Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit
If you're not interested in gossip, you're not fully human.
By the second half of the 20th century, the examples of artistry were almost nonexistent, even while the practice became more widespread. As a figure representing both the increasingly personal nature of political coverage, and the worshipping of the famous, Epstein selects Barbara Walters, whom he accuses of being charmless and possessing “boundless ambition.” Walters belongs in the same category as his other target, Tina Brown, of whom he claims that “her great skill has been to encourage fundamental unseriousness in her readers.” Epstein manages to nearly understate his argument: Presumably there is a connection between the obsessive focus on the personal lives of politicians and celebrities and the fawning regard they are shown by those same media outlets (Tina Brown’s Princess Diana obsession comes to mind). Epstein approaches the nub when he says that Brown sees “everything as nearly interesting and nothing finally as important.”
Epstein is not exactly incorrect to mourn the coarseness of popular culture and the general level of ruthless gossip that permeates the public square, particularly on the Internet. He calls the “ruination of reputation” and the disregard of privacy the two most destructive aspects of gossip, and he expends a lot of old-fashioned ink proclaiming that the Web specializes in both. “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” Wilde wrote, not the only one of his quips that is, in light of his life, rather wince-inducing. But the irony that Western societies became more gossip-obsessed as they became generally less moralistic is a subject that one would have liked to see Wilde, or at least Epstein, tackle.
Moreover, as the Saint-Simon quote above displays, and as any reader of the Waugh-Mitford letters can attest, many of Epstein's examples of gossip at its finest are just as cruel and mean as what he is lamenting. Epstein’s broad definition and his straightforward narrative should allow him to see that what he loves and what he hates not only emanate from the same human impulses; one is also an antecedent of the other. Saint-Simon might have been a better writer than the Internet trolls who spread vile rumors about Lindsay Lohan, but Epstein never pauses to ask whether the malice he celebrates in Waugh is really so different from what he finds when he sits down at his computer.
A more intriguing discussion of gossip and the Internet might have focused not on the content of the gossip, but the speed with which it spreads. Daniel Solove’s fine book on the subject, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (2007), is not sanguine, even if he recognizes gossip’s social utility. The Internet is not just another outlet for gossip; it is, in Solove’s words, gossip “on steroids.” Gossip has a much greater ability to catch hold and circulate online. Scandalous rumors can attach themselves to gossip as it spreads. Tracing information back to an original source becomes even more difficult, and once a piece of information is in the public arena, expunging it becomes nearly impossible. The medium becomes the message. Epstein quotes Solove, but mainly just to repeat some of the latter’s anecdotes. One increasingly gets the sense that what Epstein really dislikes is the modern age. He mourns the decline of what he calls “square society,” and admits that he cannot get real pleasure from the cinema anymore.
However, in a discussion of Tom Wolfe and the “New Journalism,” Epstein puts forward the idea that "Radical Chic"—Wolfe’s essay about Leonard Bernstein trying to raise money for the Black Panthers at his ritzy New York apartment—“is great journalism, but also gossip raised to the highest power. In fact the two, in the hands of the New Journalists, seemed one and the same thing.” Here Epstein seems positively delighted by the decline of a social norm, because, in his words, “ 'Radical Chic' put an end to the rich unselfconsciously displaying their empty virtue by siding with the very people who, should their dreams come true, would be only too pleased to lead them to the guillotine.” Perhaps Epstein would rather live in a society where rich people didn’t for a second “side with” the less fortunate. He earlier describes Winchell by noting the latter’s “need for recognition, his disregard for the feelings of others, his shrewd sense of self-promotion, his tireless pursuit of the scandalous,” all of which could easily describe Wolfe.
This is not the only hint that politics have infected Epstein’s analysis. He states that one’s interest in gossip tends to be determined by one’s political opinions, which leads him to make the astonishing claim that liberals were uninterested in stories of President Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes. As someone who spent the better part of the Clinton scandals living in Berkeley, Calif., I can assure him that this was not the case. Nor is it true that those who drone on about JFK and Camelot have no taste for gossip about the more tawdry aspects of the Kennedy White House.
Gossip tends to be discussed as a pastime for adults, but it is children who actually bear its heaviest burden. I spent almost a decade working in a neighborhood pharmacy in Berkeley, where old men would wander in to pick up Viagra prescriptions and teenagers would circle the condom section before sheepishly bringing their selection to the counter. It was all so obvious that I hardly noticed: The elderly viewed their erectile dysfunction as nothing more than life’s course, and could not have cared less if someone saw them. The teenagers looked pained to buy birth control, even from someone who was their own age. The older you are, the less you care what other people think.
Gossip has the power it does because we are all wary of having too much of ourselves revealed. This is probably why those moments from childhood—the secret that a classmate uttered, the detail from your home life that made it to school—can still register years later. If age has not been good to the practice of gossip, as Epstein argues, aging is the only remedy for overcoming the pain of being gossiped about. This realization is a nice complement to another one: Almost everyone enjoys gossiping. Only when both of these things are understood can we accept the practice with more stoicism and partake in it with less malice.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at the New Republic.