‘WE WON’T rest until we send you back to Washington on a stretcher.” I hadn’t even written my first word for the Daily News, and already the gossip gang-bangers at the rival New York Post were unsheathing their imaginary switchblades.
That was a little over three years ago. Manhattan real estate baron Mortimer B. Zuckerman had recruited me from the Washington Post to start a new franchise, called Lowdown, at his venerable tabloid. The fellow trying to rattle me was Jared Paul Stern of the Post’s notorious Page Six column, who later became the target of an FBI investigation when he was accused of squeezing Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle for protection money in return for quashing embarrassing items about him.
Stern, of course, was fired -- and I outlasted him by a good five months before my contract ran out. In New York City, as the Page Six scandal proved, gossip is not just a blood sport, it’s a potentially criminal enterprise.
But I have also learned, after nearly eight years of writing a daily column in both D.C. and N.Y.C., that gossip can be good for society -- don’t laugh -- and can even, perish the thought, be legitimate journalism. All it takes, beyond being insanely competitive, is an honest heart, a keen eye, a strong stomach and a thick skin.
I’d been developing all of the above during my four years (1999-2003) writing the Reliable Source column, which the Washington Post, being a serious newspaper, declined to call “gossip.” You haven’t lived until you’ve been snapped at by the president of the United States (Bill Clinton, who was mightily annoyed when, at a Georgetown cocktail party, I handed him a copy of one of his college philosophy papers and pointed out that it had received only a B+: “But I got an A in the course!” he responded). Or until you’ve been bodily threatened by a very tall movie star (Tim Robbins, who warned me at a black-tie event: “If you ever write about my family again, I will [bleeping] find you, and I will [bleeping] hurt you!”).
But I also got confidential tips from the legendary Katharine Graham. Despite the minimal enthusiasm of some of her editors, Mrs. Graham believed strongly that her newspaper should carry a sharp, funny and reliable column about VIPs. From time to time, distinguished papers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have ventured into this frisky territory, but have usually ended their walk on the wild side in a hand-wringing identity crisis: Can we be serious journalists and still publish a gossip column?
But Mrs. Graham knew readers would like it -- though she insisted such a column meet the Post’s standards of accuracy and fairness -- because she herself was a voracious consumer who occasionally called to feed me items.
Once she phoned with a juicy story about her daughter Lally Weymouth’s private audience with Pope John Paul II, only to call back 10 minutes later. “You know, I shouldn’t have given that to you,” she said sheepishly. “If you run it, Lally will kill me. Do you mind very much?” It was the only time she ever asked me to deep-six an item for personal reasons.
Before accepting the Daily News job from Zuckerman -- who enjoyed a reputation for involving himself in his editors’ journalistic judgments -- I asked him how he saw his role in my prospective column. “My role,” he told me over coffee in an outdoor cafe on Capitol Hill, “will be to open my newspaper and read it.”
Mort was as good as his word, even though I would occasionally hear that he was peeved about this or that item concerning this or that pal. In July 2005, then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, a close Zuckerman friend, phoned him from jail in Virginia to complain bitterly about a mocking item reporting that her husband, Jason Epstein, was taking a luxury Mediterranean cruise during her incarceration. Mort insisted -- via a top editor -- that I write a sympathetic follow-up item expressing my delight that Epstein was able to get away from the stress of Plamegate.
Although Mort very properly kept his distance, others were not so shy. The head of a movie studio -- absolutely determined that I not write about his impending divorce -- first offered an item about someone else in exchange for killing the one about him, then pointed out how helpful, loyal and generous he’d been to other columnists around town, and how helpful, loyal and generous he intended to be to me. When that didn’t seem to do the trick, he suggested that he might be forced to ban me from his studio’s premieres and parties.
“I love your movies so much,” I replied, “I’ll gladly pay to see them.”
Finally, the studio head sputtered in a rage: “I am the scariest mother[bleep] you’ll ever have as an enemy in this town!” Seconds later, he took it back, but I’m still planning to have that crocheted on a pillow.
The celebrities might be richer, more famous, ruder and more comfortable displaying their megalomania, but writing a gossip column in New York, I’ve found, is little different from doing it in Washington, L.A. or any other place where the players are striving toward the top of the ziggurat, stepping on toes along the way.
A lot of gossip items are generated by rivalries -- whether in business, love or some other human endeavor -- with tipsters calling in to lay bare their enemies’ soft underbellies. I’ve never been bothered by the grinding of an ax, but it has been my job as a reporter to sniff out hidden agendas and, when conflicts are found, to make sure the story is true. Still others come from noncombatants who have a good eye and great ear for celebrities and, God bless them, get a thrill from planting something in the paper.
Many more come from publicists paid to hawk their clients’ restaurants, nightclubs, fashion labels, resorts, parties and products. Before this year’s Page Six scandal prompted a mad rush toward “ethical” gossip -- recently a Page Six reporter was sacked for, of all things, accepting a free massage -- it was often possible to read items as deposits or withdrawals from the favor bank and to imagine the sumptuous meals eaten, the champagne guzzled, the dresses “borrowed” and the junkets taken. Coming from the Post (which once made me decline the gift of a T-shirt from a White House aide), I was initially amazed by, but ultimately inured to, this culture of mutual back-scratching.
Then there’s the chronic question of what’s fair game for public consumption and what should remain unreported. I generally stayed away from reporting on celebrities’ kids and outing closeted gay people -- and I never wrote blind items, in which the subject is coyly indicated but not named, on the theory that if you can’t use the names, you haven’t nailed it down.
But I sometimes pushed the envelope. After I printed a carefully reported, and legally vetted, item about two married NBC News producers who had caused behind-the-scenes turmoil on their broadcast by flaunting their illicit romance, Tom Brokaw gently scolded that I’d gone way too far in writing about two unknown people.
The most satisfying gossip column offers a dollop of drama, conflict and misbehavior, along with a dash of hypocrisy and humor. It views this complicated world through the prism of personality -- and makes things, if temporarily, accessible and comprehensible. It also -- and here, arguably, is the socially redeeming part -- is the great leveler, demonstrating that the rich and famous have as many foibles as the rest of us. And it shows that we’re all in this together as members of a human community, even if it’s whispering behind someone’s back.
Not buying that argument? Then how about this: It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it -- maybe even at the Los Angeles Times.