Hudson Morgan is the assistant to Lloyd Grove, who writes the Lowdown gossip column for the New York Daily News. He spent a year as an intern at The New Republic and eight months as a fact-checker at Vanity Fair before coming to the Daily News. He has also written for Slate.
Brian Montopoli: You used to work for The New Republic, and eventually went to a gossip column at the Daily News. That’s a pretty jarring change — you jumped from a rarified bubble directly into a snakepit. What happened to your worldview? Does the world seem like a nastier place now?
Hudson Morgan: Well, when we fall, we fall far. Sure, the darker side of human nature, blah blah blah, but what’s been amazing is how few people care about what you write about them, provided you spell their name right. I know that “all press is good press” is an old maxim, but it’s been reinforced and reinforced every single day that I’ve been on the job. With the exception of ten or fifteen A-listers at the very top, I’d say it holds true for everyone. Even people that I wouldn’t have thought.
To tell you the truth, The New Republic and Daily News are so separate — this is going to sound awful — but I don’t even read world news anymore, because this world is so overwhelming. You just get caught up in deadlines every day. I should be reading the Spectator — that’s the British Spectator, mind you — but instead I’m reading Us Weekly and Star in my free time. That’s not sustainable — that’s not something I should be maintaining over the long run. If anything, working here has narrowed my worldview in that sense. But, you know, there’s something not very human about Washington, too.
BM: Where is the competition more significant — between the various columns within the Daily News, or with gossip columns in other papers?
HM: With Rush and Milloy, I wouldn’t say we’re in collusion, but we are, absolutely, friends. When we can’t use stuff — for example, about a certain heiress that we’ve banned from the column — we flip it their way. The thing about New York is you’ll always end up writing about friends of yours, or friends of friends that you don’t like, and so a really easy way to do it without any fingerprints whatsoever is to just pass it to them. It doesn’t happen often, but I think there have been a couple instances.
The competition with the Post is absolutely fierce. They are gangsters. And to compete with them, you have to stoop to their level. You want to be able to have the best scoop every day, and they don’t vet things as scrupulously, they rely on shady sourcing, they make up quotes. We’re actually practicing journalism. There have been so many good stories that I’ve wanted to use that I haven’t. I take a publicist’s denial at face value just because I trust them. Maybe that’s naive, but I just don’t think that’s something the Post or Page Six has ever done. Ever. Most of the time we’ll print the denial with the story, but sometimes there are stories that are so good and you know they’re not true — you get to a point where you can sort of suss these things out, and you can sense in your stomach when someone is being insincere with you — and I just feel like it’s really hard to be in a race like that when you’re playing by different rules.
BM: There’s this big debate right now — thanks in part to Jeff Gannon, and also blogs — over what makes a journalist. What do you think? Are you a journalist?
HM: I don’t know. If you’re doing responsible reporting on something, and you’re breaking news, you’re a journalist. If you’re trafficking in rumors and you’re not doing due diligence, then that’s probably not journalism. Sometimes we do fall somewhere in between, but we always make the most sincere effort to get in touch with everyone who’s mentioned, even in passing, or a representative for them. And that’s hard, over the course of one day, especially if something comes in at five, and you have to file it in an hour.
BM: What have blogs done to gossip columns? Have they had much of an impact?
HM: I think half the reason people give items to gossip columns is that it’s sort of masturbatory. You like seeing it the next day. And what blogs have done is they’ve made that climax happen so much faster. It happens in real time. You send something in to Gawker, you leak a memo, and all of the sudden the world is reading it like ten minutes later. And so it’s hard to compete with Web sites that can do that. We have to make sure stuff holds all the way to the next morning. You can’t just magically get people to send you things, but it really helps when they do, and you just have to hope that people are loyal readers of the column and that’s what compels them to share. They think it’s funny and fresh and accurate. And you just hope that you cultivate a following of readers and publicists and people in positions who have access to the sort of stuff we like. But it’s hard, it’s really hard. Gawker is a gossip monster. They’re an absolute colossus, especially when it comes to media stuff.
BM: What about when you’re on the other side? I’ve seen you mentioned on Gawker. When you’re the gossip item, does that change your perspective at all?
