As my mother pointed out the other day, soap opera characters rarely phone each other to say, “Come on by.” Folks just drop in, as in Dostoyevsky. It’s as if feet were not yet vestigial organs, as if Alexander Graham Bell had never lived and the befaxed, bemodemed, bewebbed world had been aborted before its time. In the world of gossip, too, people are always dropping in on each other-insinuating, overhearing, entrapping, accusing, sucking up pellets of mis-, dis- and plain information, interrupting each other in closets off the Oval Office. Main Street may be dead but not in the Oprah’d, Springered, Monteled, Laked, Drudged world where Page Six is always Page One. In the society of nonstop surveillance, the small town drops in on the metropolis. We’re home, they’re congregating. We watch, they visit. Stardust rubs off on the rest of the rubes who want to feel in the know. No one is condemned to live alone. No one is really out of it. The loop passes through your own living room. Scratch the surface and sniff.
In other words, gossip is the lifeblood of a sprawling, scattered society that otherwise would have precious little in common. It certifies membership for people who feel unmoored. It is the great leveler: It turns outsiders into insiders. It channels curiosity, envy, resentment. It cements the fragments that we are pleased to call a society. It is what Maine says to Texas. It circulates morals-or rather, it is the national (therefore global) bulletin board for the Wanted posters of the moral police, which is the rest of us when we are not the moral criminals. As the defensive media are now reminding us daily, scratch a prude and you find prurience.
The early phases are done and gone. Monica Lewinsky no longer needs to be introduced. We’re in the stage where the bulimic media are gagging at rooms full of their own vomit and making motions to clean up. “Good God, what came over us? Stop us before we barf again!” The press ethics industry checks in-yours truly included. Not that everyone is properly penitential. Would that Tim Russert would join the chorus of self-accusation and ask himself what his and NBC’s Meet the Press has been doing featuring Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge in recent weeks. When Mr. Drudge held up the slimy cover of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post as ostensible proof for an outlandish claim, no one interrupted to say, “This is garbage.” Michael Kinsley of Slime , sorry, Slate , is also defending the Drudge Report . Can we expect Mr. Drudge’s lawyer to call Mr. Kinsley and Mr. Russert as character witnesses should White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal’s $30 million suit against Mr. Drudge for charging that Mr. Blumenthal beat his wife get to court? This is a world in which you can click from The New York Times on line to Drudge ‘s Web site.
The story may have crested, but it would be premature for the comeback kid to paste a fixed smile back on his face. This story has more than legs, it has organs galore. The gastrointestinal tract of the all-news channels is insatiable. Chat shows scrounge to relay gossip about the gossip. Any scrap of hypothetically relevant rumor zooms around the world. For the all-news media, the payoff seems obvious. CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC lifted their ratings by 50 to 60 percent in Week 2 of Monicagate (though the Big Three’s network news shows didn’t follow suit). ABC’s Nightline , converted to “The Lookinsky Report,” was up 31 percent. Newsweek and Time cashed in. The hunger for a look at the President even rubbed off on the State of the Union speech, raising the audience for it by 36 percent over last year’s performance, according to Nielsen Media Research. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News-all caught in the act .
But it takes more than a demand side to crank up the gossip. The muck wouldn’t rise to the top were it only for audience interest, else the networks would be featuring live sex, drug deals and murders in the studio. (When I made this point on Fox News’ O’Reilly Report the other night, they flashed an “Opinion” slug as a subtitle. I suppose I ought to be pleased that the rest of what I said was instantly upgraded to “Fact.”) The problem is not that readers and spectators like gossip. The problem is that gossip has become a substitute for news. Gossip metastasizes. Government affairs, yuk yuk. Did you hear the one about Sonny Bono, Marv Albert, Bill Clinton and the dress on the ski slope? Our public life has become a national soap opera. We lurch from all O.J. all the time to all Diana all the time to all Marv Albert all the time to all Monica all the time. You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the dish-prosecutorial leaks, transcript snippets, yearbook photos. Tony Frost, editor of the Globe , produced one of the great lines in a month of great lines: “The mainstream press has set it up for the tabloids to come in and dig deeply under the dirty bedsheets.”
The problem is not that Americans have been swayed into visualizing impeachment. (The polls seem to show clearly that we haven’t. While many people think Bill Clinton is a liar, fewer think he should be punished for it. Such maturity constitutes a sea change in the culture.) The problem is that news has been annexed by the entertainment business, and this is a moment when the bulimic media has peeled away from democratic usefulness. But would the so-called news media know what to do without the sort of entertainment it is now profiting from?
Here’s the less than innocent side of this whole amazing, appalling spectacle: Gossip is not only the innocent fluid of a society that likes to have something to chat about. Gossip is also a superb channel for prosecutors. Forget about vast right-wing conspiracies; leaking is more potent. It intimidates. It taints prospective juries. Leaks from depositions in Jones v. Clinton pour all over the news as if the judge in the case had never imposed any gag order. If zillions of other leaks are not coming from Kenneth Starr’s office, from where, then? If the media want to sniff so highly and mightily that anything goes in the hot, holy pursuit of crimes in high places, how about a modicum of interest in the question, Who are the sources? But, no, the media don’t ask and don’t tell.