“Gossip” is about a lot more than just juicy tidbits and the columnists that peddle them, presenting a multifaceted look at gossip’s role in the newspaper/media ecosystem and at Rupert Murdoch’s enterprises in particular. It also reminds us that what happened in those columns didn’t stay there, with examples ranging from Kim Kardashian to Harvey Weinstein to Donald Trump.
The four-part Showtime docuseries charts the importance of gossip to the New York tabloids, but also the growth of such material beyond them, via the web, TMZ and television, where Murdoch brought his tabloid sensibilities with “A Current Affair,” spawning a host of imitators.
As New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg notes in the documentary, top columnists became “gossip royalty” in the early ’90s, with colorful personalities like Liz Smith and Cindy Adams, the latter, now 91, serving as this program’s de facto star, vaguely threatening repercussions for her interviewer if things don’t turn out to her liking.
Adams also explains tricks of the trade, like using the word “alleged,” after which, she says, “you can get away with anything.” She also freely admits to pulling punches and trading favors when her pals are involved, placing considerable stock in loyalty and those who have treated her well, saying she will “pay them back forever.”
Those interviewed point out that gossip served multiple purposes for someone like Murdoch, the mogul behind Fox News, who not only saw it as a means of boosting circulation for the New York Post but as a conduit for settling scores. As former New York Daily News columnist George Rush observes, gossip columns served as “the SWAT team for the publisher,” dispensing items that would reward Murdoch’s friends and punish foes.
As a private citizen, Trump was among those adept at banking goodwill with personalities like Adams, courting specific columnists and playing the game. The same held true for Weinstein, who not only trafficked in gossip but floated the possibility of publishing deals to secure favorable coverage — and kill negative stories. While insisting the extent of Weinstein’s alleged predatory sexual behavior wasn’t known, columnists acknowledge hearing rumors long before the producer faced reporting in the New Yorker and the New York Times that fueled the #MeToo movement.
“Harvey bought himself a lot of immunity,” says journalist Ken Auletta.
In a lighter vein, it’s noted that the Post’s Page Six column “made” Paris Hilton, and that Kardashian — originally dismissed as her “sidekick” — was a media-savvy branch from that tree, leveraging her gossip exposure into the family’s reality-TV empire.
Directed by Jenny Carchman (“The Fourth Estate”), “Gossip” contemplates the evolution of gossip across the decades, and the extent to which tabloid values permeated the broader media — an unsettling trend toward journalism becoming “faster, meaner and dirtier,” as Rutenberg puts it.
As former Post editor Ken Chandler recalls, the early ’90s became a time “when it seemed like the gossip columns escaped from their cages inside the paper and took over the front page.”
Today, the front page is frequently the home page, but that observation still rings true, with the gossip mavens, and what they embody, no longer relegated to a single column; rather, those instincts have rippled throughout the media, in a way that might be Murdoch’s most enduring legacy.
“Gossip” premieres Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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