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Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip

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As MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls, formerly of E!’s The Gossip Show, stresses repeatedly in Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, our desire for tittle-tattle has now reached pandemic proportions, seriously damaging our ability to distinguish real news from entertainment. ”Whenever the ‘legitimate’ media swears off gossip,” she writes, ”another medium comes along to fill the void.” Slithering its way from print to television and now onto the Web, gossip has demonstrated an almost bacterial knack for survival.

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. Flexing her columnist’s claws, Walls dredges up Drudge’s past as an aimless young man whose infatuation with cyberspace only came about when his dad, hoping to get his son interested in something, bought him a cheap computer. At the same time, 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. One disgruntled interviewee labeled him ”the Peeping Tom of TV.” Even the now-venerated 60 Minutes, Walls points out, has used ambush-style reporting and ”checkbook journalism” (e.g., CBS’ paying for an interview with Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman in 1974).

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.” Kingsley was also known to enforce unprecedented ”consent agreements” imposing strict limitations on what writers could discuss with the actor, especially during junkets. (For the record, in case you were wondering, EW does not sign agreements restricting interview content, nor does it give photo or writer approval.) It was, Walls illustrates, the kind of ruthless bartering that the Kennedys and Princess Diana always had a knack for negotiating themselves.

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. B-