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A gossip columnist is someone who writes a gossip column in a newspaper or magazine, especially a gossip magazine. Gossip columns are material written in a light, informal style, which relates the gossip columnist's opinions about the personal lives or conduct of celebrities from show business (motion picture movie stars, theater, and television actors), politicians, professional sports stars, and other wealthy people or public figures. Some gossip columnists broadcast segments on radio and television.
The columns mix factual material on arrests, divorces, marriages and pregnancies, obtained from official records, with more speculative gossip stories, rumors, and innuendo about romantic relationships, affairs, and purported personal problems.
Gossip columnists have a reciprocal relationship with the celebrities whose private lives are splashed about in the gossip column's pages. Of course, some gossip columnists can engage in borderline defamatory conduct, spreading innuendo about alleged immoral or illegal conduct that can injure celebrities' reputations. Yet at the same time, gossip columnists are also an important part of the "Star System" publicity machine that turns movie actors and musicians into celebrities and superstars that are the objects of the public's obsessive attention and interest. The publicity agents of celebrities often provide or "leak" information or rumors to gossip columnists to publicize the celebrity or their projects, or to counteract "bad press" that has recently surfaced about their conduct.
Libel and defamation
While gossip columnists’ "bread and butter" is rumor, innuendo, and allegations of scandalous behavior, there is a fine line between legally acceptable spreading of innuendo and rumor and the making of defamatory statements, which can provoke a lawsuit. Newspaper and magazine editorial policies normally require gossip columnists to have a source for all of their allegations to protect the publisher against lawsuits for defamation.
Celebrities or public figures whose private lives are revealed in gossip columns who believe that their reputation has been defamed — that is, exposed to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or pecuniary loss — can sue for libel. A gossip columnist cannot defend themselves from a libel claim by arguing that they merely repeated, but did not originate the defamating rumor or claim; instead, the columnist has to prove that the allegedly defaming statement was truthful, or that it was based on a reasonably reliable source.
In the mid-1960s, rulings by the United States Supreme Court made it harder for the media to be sued for libel in the U.S. The court ruled that libel only occurred in cases where a publication printed falsehoods about a celebrity with “reckless disregard” for the truth. A celebrity suing a newspaper for libel must now prove that the paper published the falsehood with actual malice or with deliberate knowledge that the statement was both incorrect and defamatory.
Moreover, the court ruled that only factual misrepresentation is libel, not expression of opinion. Thus if a gossip columnist writes that they “...think that Celebrity X is an idiot,” the columnist does not face a risk of being sued for libel. On the other hand, if the columnist invents an allegation that “...Celebrity X is a wife beater,” with no supporting source or evidence, the celebrity can sue for libel on the grounds that their reputation was defamed.
The first gossip columnist, dominating the 1930s and 40s, was Walter Winchell, who used political, entertainment, and social connections to mine information and rumors, which he then either published in his column On Broadway, or used for trade or blackmail, to accumulate more power. He became "the most feared journalist" of his era.
In Hollywood's "golden age" in the 1930s and 1940s, gossip columnists were courted by the movie studios, so that the studios could use gossip columns as a powerful publicity tool. During this period, the major film studios had "stables" of contractually obligated actors, and the studios controlled nearly all aspects of the lives of their movie stars. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the two best-known - and competing - Hollywood gossip columnists were Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
Well-timed leaks about a star's purported romantic adventures helped the studios to create and sustain the public's interest in the studios' star actors. As well, the movie studios' publicity agents acted as unnamed "well-informed inside sources" who provided misinformation and rumors to counteract whispers about celebrity secrets — such as homosexuality or an out-of-wedlock child — that could have severely damaged not only the reputation of the movie star in question, but the movie star's box office viability.
Having fallen into ill-repute after the heyday of Hopper and Parsons, gossip columnists saw a comeback in the 1980s. Today, many mainstream magazines such as Time which would once have considered the idea of hiring gossip columnists to pen articles to have been beneath their stature, have sections titled "People" or "Entertainment". These mainstream gossip columns provide a light, chatty glimpse into the private lives and misadventures of the rich and famous. At the other end of the journalism spectrum, there are entire publications that deal primarily in gossip, rumor, and innuendo about celebrities, such as the 'red-top' tabloids in the UK and celebrity 'tell-all' magazines.
Notable gossip columnists
Notable gossip columnists include:
Columns not named for a columnist
Gossip columns that are not named after a specific columnist, along with the media source, include:
- 3am — Daily Mirror, a British newspaper.
- Access Hollywood — a syndicated television program
- Bizarre — The Sun, a London, United Kingdom, newspaper
- Page Six — New York Post, a New York City, New York, United States, newspaper
- Inside New York, in New York Post, New York City, United States, newspaper
- Inside the Beltway — The Washington Times, a Washington, D.C., United States, newspaper
- Off the Record — The New York Observer, a New York City, New York, United States, newspaper
- Vegas Confidential — Las Vegas Review-Journal, a Las Vegas, Nevada, United States, newspaper
Mulcahy, Susan. My Lips Are Sealed: Confessions of a Gossip Columnist. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Without ISBN