That presumption is certainly held by its producers and purveyors. "I will break your back over my knee in the press," a New York Post gossipmonger e-mailed to an erstwhile source who had done him wrong, according to a recent (and deliciously reported) story in New York Magazine. So powerful an armament is "dish" deduced to be that, over the years, even the most august of media (Time, Newsweek, Publishers Weekly) have felt compelled to devote column feet to it. Why, even The New York Times has a daily gossip report, The Rothenberg Column has learned. (Whoops-we disclosed that last week. Sorry!)
But surely gossip today is nothing more than PR by another name. As long as you show up, it's no matter whether you show up well or badly. If Donald Trump cannot be damaged by brushes with insolvency; if Paris Hilton cannot be sullied by digitized intimacies; if Bill and Hillary can remain powerful, become rich, and stay married despite the blue dress-well, then no one is actually endangered by gossip.
True, one's first encounter with notoriety can be painful. I had my brief fling almost a decade ago, when The New York Observer tried to tarnish me because (as best I could tell) I wore Borsalinos. Spy magazine, too, had its way with me before it folded. Then there was the giveaway "shopper" serving the New York University environment that turned me into a bogeyman because the gossip columnist appeared to believe that he'd garner the paper attention among the younger elements in the advertising community. Again, the sallies-which were (accurately) themed around how irrelevant I was-served only to turn me into a minor celeb in the East Village.
All of which leads me to a speculation that belies the increasing amount of space given over to gossip: It's just not an important part of the media business anymore.
Evidence that gossip is no longer a potent lure has been available for a while. The popularity of publications like Hello and In Style seems to indicate that the willingly disclosed is as attractive to audiences as the unwillingly disclosed. And you don't have to be a careful reader to see that much gossip is little more than a headline over the obvious-a point brought home last week when, in an admittedly different context, reporter after reporter trudged onto TV to disclose, with a wink, nudge and knowing nod, that the Democratic National Convention was actually staged for political impact!
Meanwhile, the mainstay venues of the gossip trade are looking increasingly like dustbins for has-beens. Once fearsome, today's would-be Winchells are filling their space with warmed-over press releases for struggling restaurants and clubs, placed by freelance flacks paid $100 on up per placement. (One such sad sack even proudly bragged to New York Magazine about his physical resemblance to the cowardly publicist played by Tony Curtis in "Sweet Smell of Success.") And really, if an "aging star" is caught "canoodling" in public, isn't it fair to assume that the canoodle has a purpose?
The market economy is working its magic on content. When there's too much supply, value is depressed. Now that everyone's a Drudge, gossip is mere sludge.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.