On Sept. 22, husband-and-wife gossip duo George Rush and Joanna Molloy hit gold when they confirmed a long-standing rumor that Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon was having a relationship with another woman.
All that was left was to call Ms. Nixon’s publicist, Carrie Ross, to get a reaction. But Ms. Ross was doing her job, too: She begged the duo to sit on the story, according to Mr. Rush-just for a day-so Ms. Nixon could get through a press conference promoting her Sundance Channel series, Tanner on Tanner.
That’s the way the gossip business has operated since the days of Luella Parsons, an era both more and less civilized than ours: show a little compassion now, get a little cooperation later. Ms. Ross promised Mr. Rush and Ms. Molloy an exclusive comment from Ms. Nixon discussing her relationship in exchange for their forbearance.
The following day, however, someone leaked news of the interview to the media-gossip blog Gawker.com, and the site’s editor, Jessica Coen, gladly posted the following item under the heading “Ruminating on Cynthia Nixon”: “Wouldn’t it be funny if ‘Sex and the City’ alum Cynthia Nixon, like, came out as a lesbian to a local tab (maybe even one that isn’t the Post or Newsday) in the next 24 hours? Seriously, what are the chances of something crazy like that?! We’re cracking up just thinking about it. We also laughed about urban legends like alligators in the sewers, so who knows? ‘Cause we KNOW there be some alligators in the sewers.
“But then again, we smoked an assload of meth at the Dark Room last night. What’s a Cynthia Nixon?”
By the end of the day, both the Daily News and the New York Post were working on cover stories about Ms. Nixon’s revelation.
“Essentially, we’re all writing a gossip column together on the Internet,” Mr. Rush observed-and without much cheer. In fact, the gossip columnist has little to celebrate as the rest of the world rejoices in the emergence of the civic-minded, collaborative environment that the pioneers of the World Wide Web foresaw years ago. For New York, controlling information-especially about celebrities!-has long meant controlling the world. And for the masters of that universe, a little democracy is a dangerous thing.
Welcome to 2004, the year in which gossip got out of the hands of the powerful Hollywood publicists and Manhattan lawyers and was dumped in the lap of the average New Yorker. Power to the people!
Because it was, after all, not Ms. Nixon’s publicist that kept Rush and Molloy from getting their scoop. It was some anonymous New Yorker, writing into Gawker.com with a fresh tip. Did you just see Ethan Hawke stumble out of a bar? Write it in to Gawker Stalker! Ten more readers will probably be able to trace his circuitous walk back home to Chelsea. Cindy Adams has got nothing on you. Did you just shred a document in the mailroom at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia? Might want to stick it in your pocket.
“People know that we’re a small operation and we can react quickly,” said Bill Bastone, editor of the Web site thesmokinggun.com. His site publishes public (and sometimes private) documents-lawsuits, arrest warrants, performance riders-that tell the stories of the stars in terms so antiseptic, they’re lurid. The site had its big break in 2000, when it uncovered restraining orders filed by a former fiancée of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? bachelor Rick Rockwell, who allegedly had threatened to kill her if she broke off their engagement. But just as often, it’s the random tipster that puts them on the trail-a tipster who would have had to be vetted mercilessly by more traditional operations like Neal Travis’ old column in the New York Post.
“It’s instant gratification, and people gravitate toward that,” said Mr. Bastone, explaining that print columnists ignore the new generation of online gossips at their peril. “If you pick up Liz Smith, I don’t think she’s ever mentioned an online site because I doubt she surfs blogs, and it reflects well on Rush and Molloy and Richard Johnson that they’re willing to acknowledge this other world that’s also doing what they’re doing.”
“In New York, blogs are setting the gossip agenda for the day,” said Janice Min, editor of Manhattan-based gossip-glossy Us Weekly, noting how the stories are increasingly slipping away from both the gossip purveyors and the celebrities themselves. “You can now follow the lives of people in real time.”
With all of this “file-sharing,” it’s hard to keep a premium on gossip in this town now. Once upon a time, secrets were a strong currency in Manhattan’s power elite. But as the sheer number of gossip sites on the Internet grows, secrets become increasingly difficult to keep-and like the not-so-almighty dollar, “the scoop” is dropping in value.
“Publicists have lost a lot of power,” said former gossip columnist Marc Malkin. “They can’t just have the In Style treatment of their clients anymore.”
With all of New York as their staff, sites like Gawker keep the gossip coming.
“Sometimes when I think that I’ve got a lot of sightings in the column, I look at Gawker, and they’ll have 90 inches of sightings,” sighed Richard Johnson of Page Six fame.
Indeed, since Page Six’s Nov. 22 one-liner about Ethan Hawke dining at the Mayrose diner with estranged wife Uma Thurman, Gawker Stalker has posted seven sightings (totaling 450 words) detailing the actor’s to-ing and fro-ing, including fun details about his carrying a Hello Kitty purse.
Perhaps their only hope is a sort of chemotherapeutic one: If the public gets overloaded on gossip, it might just get sick.
“People have a limited amount of time in their day,” Mr. Johnson said. “And Page Six is tight and well-edited, so readers get the biggest bang for their buck.”
In case you think it’s just a word game, consider that new breed of gossip, the photo exclusive. Now that pictures are worth a thousand dollars (at least) and cell-phone cameras are ubiquitous, everyone is a potential paparazzo. As it gets easier to transmit photos electronically, don’t be surprised if the photo-filled weekly mates with the blog and spawns an entirely new beast.
After all, unlike newspapers, which operate under libel laws and are proofread by lawyers, the Internet is mostly a laissez-faire market, and the gossip therein is equally unchecked, as Lindsay Lohan recently discovered. After the story got out that she’d lost her purse at a party last week, it didn’t take long before pictures of her license, American Express black card and a supposed “big fat vial of coke” popped up on blogs. While the evidence was quickly proven to be fake, the damage had already been done.
Suddenly,publicists have gone from professional image makers to damage controllers. “This business used to be based on relationships, which were nurtured over years and through plenty of expensed dinners and drinks-you’d feed stories to the right columnists and, in return, give them a little dirt on somebody else’s client,” one longtime personal publicist reflected. “Now I get phone calls everyday from gossips who are calling me about some crazy shit they found on the Web: ‘Did your client overdose after a party at Dublin’s? I read it on some Web site …. I heard about it from a friend of a friend of somebody’s dog walker.’ It’s out of control.”
The Internet has turned gossip into a worldwide game of “telephone,” with stories boomeranging across the Internet as facts are easily misconstrued and then built upon.
“Bloggers are welcome to do reporting and confirm rumors, but they don’t seem to want to be troubled,” said Mr. Rush. “Probably because no one pays them.”
In the meantime, Ms. Min points out one important difference between the blogs and the old-school gossips: Gossips report. Blogs decide.
She pointed to a recent rumor that Freeman’s had refused to serve the Bush twins when they stopped by the hip eatery. The restaurant has since denied the story.
“What’s troublesome about this accelerated, frantic gossip cycle is that some people don’t care if the information is true or false,” she said.
“Gossip was once rarefied-but because so much of it is needed, now a lot of it is simply made up, glamorized, fictionalized and added to,” Ms. Smith complained.
As for the old-fashioned ritual of reporting out a story-especially celebrity gossip, which often involves legal problems, personal injuries or scandalous sex-the new generation doesn’t always have time for such obligations.
“One time there was a crackpot rumor that Matt LeBlanc was in a crazy motorcycle accident and was languishing in an L.A. hospital,” said Defamer’s Mark Lisanti. “So I called the hospital where he reportedly was, ended up on hold in a computerized system and hung up. That was my foray into reporting.”