Thursday, July 14, 2011

Motivation's at heart of gossip

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The first four words leading up to a familiar name were all I needed to hear to know that this banter I overheard the other night, while friendly and good-natured, was gossip.

“Did you hear about …?” My stomach knotted up just a bit. When I heard the name, I clenched my teeth slightly.

I knew how the sentence would end, because I know the individual whose name had just been mentioned and was aware of the situation. That the person on the listening end of the dialogue actually might welcome this morsel bothered me more than a little.

Gossip. It is a short, ugly little word reflecting a sometimes innocent but often ugly pastime.

That it is universally reviled is readily evidenced by the reaction to a simple question: “Is this gossip?”

Yet all are drawn to it. Perhaps it is the promise of learning some new, perhaps dark secret about another, a nugget of titillating embarrassment. Perhaps it is the feeling that we are about to become privy to something – a secret inaccessible to others. Perhaps it is knowing that in sharing it, we will become the in-the-know insiders.

True, it often is innocent, associated with harmless chitchat. “Did you hear about Harry’s son? He graduated Saturday …”

Sometimes, it is even well-intentioned. “I heard Harry’s been in the hospital. Do you know if his family needs anything? How is he?”

But more often than not, it seems to me, that the teller is seeking his or her own bit of fame, a sense of self-importance or perhaps credibility. As in the world of news, being the first to “break” a story is particularly gratifying.

Perhaps it is more than a little ironic that I, a journalist, would find gossip to be at best distasteful and at worst, malignant. After all, journalists gather information and write stories about it, and some really great stories come to us first as gossip.

But even among journalists, there is an occupational hazard associated with listening too much and too long. I think that, ethically speaking, the worst “news” stories I have read over the years are those written in reaction to gossip, or rumors, because they tend to lend a bit more credibility to the gossip detract from the credibility of journalism. It gets worse with time, because the news reports seem to create an expectation that the rumor eventually will be proven true.

The “birther” controversy surrounding President Barack Obama was all about gossip, frequently spread by email and fanned by bloggers. As a journalist, I often was dismayed and frequently appalled at some of the stories I read. These were stories that came long after Obama’s election as president, which occurred some time after his birth certificate had been verified.

Many who continued to write about the birther controversy insisted it was newsworthy because people kept believing, despite proof to the contrary, that Obama had been born in another country and therefore legally could not be president. Yet many of those stories I read failed to point out the truth of the matter.

Truth is supposed to be one of the tenets of journalism.

But even in those stories that included the truth, it was buried so far down that 90 percent of readers would not even get to it. About 90 percent of readers do not make it past the first four or five paragraphs of a story – that trend was revealed in a study of newspaper readers years ago, and recently the same pattern has been recognized among online readers. (I am re-evaluating my own penchant for writing 1,000 words or more per blog post, by the way. I love to write, not to bore)

So it seemed to me that for months on end, the “birther story de jour” was more about a journalist writing something to justify his salary than it was about true journalism.

The news coverage seemed to feed the controversy and eventually prompted a disgusted President Obama to publicly release his “long-form” birth certificate to ultimately refute an issue that had lingered far too long, taken up far too much of everyone’s time.

On that day, I felt the news coverage was warranted if only to serve finally to dispel the gossip and rumor and innuendo that had taken on a life of its own.

Motivation is key. Gossip and rumors can be potent political tools. I think that was apparent in the birther controversy, but it also is well-illustrated in a popular legend about a former president.

During a run for Congress, Lyndon Baines Johnson is said to have told an aide to start spreading a rumor that his opponent, a farmer, enjoyed carnal relations with a pig. The aide reportedly responded that he could not do that because it was not true. Johnson’s response was along the lines that if his opponent publicly denied the rumor, Johnson would win the election.

In the interest of transparency, I spent a couple of hours Thursday evening googling this, reading various blogs and article, but I was unable to verify the veracity of this legend, which when I first heard of it in the early 1980s was attributed to Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. I certainly found many similar attributions, but none I would consider authoritative. I hesitated about referencing this at all because of that, yet it is a legend, and legends are difficult to substantiate. But it illustrates the nature of gossip/rumor as a political tool far better than I could myself.

So if you think my writing about it makes me a hypocrite on the issue of gossip, post your thoughts as a comment below.

So frequently, when I encounter gossip, the first question I have to ask is who stands to gain by spreading this juicy tidbit. Gossip frequently is self-serving, as illustrated in the legend about LBJ. Sometimes it is intended to kick someone when he’s down – or when he’s not around to defend himself.