The Responsibility to Gossip

Why Serious Journalism Participates in Gossip

By William E. Shaub, Contributing Writer

It’s a good thing Americans “love” gossip—be it Hollywood or political—because they get a lot of it. In fact, Americans often pay for the privilege of finding gossip in the headlines of their most trusted newspapers, magazines, and cable news programs. Unknowingly, perhaps; or knowingly, with the understanding that their media options are remarkably limited.

Tabloid journalism itself garners the mass media over $3 billion a year, sponsoring what critics like Cornel West call an inhumane “culture industry” that relies on trivial reporting to present journalism on a personal level. It’s superficial, yet it feels curiously substantive because we can relate to it. Gossip might be purchased for this reason, but it’s sold for many others.

We all say that gossip is simply wrong, and nobody cares what Bill Clinton or Herman Cain do in their personal lives. It’s not our business. What many of us don’t understand, however, is that a mainstream industry of businesses exist that are dedicated to doing little else than making it our business. And this conglomeration of gossip operations within the media have a place in political discourse that they’ve carved out for themselves for over a century. Their role in American society is surprisingly significant in maintaining the systemic barriers that prevent real democracy from flourishing in the country.

Structural Pressure

If you were to ask a political tabloid like The Drudge Report or The Huffington Post why it routinely publishes information on the personal lives and values of presidential candidates, for example, their response would likely rest upon two main points. The first is that there is a market demand for such reporting, and that the increased page views on such material result in additional advertisement revenue, thus keeping their respective media operations in business.

[pullquote]There is indeed a market demand for gossip, and thus pressure on businesses to put forward a product to satisfy it[/pullquote]Media institutions across the board, from minor tabloid-news hybrids like the Daily Caller to agenda-setting powerhouses like the New York Times all feature gossip in their headlines from time to time. Do they really need gossip articles alongside “the issues” and policy wonk columnists in order to sell ads?

This is undoubtedly true. It’s also precisely why publications like The National Enquirer and The Sun line the registers of virtually every supermarket and gas station in the country. There is indeed a market demand for gossip, and thus pressure on businesses to put forward a product to satisfy it. But suppose we took this line of questioning a step further, probing why news organizations that host political journalists should feel the need to stay in business by producing gossip alongside real issues, with the former often written by the journalists themselves? Is such a method to “stay competitive” within the confines of the market consistent with democracy in civic life: a well-informed electorate as a result of a news media concerned with holding institutions accountable for the purpose of keeping democracy functioning?

The answer appears to make markets look quite inefficient, because the result of the described market pressure is less democracy. One effect of this is simply distracting the American public from real issues that affect it directly—from Medicare cuts to increased “defense” spending—and to put the focus on Newt Gingrich’s affairs or, to revisit the late 1990′s, Clinton’s impeachment trial (an issue-free media blitz). One might note Gallup’s reporting that Clinton’s approval rating barely dropped during the hearings, despite the media attention on “values,” supporting the unsurprising notion that the electorate was mostly concerned about the economy (something real).

Another effect of what the Harvard Law Review calls America’s resulting “democracy deficit” is the projection of political imagery to subvert meaningful democratic elections, thus diverting the public eye away from the private interests which dominate them. The candidates, all of whom are structurally beholden to moneyed domestic power, must have certain qualities and values that disguise such unelectable premises. Their backgrounds must be based on “values:” Rick Santorum’s stated policy positions—such as cutting the corporate tax rate by over half while dramatically increasing funding for the Pentagon system—aren’t enough for the mass media to portray him as unelectable, despite how grossly unpopular his positions are with the public. On the other hand, his wife’s former boyfriend was 40 years her senior and that may just make Santorum unelectable.
On the surface, this sounds outlandishly contemptuous of democracy—turning the elections into a spectator sport in which the public pushes a button for the candidate with the best hair. Crucial issues and public concerns then take a backseat to the superficial reporting on the candidates; after all, gossip is far more adept at constructing an image than issues like looming trade deals and proliferation agreements, especially since the issues being discussed by the candidates and the media are almost never public interest issues like those mentioned.

For example, CNN pundit and presidential debate host John King ran into controversy recently for asking presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich if allegations were true that he asked his second wife for an open marriage. The journalists who clearly think they’re committed to challenging power and authority all rallied to King’s defense, explaining that it was his journalistic duty. “Our job isn’t to be popular,” said Fox News’ Chris Wallace. After all, Gingrich’s family-friendly image was on the line, and that’s what is most important.

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