< Gotham’s Gossip Gloss Grows Dim

Transcript

Friday, September 24, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: In a July 1940 profile of Walter Winchell, New Yorker editor St. Clair McKelway called gossip writing “a bacterium in the body of journalism.”

[SOUND OF TELETYPE MACHINE]

WALTER WINCHELL: New York, the famous woman explorer and hunter Osa Johnson has started annulment proceedings against her second husband, a lecture agent named Clark Getts. The charges, I am told, will be sensational.

[SOUND OF TELETYPE MACHINE]

BOB GARFIELD: Walter Winchell ruled the world of gossip in the mid-20th century, but we can trace New York City’s modern reign over gossip journalism to the late 1970s, when the New York Post introduced its Page Six Column. Now New York’s star is fading, writes Foster Kamer in The Village Voice, but it was The Post’s Page Six that made gossip mongering the team sport it remains today.

FOSTER KAMER: Whereas, before it was just information running through one person, now it was a team who had various stringers going out, getting stories, bringing them back to the headquarters and putting them together in a column that came down like thunder from Mount Olympus, every day.

BOB GARFIELD: So successful was Page Six that The New York Daily News, the competing tabloid, felt obliged to bring in a series of gossip heavy-hitters to try to compete.

FOSTER KAMER: Well, Page Six was pretty much unchallenged, until George Rush and Joanna Molloy came along 15 years ago. They were a wife and husband duo. Then seven years ago, Lloyd Grove, a Washington Post reporter, came to The Daily News for what he called “a lot of green.” And Lloyd Grove was vicious. He was a political reporter who was used to getting scooped and having to scoop other people. And Page Six wasn't used to being scooped, so really every day was a competition for these two heavyweights.

BOB GARFIELD: What was the beginning of the end for the primacy of the New York tabloids?

FOSTER KAMER: I would say it was really when Gawker showed up. Nobody saw it coming. Richard Johnson, the editor of Page Six, told The New York Observer at one point, because we have a brand, we're never going to be challenged. Meanwhile, Gawker was online. Gawker never dealt with lawyers, which Page Six and The Daily News has go over their columns every single day. Gawker was essentially going to push the edge until they were told not to by a legal authority. They were operating 24 hours a day. They could print whenever they wanted.

BOB GARFIELD: And, because they were online, had a vastly larger pool of sources, and a vastly larger potential audience.

FOSTER KAMER: Exactly. They were reaching people that weren't really necessarily interested in gossip before, and they were also writing about people who had never been written about before, including the gossips.

BOB GARFIELD: A much lower threshold of celebrity than the tabloids ever demanded.

FOSTER KAMER: I think Gawker was finding compelling characters and compelling narratives in places that people had never found them before. One perfect example is Si Newhouse, the chairman of Conde Nast, the great magazine publishing corporation, supposedly banned garlic from the Conde Nast cafeteria. And all of a sudden Gawker was writing about him as if he was a vampire. Si Newhouse was used to controlling the news cycle himself. So all of a sudden these characters that had just never been touched, whether it was Si Newhouse or some guy who sent his kid up in a balloon, were all of a sudden becoming gossip items.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, notwithstanding the broader definition of gossip-worthy, ground zero was still Hollywood, TV or movie-famous celebrities. And even in that category of subject matter, the tabloids have been pushed aside by online competition, like TMZ.

FOSTER KAMER: Harvey Levin was a producer on Court TV. He was doing a lot of true-crime stories, and all of a sudden decided to get in the celebrity market. He tried to do New York for a bit. It didn't work. So then he came to L.A. and just had cameras flying around like literal gadflies. So now TMZ is breaking actual news stories that are massive headlines. They were the first ones, for example, to confirm Michael Jackson’s death. Nobody knew how they got that story. They just had incredible sources and were on the scene immediately. Richard Johnson, even Gawker can't necessarily compete on that level.

BOB GARFIELD: So I must know, what is the sleaziest episode that you participated in or at least witnessed when you were an employee of Gawker?

FOSTER KAMER: I've never actually told this story before, but it was when David Carradine died from auto-asphyxiation in Thailand.

BOB GARFIELD: The star of the TV series Kung Fu and later the Tarantino flick Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2.

FOSTER KAMER: There was a picture of Carradine’s dead, hanging body circulating in Thai newspapers. We found the picture on a website and the order was called down for me to put the picture on the site. I got into a very, very long argument with my editor, and eventually it was agreed that we would only put the link on the site, which I still didn't like because I believe if there’s one group of people that [LAUGHS] should be at least given some modicum of respect in gossip pages, it should be people who are at least very recently dead. And I was told to screen-grab or capture the picture and save it to my computer in case the link was pulled down and we had to put it on the site, which thankfully we never did.

BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, even using the link generated the opprobrium of the public, who believed, naturally, that sometimes too much is just too much and probably didn't even click on the link.

FOSTER KAMER: Well, it was one of Gawker’s 20 highest-viewed posts in 2009 to the tune of about 400,000 page views.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] That is so appalling. This society has so defined deviancy down, it’s hard to know any more what really constitutes a good juicy scandal. What’s it take these days?

FOSTER KAMER: What’s it take? Tiger Woods. When somebody previously thought to be morally infallible becomes morally fallible, that’s a great scoop.

BOB GARFIELD: Feet of clay, the gift that keeps on giving.

FOSTER KAMER: Every time.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right. Foster, thank you so much.

FOSTER KAMER: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Foster Kamer is a staff writer for The Village Voice in New York City.