Charles Winecoff
March 08, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls’ hyperbolic history of the rumor biz, opens with Internet skank Matt Drudge, who ”hijacked the news” when he broke the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, leaving the networks no choice but to follow his lead. She packs Drudge into a half-baked societal tract about the democratic new technology that allows anybody to be a ”citizen reporter,” free to post scandals ”too juicy to ignore and too tawdry to explore” without the interference of prudish editors. In other words, the PC police made him do it.

When not similarly straining to put People (guilty of making celebrity journalism mainstream), ”lusty, busty Tina Brown” (guilty of making it upscale in Vanity Fair), and Steve Dunleavy (guilty of guerrilla tactics on ”A Current Affair”) into meaningful social contexts, Walls’ book is informative if not entirely self-assured. A perfunctory paragraph on 15th-century B.C. cuneiform tablets and arrest reports from 1830s American penny presses seems an embarrassing afterthought.

Though it’s fun to learn the history of the National Enquirer — created in 1957 when a newspaper publisher observed bystanders swarming around a car crash and was inspired to turn his struggling weekly into a gore-exploitation rag — it would have been nice if she’d also explained how the word ”tabloid,” which originally referred only to a newspaper’s size, came to have such sleazy connotations.

”Dish” is at its best when detailing the often-ignominious backgrounds of some of today’s most ubiquitous news figures (though Walls’ use of the past tense when writing about peers like Drudge, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, and Liz Smith smacks of wishful thinking). For example, long before ”60 Minutes,” Mike Wallace was a radio actor and TV-game-show host whose big break was” Night Beat,” a 1956 ”sex and scandal” talk show on New York’s WABC.

Also thorough is her chapter on the rise of ”the gatekeepers,” publicists like Pat Kingsley, Peggy Siegal, and Nancy Seltzer, who rose to power in the 1980s when demand for stars — from magazines, newspapers, and TV shows — outstripped the supply. ”It was, quite simply, a seller’s market,” says Walls, ”and Kingsley began to set the terms. She would withhold her clients, seeing who would offer the best deal: the most favorable coverage, the most flattering photographs.” Sometimes stars got photo approval or even writer approval. According to Walls, Kingsley’s client Tom Cruise ”once rejected fourteen writers before agreeing to sit for a Rolling Stone profile.”

In the end, ”Dish” never delivers any real bombshells, and its relentlessly garrulous tone eventually becomes anesthetizing. Walls seems more comfortable chronicling the petty rivalries and jaded machinations of the media than she does squeezing rehashed watersheds like the death of Elvis and the O.J. Simpson trial for broader significance. That makes ”Dish ”more appetizer than main course — not substantial enough to be filling, but strewn with delicious tidbits nonetheless.

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