit of fodder for his website." Six months earlier, Drudge had posted the sordid story that had subsequently exploded into the biggest political scandal since Watergate. But while journalists had gloried in the heroic part they had played in Watergate, most reporters were repulsed by their role in the Lewinsky affair. Despite charges of Clinton's alleged perjury and obstruction of justice, this story was driven not by issues or by questions of national security and the abuse of power-but by sex. It was the stuff of gossip columns. Yet because the scandal dominated the news for months, Matt Drudge, who never studied journalism and had never worked for a news organization, became one of the best known reporters in the country. Matt Drudge was the personification of how scandal had hijacked the news--and those in the establishment media hated him for it.
"So, Matt, know this," said Harbrecht. "There aren't many in this hallowed room who consider you a journalist. Real journalists pride themselves on getting it first and right; they get to the bottom of the story, they bend over backwards to get the other side. Journalism means being painstakingly thorough, evenhanded, and fair. Now, in the interest of goodjournalism, let's hear Matt Drudge's side of the story."
An awkward moment of silence followed, and then polite applause. Matt Drudge stepped up to the podium. He was only thirty-one years old, a young man dressed in old man's clothes: a cream-colored suit with unfashionably wide lapels, a blue shirt and striped tie, and tortoiseshell glasses. He was pale with a somewhat asymmetric face and small but intense dark eyes. He somehow appeared more vulnerable without his trademark fedora, which made him look more like a vaudeville character than a pasty-faced, self-described "computer geek" with a slightly receding hairline.
"Applause for Matt Drudge in Washington at the Press Club," Drudge joked. "Now there's a scandal." He was nervous at first, but just as his voice was about to falter, he reached over and grabbed his fedora and placed it on his head. With his talisman, this relic that evoked populist tabloid journalism of Walter Winchell's days, Drudge found his voice. For the next forty minutes, he spoke passionately--if not always eloquently--about his love of journalism, about the importance of the unfettered flow of information, about how scandals, while sometimes ugly, were important to democracy and to "individual liberty." Drudge spoke of being a loner, a little guy in a business dominated by conglomerates, about the importance of persevering to tell the truth, even when it embarrassed and infuriated powerful people.
"'Freedom of the press belongs to anyone who owns one, '" he said, quoting the legendary journalist A. J. Liebling. The Internet, Drudge's medium, was a great equalizer, he insisted. Now, everyone who owned a laptop and a modem could be a publisher and areporter, a "citizen reporter"--as Drudge called himself. He looked forward to the day, he said, when everyone in America would have an equal voice and the country would be "vibrating with the din of small voices." The Internet was going to save the news, he declared: "It's freedom of participation absolutely realized."
Many journalists in the crowd were unimpressed. It was that elitism, those rules, they maintained, that had long kept lurid, irresponsible stories like Drudge's out of the press. The real reason that Matt Drudge had come to Washington that day, most of them knew, was that he was being forced to testify in his own defense in a $30 million libel lawsuit. Drudge had inaccurately reported that Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist who had become an aide to President Clinton, had beaten his wife. Soon after he posted the erroneous item, Drudge posted an apology and correction. But he had made plenty of other bloopers, as well: He had posted items saying that Clinton had a bald eagle tattoo in his genital region, that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had seventy-five pictures of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky together, and that Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted. He once estimated that he is accurate eighty percent of the time.
"Could you succeed as a journalist," someone in the crowd wanted to know, "if you worked for an organization which required an accuracy rate of one hundred percent?"
"I don't know what organization that would be," Drudge shot back.
There was some embarrassed laughter, and then applause. Despite Harbrecht's pronouncements about high standards of journalists, Matt Drudge and everyone else in the room knew that by the late 1990s, themedia was in a state of absolute crisis. The always fuzzy line between news and gossip had become a complete blur. Tabloid topics and sensationalism repeatedly overshadowed serious news. It wasn't Drudge's mistakes that angered many in the crowd; it was the stories he got right: Clinton's trysts with Monica Lewinsky; the semen-stained dress; the infamous cigar.
Gossip. It's more than just hearsay. society columns, and supermarket tabloids. It has, like it or not, become a mainstay of American pop culture. In Dish, industry insider Jeannette Walls gives this provocative subject its due, offering a comprehensive, serious exploration of gossip and its social, historical, and political significance. Examining the topic from the inside out, Walls looks at the players; the origins of gossip, from birth of People magazine to the death of Lady Di; and how technology including the Internet will continue to change the face gossip. As compelling and seductive as its subject matter, Dish brilliantly reveals the fascinating inner workings of a phenomenon that is definitely here to stay.
This fascinating look at five decades of gossip provides a behind-the-scenes examination of the personalities that control what is read and seen, from the salad days of silver screen magazines to the scoop-filled internet.
About the Author
Jeanette Walls is the former gossip correspondent for E! Channel and New York Magazine's "Intelligencer". She can now be seen on MSNBC three mornings a week and appears on MSNBC online four days a week. Ms. Walls lives in New York City.
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