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Celebrity ‘news’ goes supersonic on Internet

Rise of blogs, on-demand access turn gossip into no-holds-barred enterprise
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Ten years ago, gossip addicts had to work to get their fix.

Many newspapers didn’t have their own gossip columns. They flourished in the tabloids in New York and a few other big cities, but anyone living elsewhere had to hope that the juicy celeb tidbits were picked up in the local paper — or plead with city friends to have them read over the phone. Or wait until the weekends to buy the supermarket tabs, enduring the disapproving stares of the other shoppers.

I was grateful I lived in New York City — if only for its abundant newsstands. Every morning on my way to work I bought 12 newspapers: The New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, WWD, Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety. I needed to read them all because one might have some small item that the others overlooked. I also had to get my hands on all the weeklies: On Monday, the news magazines came out, and if you knew where to look, selected newsstands had the supermarket tabs on Thursday mornings, (though an obsessed gossip connoisseur friend of mine insisted that he knew where to find them late Wednesday evening).

I’d start reading in the taxi, impatiently skimming general news headlines and then quickly turning to the pages I was really interested in: the Post’s Page Six, the Daily News’s Rush and Molloy, the Washington Post’s Reliable Source. The rather substantial outlay of cash — more than $10 a day — as well as the cumbersome process of hauling the papers around was worth it: I was in the loop. But by the time I toted my bundle of newspapers into the office, my hands were covered with ink. Some people I knew actually had a special pair of gloves they wore just to read the papers. I never did, but I had taken to wearing almost entirely black clothes because I was truly an ink-stained wretch and my clothes were smudged with ink by 10 a.m.

The early cyberberians
One day in 1996, a friend offered to show me how to use this thing called the Internet. He typed what seemed hopelessly complicated codes of letters and slashes and periods (which he insisted on calling “dots” — which I though was an absolutely hilarious affectation) and eventually a screen labeled gossip popped up. It was all tired stuff that I had read days or even weeks earlier in the tabloids. The cyber gossips seemed clueless and hopelessly behind the news — cyberberians I called them.

It was, in many ways, a sorry time for gossip. Publicists had much more control over what was said about their celebrity clients because magazines and television shows so desperately needed access to Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts that celebrity journalism — a phrase some people have called an oxymoron — was becoming little more than an extension of the stars’ publicity machines. There were relatively few publications aggressively writing about celebs and the publicists would reward the co-operative ones by giving them access to their clients and leaking info about other celebs. They could also punish the renegade ones by blacklisting their publications.

Saddened by this tragic state of celeb gossip, I stopped writing a column and spent most of my time outside of New York City, working on a book and cut off from the distraction of the newsstands. I went into dish withdrawal. Desperate for a fix, I revisited that Internet place that had seemed such a wasteland a few years earlier. I was stunned. It — and the entire World Wide Web — were awash in celeb gossip! Some was primitive and crude. Some was downright made up or name-calling or scurrilous. But I could most of the daily columns online. And it was also fast. And accessible. And free. By the time I got to the local grocery store to buy the daily newspapers and tabloids, I had already read most of the items. The inky type against the dingy newsprint seemed so low-tech, the piles of discarded papers so wasteful, and mostly, the slowness of the medium, so last millennium. I was hooked.

So in late 1998, when I was offered a job on the Internet, I leaped at the chance. “DOT COM,” I had to explain to publicists when I was first calling for comment. “It’s the Internet. You know. Online?” Some told me that they didn’t take calls from Internet reporters. It wasn’t worth their time, they felt. They quickly changed their minds. Items that were reported online were read not in just one town or even one country, but across the globe. They were get picked up by print. Print started getting more aggressive just to keep up. And the Internet gossips started going wild. At and other sites set up by legit news organizations, reporters were required to try to figure out if something was actually true before we ran it; most Internet reporters didn’t let themselves be stymied by such boring mainstream media rules — they printed whatever the heck they heard.

Changing the rulesThe rules were clearly changing. Take the bizarre case of that Tom Cruise rumor. Some gay porn wrestler named Chad Slater did or maybe didn’t claim that he had a fling with the Top Gun. It was printed by an obscure French magazine in 2001 and no doubt would have died there — but the Internet took it and ran with it, and soon those gay rumors about Cruise were all over the World Wide Web. Cruise sued for $100 million. He won some undisclosed amount, as well as abject apologies and groveling denials from Slater — but some PR pundits believe Cruise lost in the long run. Cruise’s sexuality — long the subject of whispers, but seldom the subject of articles — had become fair game. The long-simmering war between celebs and the media had exploded, and the Internet was the most active battlefield.

The Internet was hot. Too hot. After the Internet stock crash, many sites that had been supported with big bucks by investors like Mr. Showbiz and faltered, and many of the stronger sites rethought their strategies. At the same time, smaller sites like Smoking Gun that only had a couple of people and hadn’t relied on investors, continued to break stories — and were often bought up by larger companies.

Today, there are more gossip sites than ever — and some of the most aggressive celeb reporting out there is done on the Internet — by media that neither needs nor wants access to the celebs. The print media has responded by getting more aggressive, and critics are quick to say that celeb reporting has never been more reckless. And then there are those gossip bloggers — Jossip, Defamer, Gawker, The Superficial, to name a few of the best — sites that obsessively round up the most juicy tidbits of the day and serve them out with wickedly wry running commentary. They get carpal tunnel syndrome for the sake of dish so that you don’t have to.

Today, anyone with a computer has access to more gossip than I did with my armful of newspapers 10 years ago. And they don’t have to wear black clothes.

Jeannette Walls, aka The Scoop, has been covering celebrity news for since 1998. Her Scoop column runs Monday through Thursday each week.