Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Did You Hear?
One of the first indicators that told me the newspaper business was going irretrievably downhill came when I attended a ten-day seminar for editors and managing editors at the American Press Institute, located back then, in 1987, in Reston, VA. The aha! moment came during the session on lifestyle sections.
The seminar leader, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, had sent us questionnaires to fill out beforehand. One of the questions was, “Does your newspaper run a gossip column?” I said we didn’t.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when the session got under way and the chap produced samples from the papers present of what he called gossip columns. They were, without exception, the columns in which we printed the boring stuff people wanted us to print (“John Smith was named to the advisory board of the Heart Assn.”). It was what we printed to get people off our backs so we could cover the real news.
Planet earth to instructor: If people WANT you to print something, it is, by definition, NOT gossip.
You Could Look It Up
Webster’s, by the way, backs me up on this, its first definition referring to “personal or sensational facts.” Call me jaded, but Smith’s affiliation with the heart association does not seem personal or sensational in any way.
Gossip is Walter Winchell asking who was the tycoon making woo-woo with a chorus girl at the Stork Club Thursday night. Gossip is Herb Caen reporting that the prominent political figure who just died unexpectedly was a case of mistress’s nightmare: a fatal heart attack during the height of passion. That’s what I’m talking about!
Participating in gossip, either as a teller or a listener, is supposed to be a vice, even a sin, which it certainly wouldn’t be if the gossip consisted of Smith’s appointment to the heart association board. I have my doubts about the sin part. To me, gossip is simply human, and I would hope a just and merciful God would see it that way.
Really, it’s just a sign of interest in people and a grasp of what they really are. Samuel Johnson once said that a man who is tired of London is tired of life. You could substitute “gossip” for “London” in that sentence and it would be just as true.
A Small-Town Pastime
Gossip is frequently connected with small towns, and in those places no sentient human being can be under any illusions about the probity of his or her fellow citizens. That may be why Americans simultaneously romanticize small towns as being virtuous, while fleeing them in droves for the past 120 years.
In my second Quill Gordon mystery novel, the characters are cooped up in a remote fishing lodge and housebound by rain. Gordon and his sidekick spend a fair amount of time gossiping about the other guests, and the other guests were no doubt doing the same about them. Gordon’s sidekick actually serves as sort of a Greek chorus, making comment on the action.
The third book, now in the outline stage, will be taking a close look at the community structure of the town where the story takes place. Will there be gossip about the inhabitants? You bet your sweet bippy there will. It is, after all, a murder mystery, and most people get murdered for a reason. You would have to spend a lot of time reading newspapers to find a case where the reason for the crime was that the victim won the coveted spot on the Heart Assn. advisory board, and the killer was mad with jealousy.