The four-part Showtime docuseries charts the importance of gossip to the New York tabloids, but also the growth of such material beyond them, via the web, TMZ and television, where Murdoch brought his tabloid sensibilities with “A Current Affair,” spawning a host of imitators.
As New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg notes in the documentary, top columnists became “gossip royalty” in the early ’90s, with colorful personalities like Liz Smith and Cindy Adams, the latter, now 91, serving as this program’s de facto star, vaguely threatening repercussions for her interviewer if things don’t turn out to her liking.
Adams also explains tricks of the trade, like using the word “alleged,” after which, she says, “you can get away with anything.” She also freely admits to pulling punches and trading favors when her pals are involved, placing considerable stock in loyalty and those who have treated her well, saying she will “pay them back forever.”
Those interviewed point out that gossip served multiple purposes for someone like Murdoch, the mogul behind Fox News, who not only saw it as a means of boosting circulation for the New York Post but as a conduit for settling scores. As former New York Daily News columnist George Rush observes, gossip columns served as “the SWAT team for the publisher,” dispensing items that would reward Murdoch’s friends and punish foes.
“Harvey bought himself a lot of immunity,” says journalist Ken Auletta.
Directed by Jenny Carchman (“The Fourth Estate”), “Gossip” contemplates the evolution of gossip across the decades, and the extent to which tabloid values permeated the broader media — an unsettling trend toward journalism becoming “faster, meaner and dirtier,” as Rutenberg puts it.
As former Post editor Ken Chandler recalls, the early ’90s became a time “when it seemed like the gossip columns escaped from their cages inside the paper and took over the front page.”
Today, the front page is frequently the home page, but that observation still rings true, with the gossip mavens, and what they embody, no longer relegated to a single column; rather, those instincts have rippled throughout the media, in a way that might be Murdoch’s most enduring legacy.
“Gossip” premieres Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.