HM: Live by the sword, die by the sword. And also, I’m always going to be in that category that believes there’s no such thing as bad press. Maybe every time that happens, it will convince a couple more people to send something our way the next time.
BM: Doesn’t it weird you out, though? I remember there was one item where they were speculating if you were gay.
HM: When that happened, at first I thought, you know, I did not sign up for this kind of scrutiny. My girlfriend called me and was like, “are you OK with this?” And I was just kind of like, if you’re OK with it, than I’m certainly OK with it. It was a funny item, I thought, objectively. And I’m so often on the other side of being like, “OK, come on, just play along with us, just give me a good quote, come on, this is fun,” trying to cajole someone into humoring me, that when Jessica [Coen of Gawker] did that, how could I not engage her on it, when I’m asking people to do that every single day. But also, a part of me is like, I’m not a public figure, this is so meta.
BM: I saw in your column yesterday that you were personally attacked by the winner of “Project Runway,” Jay McCarroll. Does something like that sting? Or are you able to maintain some sort of ironic detachment and not care?
HM: I mean, if it had happened to me a year ago — I’ve been at this almost a year — I probably would have been a little rattled. But at this point, I’m so happy to see someone who isn’t well media-trained. I think Elizabeth Spiers said once that gossip had been killed by publicists and lawyers, and just the scenes and environments that publicists create at these parties. They’re just so manufactured. And what happened the other night was just so organic, and primal, and real. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more. I mean, he’s from Pennsylvania. He used to kick potential rapists out of a porn site. And now he’s in New York, in this snakepit, as you called it. It was obviously too rapid a trajectory.
All I can say about that, though, is that if any of my friends or if I were ever to become quote-unquote “famous” — and I use huge scare quotes in reference to Jay McCarroll’s level of fame, obviously — I would handle myself just as badly, if not worse, at least on one or two pubic occasions. I’m sort of surprised it hasn’t happened more. Because you’ve got so many people running around — there are these reality C-listers swarming New York. And it was really fun to encounter someone who wasn’t so disciplined.
BM: So when he’s attacking you, you’re just enjoying the fact that you’re going to get a good item out of it?
HM: At this point, yeah, because the tabloid war is so intense. You’re forced to put aside personal reservations. You can’t take that stuff out with you every night. I mean, it’s gossip — I’m not saying this is like war — but you’ve got to put that stuff aside and just enjoy it, and just have fun and hope that something like that comes along. That sort of thing is just a goldmine. I would have loved for it to have happened with — who’s an actor I don’t like? — Wilmer Valderrama, [who is] a little more well-known then Jay McCarroll. Because with McCarroll the stakes aren’t that high.
BM: Has your work affected your personal life?
HM: Something happened this morning…we did this item on a certain culinary icon, and I tried to get a reservation at his esteemed restaurant — I’ve been trying all week — and finally they called me back and they said, were you involved with this item about his personal life a few weeks ago? I mean, depends what the definition of “involved” is. I tried to sort of worm my way out of it. But part of me wanted to say, “you know what? Absolutely.” Because the reservationist was like, “because that really affected his personal life.” And part of me wanted to say, “You know what? F—k your restaurant.” He should have thought about how his transgressions were going to affect his personal life. His alleged transgressions. I don’t know why I’m necessarily being punished for something my boss wrote, but, you know, in for a dime in for a dollar. If you’re going to throw yourself into this, you have to do it headlong. I mean, there are downsides every single day. Like I really wanted to eat at that f—king restaurant.
BM: So I’m guessing you didn’t get the reservation.
HM: No, absolutely not. She basically told me to f—k myself in so many words.
BM: Really? That’s so petty.
HM: Yeah, it is petty. But so are we. I mean, what we do every day is splash stuff that’s pretty petty at the end of the day.
BM: I was just thinking, your world and my world are so very different right now.
HM: You should see these media naval-gazing sessions … It’s sort of funny … It’s such a pageant. You’ve got the one B-lister sitting in the corner, flanked by the publicist, the vice-publicist, and the minion. And you’ve got ten reporters over in the other corner. And we’re all binge drinking and clearing our tape recorders and sharing war stories and asking what each other are going to ask. I’m 25 years old and that’s what I’m doing? I sort of had higher hopes ten years ago.
Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.
Correction: The above has been changed to correct a transcription error.