Here’s a question: How many hours do you spend online that are productive applications of your precious time? And how many are spent voyeuristically, near-obsessively clicking or swiping through other people’s lives? I’ve been thinking about our collective Internet habits a lot lately, and my own especially, and where I go wrong on a daily basis. I’ve come up with this: I like gossip too much.
The pursuit of gossip has flared up like an ulcer for me, thanks to click-bait culture and social media. Sure, we’ve all long enjoyed the scandalous details of famous people’s lives (since nearly the dawn of time, according to Tom Payne’s book Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity, which argues that humans have obsessed over fame and stardom since we’ve been civilized) and we exist to this day in a sort of groupthink schadenfreude at the sight of celeb life-fails. But the Internet has made this all SO MUCH WORSE, made it just so deliciously easy to stalk our heroes from afar.
To treat an ailment, one first has to understand the medical history. The roots of what we know as modern-day gossip go deep —they even pre-date the paparazzi, to say nothing of the World Wide Web. So how did the big gossip mess we’re in now get going? Let’s take a look back.
June, 10 1929: Walter Winchell, grandfather of the gossip industry, accepts a post at the New York Daily Mirror…
. . .and begins writing his salacious column, “Off-Broadway” about the goings-on of the rich and the famous. Winchell derived his material from skulking around with the mafia, Broadway scenesters and Hollywood A-listers. Rumor has it that the reporter was outspoken and wily in person, best known for inviting celebs out to dinner and fleeing before the bill arrived. Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times once wrote of the man, “his voice was a break-neck staccato. And his trademarks, a snap-brim fedora on his head and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, almost turned into a stylistic cliché.” This was the original fast-talker, folks. Fun fact? Josephine Baker once sued Winchell for $400,000 in a libel suit, after he (allegedly) accused her of making anti-Semitic remarks.
February, 1938: “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” debuts in The Los Angeles Times.
Gossip came back into journalistic vogue a few years after Winchell’s star began to fade in the ’40s, when Hedda Hopper — a film actress turned columnist with a penchant for hats — took the scene by storm.
In her column, Hopper made enemies of stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Spencer Tracy by speculating on their personal lives. She also outed potential communists during the McCarthy years, destroying several careers. In true tabloid reporter fashion, Hopper also maintained a life-long feud with a rival gossip columnist—Louella Parsons. I like to imagine her as Harry Potter’s nemesis, Rita Skeeter, poisoned pen and all.
1952: Generoso Pope Jr. rebrands The National Enquirer.
At the time of its original publication in the 1930s, The National Enquirer we’ve all come to fear and loathe was a vehicle for pro-fascist and isolationist propaganda. A young Generoso Pope Jr. purchased the paper in 1952, and rebranded its content to focus on issues of sex and violence. The papers’ content quickly became so grisly that a New York mayor forced the Enquirer‘s publisher to resign from the city’s Board of Education.
Things only got worse from there. Pope was credited with saying that he got the idea for the paper’s gory content from “seeing people congregate around car accidents.” The paper’s circulation rose in tandem with popular headlines like “Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her” (1962). It was a short hop from there to gossip-mongering around celebs. Both angles sold (and continue to sell) papers.
April 19, 1961: Federico Fellini releases La Dolce Vita, a wildly popular art film about a listless paparazzo.
Seen by many critics as “a biting condemnation of…pop culture and the cult of celebrityhood,” La Dolce Vita attempted to satirize our culture’s growing preoccupation with the goings-on of the upper crust. Tracking the journey of one bored journalist (Marcello), the movie was one of the first pieces of art to draw attention to the banal, utterly smoke and mirrors aspect of celebrity gossip. See also: Andy Warhol’s pop art.
March 4, 1974: People magazine publishes its first issue.
And this weekly would forever alter dentist’s waiting rooms and airport bookstores. What started as the “human interest” section of Time magazine was spun off into a full periodical on its own. The magazine debuted as a broader-than-gossip “human interest” platform, and featured a young Mia Farrow as cover girl. Though it still covers “regular” people, the magazine now also features tons of celeb interest stories and paparazzi shots.
1976: Liz Smith – the “grand doyenne of dish” – begins writing a Hollywood and celebrity-centered column for the The New York Daily News.
Fun fact: Smith defined gossip in a recent New York Times interview as “news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
1977: Rupert Murdoch inaugurates “Page Six” in The New York Post.
The 1980s would see a huge resurgence in tabloid journalism, thanks to daytime programming, MTV, and a tightening of the televised news cycle.
In New York, “Page Six” quickly became a benchmark for the elite, and few famous (or B-list!) faces were spared. Anyone in NYC’s elite, theater, finance and media were subject to scandalous daily tidbits.
“Page Six” reporter (and now, famous author) Anna Quindlen once described receiving a newsroom tip about a Liza Minnelli “story.” “I told [my editor] I hadn’t been able to confirm it, and he said, ‘you don’t have to confirm it, you just have to write it.'” So much for speak no evil, eh?
We can also thank “Page Six” for breaking scandals like Woody Allen’s extra-marital relationship with his step-daughter, Soon-Yi. And Kirstie Alley’s odd request that her pet possum be breast-fed. And…well, you get the idea.
Which brings us nearly up to date.
2000: US Magazine, which is up until then a monthly entertainment magazine, becomes Us Weekly
At first the magazine looks like a staid version of People, but by 2003, it’s scooping major celeb stories, following around Bennifer, tracking Britney’s tribulations and filled with all the “Loose Talk,” “Hot Pics,” “Fashion Police,” and “Just Like Us” evidence you could ever want.
2000: The same year as US Weekly changes format, Perez Hilton graduates from my own alma mater, and begins his blogging empire shortly thereafter with the creation of “PageSixSixSix.com.”
Nowadays, we know Hilton for his cheeky doodles over celebrity pictures, his constant stream of gossip, and his “wars” with certain teen pop stars (like Miley, Vanessa Hudgens, and Taylor Momsen). Having inspired a whole mess of columns and similar sites, Hilton is what we think of now when it comes to gossip, no? Up-to-the-minute scoops? Often insipid, yet easy to look at for hours?
A citizen’s ability to check their heroes is an important function of the news cycle. After all, the free press helps us stay on top of our world leaders, in addition to our trendsetters. But we should consider gossip’s ramifications: Hedda Hopper made lifelong enemies and she destroyed careers. These days, websites scramble to “out” allegedly closeted celebrities. The paparazzi have also been subject to many high-profile assault cases, and their tactics for “getting the story” remain seedy and stalkerish. Gossip causes pain to a lot of people.
Now I love a good rumor as much as the next Chatty Kathy, but in attempt to check my bad Internet habits, I am hereby resolving to spend a little less of my time on gossip sites. Given the roots of our impulses, it doesn’t really seem like the Internet is to blame. Just the way Amazon and Netflix aren’t to blame for weekends lost to binge watching. I am a culprit. I buy the product. And if I’m so darn highfalutin’ about my precious time and money, than I should probably try to devote my brain and waking hours to things (or articles) I find a bit more worthwhile than [insert celeb]’s latest gaff.
Just something to think about.