Gossip, according to longtime New York Post columnist Earl Wilson, is hearing something you like about someone you don’t.
I have no attachment to the celebrities whose tidbits were shared at a panel on gossip Monday night. But I’m not going to spill. I think people are allowed private lives, even though being in the know makes me a (momentary) media insider—for whom the sexual orientation of, say, a prominent news anchor is shrugworthy, while for everybody else, the tidbit would be a juicy scoop.
It’s this line that was perpetuated at the entertaining, invite-only event hosted by Sunny Bates, even as panelists mostly argued in favor of the information democratization spread by smartphones and social media. This access marks a shift from days when broadcast media, like TV and print, decided which news was spread and which was squelched. That power came from their exclusive access to celebrities, panelist Clay Shirky said. Now, the important access is to the audience, and anybody with an iPhone has it.
“With the rise of social networks, we’re starting to see things spread again in a face-to-face, person-to-person sort of way,” said Shirky, who joined Gawker’s Nick Denton, George Rush, and Yahoo News’s Virginia Heffernan on the dais in the Standard Hotel’s High Line Room. For example, Shirky said, singer Whitney Houston’s death was first announced in a tweet.
But the ability to communicate without big media input doesn’t mean there’s no value to old-fashioned, reported scuttlebutt—the information in the Houston tweet didn’t go viral until the AP tweeted it 42 minutes later. Rush suggested this may be because readers trust that information reported in news outlets is true, and not just another Internet rumor of a celebrity demise.
“I think there remains a place for the professional scandal-monger who will go to the trouble of just picking up the phone,” he said, telling a story about dispelling a death rumor when the alleged corpse answered his call. “You can say whatever the fuck you want about anyone on the Internet, but it’s not completely satisfying if we’re not sure it’s true.”
Rush also noted that celebrities and their entourages may tweet directly to fans, but they don’t necessarily tweet well.
“They are in many ways shooting themselves in the groin when they attempt to tweet about themselves—their bowel movements, whatever John Mayer’s doing today,” he remarked.
Denton, unsurprisingly, said that journalists are no longer needed to confirm truth in a crowdsourced landscape. The old broadcast/audience divide is continually perpetuated, he said, even by separating a blog post from its comments.
“Between insider knowledge and public knowledge, there is still a big gap,” he said.
Eliminating this distinction would be good for whistleblowers, but also for liars and trolls, Denton said, which is why there needs to be a system to “charge, challenge, and cross examine” assertions, “whether it’s ‘Saddam has weapons of mass destruction,’ or ‘Nick Denton paid for an eye exam for someone he fancied.’”
Problems with eliminating the line between what is said and what isn’t could include spreading information formerly kept under wraps, like John F. Kennedy’s affairs. The press still avoids printing information about our presidents’ children. This line was formerly drawn by tacit agreement, plus the negotiation of the need for scoops with that of future access. Now, anyone with a Twitter account can post a photo of Lindsay Lohan’s latest shenanigans.
But audience concern about erasing such a boundary was more esoteric. “Could we destroy glamor?” one man asked. Denton would say yes, but good riddance. Heffernan suggested finding well-developed, nuanced stories through fiction rather than gossip. Then panelists and audience members rose to mingle, drink, and network, while everyone strolling on the strip of High Line outside the window looked in through the glass.