Politics & Policy

Who Wants to Know?

In a free society where standards of civility and manners are voluntary, few are signing up.

The tabloid story that everybody’s talking about — but almost no one is writing about — has created an interesting debate on the Internet about the dueling roles of old/new media and what constitutes legitimate news.

The item prompting this debate concerns allegations of a former presidential candidate’s alleged affair, an alleged “love child” and a recent secret rendezvous in a Hollywood hotel.

Scandalous, no?

Well, yes and no. The “news” is being breathlessly discussed that way on the internet, but not much in the mainstream media. When does a story in the blogosphere become hot enough to make the jump to the MSM?

The short answer is: When there are facts to report. Until then, a rumor is a rumor is a rumor.

And tabloids, though sometimes right, are generally considered prurient entertainment, not reliable journalism. There is a difference in standards, even if mainstream journalism sometimes falls short of perfection.

The blogosphere is another creature altogether — a mixture of the highest and lowest levels of discourse, a village square where the planet’s brightest lights and dimmest creatures commingle in a random loop of spontaneous ignition. Content, often begun as a conversation among neighbors, is freewheeling and unrated. Journagossip.

As we’ve witnessed several times in recent years, what happens in the blogosphere can eventually reach a tipping point and jump the invisible barrier to the MSM. Mickey Kaus, a respected journalist and blogger, has created a theory of “undernews” around the phenomenon — news that simmers in the blogosphere until someone high on the mainstream food chain decides to take a bite of the apple.

The cycle looks something like this: First, the “news” is essentially gossip, based loosely on unnamed sources. Then the news is the story of the gossip. (Ah, the dull thrill of irony.) Then the story is the nonreporting of the story. And, voila, the “news” is News! What began in the tabloid world as gossip has gained legitimacy by virtue of the media covering itself.

As here. Sort of.

I’m trying to write this column without repeating the actual allegations because they’re unproved, but also because I don’t care. Of greater concern than the tragedy of human frailty, which is not news, is the driving force behind the story — schadenfreude — the pleasure in others’ misery.

Whether this particular story gets reported more broadly depends on multiple factors too numerous to list here, but my guess after 30 years in newspapers is that most editors simply don’t want to go there. We’ve traveled this road too many times, seen too much roadkill, and the scenery only gets worse.

What we recognize, inevitably, is that we’ve all become gossips, prying into other people’s private lives, sifting through their garbage, peeking in their windows, wallowing in their pain. Fifteen minutes of fame have morphed into 15 minutes of infamy. The sensation of the consumer is the same we feel at a friend’s funeral. Someday it will be ours.

When I was a little girl, my best friend was Mrs. Brown, a 65-year-old widow who lived on the corner across the street. Several times a week, I joined Mrs. Brown for lunch. She always ate the same thing: a hamburger patty, a scoop of cottage cheese, two slices of tomato with pepper, and a cup of hot tea with lemon.

One day, Mrs. Brown veered from course and also ate a slice of pecan pie. No sooner had she taken her last bite than her telephone rang. It was Mrs. MacQueen, another widow who lived on the opposite corner: “I saw you eat that piece of pie,” she said.

Mrs. Brown and I were both horrified, even though I knew that Mrs. Brown also watched Mrs. MacQueen’s every move from her own dining room window. They gossiped incessantly about one another. Heaven forbid, one should have had a night visitor.

Or that either had been a blogger.

In a matter of decades, we have become a nation of Mrs. Browns and Mrs. MacQueens — nosy little old ladies who can’t leave each other alone to eat a piece of pie, or even to fall from grace and suffer sorrow in the privacy of our own hearts. Ruinous humiliation is the coin of this wretched realm.

That’s the real scandal, and there may be nothing we can do about it.

In a free society where standards of civility and manners are voluntary, few are signing up.

– Kathleen Parker is author of Save the Males

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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