The celebrities might be richer, more famous, ruder and more comfortable displaying their megalomania, but writing a gossip column in New York, I've found, is little different from doing it in Washington, L.A. or any other place where the players are striving toward the top of the ziggurat, stepping on toes along the way.
A lot of gossip items are generated by rivalries -- whether in business, love or some other human endeavor -- with tipsters calling in to lay bare their enemies' soft underbellies. I've never been bothered by the grinding of an ax, but it has been my job as a reporter to sniff out hidden agendas and, when conflicts are found, to make sure the story is true. Still others come from noncombatants who have a good eye and great ear for celebrities and, God bless them, get a thrill from planting something in the paper.
Many more come from publicists paid to hawk their clients' restaurants, nightclubs, fashion labels, resorts, parties and products. Before this year's Page Six scandal prompted a mad rush toward "ethical" gossip -- recently a Page Six reporter was sacked for, of all things, accepting a free massage -- it was often possible to read items as deposits or withdrawals from the favor bank and to imagine the sumptuous meals eaten, the champagne guzzled, the dresses "borrowed" and the junkets taken. Coming from the Post (which once made me decline the gift of a T-shirt from a White House aide), I was initially amazed by, but ultimately inured to, this culture of mutual back-scratching.
Then there's the chronic question of what's fair game for public consumption and what should remain unreported. I generally stayed away from reporting on celebrities' kids and outing closeted gay people -- and I never wrote blind items, in which the subject is coyly indicated but not named, on the theory that if you can't use the names, you haven't nailed it down.
But I sometimes pushed the envelope. After I printed a carefully reported, and legally vetted, item about two married NBC News producers who had caused behind-the-scenes turmoil on their broadcast by flaunting their illicit romance, Tom Brokaw gently scolded that I'd gone way too far in writing about two unknown people.
The most satisfying gossip column offers a dollop of drama, conflict and misbehavior, along with a dash of hypocrisy and humor. It views this complicated world through the prism of personality -- and makes things, if temporarily, accessible and comprehensible. It also -- and here, arguably, is the socially redeeming part -- is the great leveler, demonstrating that the rich and famous have as many foibles as the rest of us. And it shows that we're all in this together as members of a human community, even if it's whispering behind someone's back.
Not buying that argument? Then how about this: It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it -- maybe even at the Los Angeles Times.