Patrick W. Gavin was a reporter at Politico from 2009 to 2014 and is currently at work on a documentary about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
It’s not been a good few years for the Washington gossip industry.
Politico, my home for five years before I left recently to pursue documentary filmmaking, once had six journalists — myself included — writing for its “Click” gossip section. All of us left over the years, and the section was disbanded in December.
If Politico, whose success has been driven by its aggressive coverage of every move in Washington, has decided that there’s no more water to be squeezed from that rock, then trust me, it must be dry.
Look around. While long-standing columns such as The Washington Post’s “In the Loop” and “The Reliable Source” and U.S. News’s “Washington Whispers” are still around, many of their brethren are gone. The Washington Examiner folded its “Yeas & Nays” column. The Hill killed its “Washington Scene” section. Roll Call trimmed the staff of its “Heard on the Hill” column in half. The once-titillating Wonkette.com has turned away from snarky stories of Capitol Hill liaisons and toward snarky takes on actual policy. TMZ said it would start TMZDC.com in 2007; the site has yet to launch.
It has all been enough to prompt FishbowlDC — yet another gossip blog that’s struggled to feed the beast — to run a regular feature on “Why Washington D.C. Gossip Sucks.”
For the wonks in our midst, this may seem like a victory. But it’s not. The gossip hasn’t gone away — it’s gone mainstream.
Of course, what we traditionally considered gossip (who’s sleeping with whom, the blind items, the titillating innuendo) went away ages ago. And with a proliferation of news outlets, Web sites and Twitter feeds, Washington has turned into a town with more reporters than sources. In turn, it is the sources who can play hardball, not the reporters, who fear losing access and having scoops go to competitors. As a result, the sharp edges of gossip have dulled. When Emily Heil was named one of The Post’s new “Reliable Source” columnists last fall and a dinner was held in her honor at K Street’s Look Restaurant and Lounge, Heil was harangued by a cacophony of former gossip columnists telling her about how much better it was in their day.
The gossip that remains is safer, gentler and ubiquitous — because it’s been redefined as “color” or “soft news” — and can come from everywhere, including from the pens of more serious reporters. The secretary of defense whom White House staffers initially dubbed “Yoda.” The badgering, bullying political spouse. The Fox News reporter’s White House-shaped wedding cake. The chief of staff who cursed out Bo, the first dog. The congressman who is unamused when told he needs more makeup before a television hit.
Gossip columns may be dying off, but gossip reconceived as a zero-calorie giggle nugget is alive and well.
For news consumers, this means that the old categories for substantive vs. shallow news have eroded. Publications are downsizing their gossip columns simply because the best stuff is increasingly being used by “serious” reporters. If a Washington news outlet no longer has a dedicated gossip columnist, it’s because it has multiple reporters charged with churning out softer, traffic-generating items.
Moreover, some of the biggest names in Washington political journalism eagerly traffic in what once was considered the province of the gossip columnist. Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen serves up a steady stream of juicy nuggets in his morning “Playbook” (from April 8: “THE WINNER of the White House NCAA bracket, which includes current staff and administration alumni: Chief of Staff Denis McDonough”). New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich’s 2013 book, “This Town,” was filled with so much dish and dirt that Lloyd Grove, himself a former gossip columnist, wrote that “the sweaty, twitching, huddled masses of Washington gossip addicts” would regard it as “the literary equivalent of crack.” And in November, Charlie Rose asked journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann — of “Game Change” and “Double Down” fame — a blunt question about their books: “If I used the word ‘gossipy,’ would you accept that?”
It’s not that these writers have ceased to be serious reporters. It’s that in the age of the incredible shrinking attention span, listicles and click-bait summaries of a reporter’s “top nuggets” and “juicy revelations” are the best ways to extend the lifecycle of your articles, books and brand.
None of us is immune from such line-straddling: I recall one moment in 2013 when I talked with “Extra” about a buzzy Hollywood movie in the works about a young Hillary Clinton and, the next morning, went on “Morning Joe” to discuss Timothy Geithner’s replacement at the Treasury Department. The juxtaposition felt completely normal to me.
Reporters who benefit from the passing on of soft news nuggets may recoil at the notion that they would ever do such a thing. In response to Rose’s question, Halperin said, “We bridle at that a little bit — gossip is something that’s unconfirmed,” while Leibovich admitted on “The Daily Show” that his book had gossip but said he wasn’t happy that some people were electing to focus on that.
Others, however, embrace the notion that, in experienced hands, gossip ceases to be that. In its review of Jonathan Alter’s “The Promise,” about President Obama’s first year in office, Britain’s Telegraph put it like this: “Alter’s book is an incredible document, full of information that in less distinguished hands might be called gossip.”
This style of journalism may be a way to sexy up political reporting, keeping the eyeballs reading and the fingers clicking and the journalists working. But news organizations and reporters should also be concerned about protecting the integrity of their brand when front-page reporters get bandied about as gossip peddlers. It is precisely in the distinguished hands of sober and established reporters that gossip gets a credibility and a platform it might not deserve.
Readers know what they’re getting when they pick up People magazine vs. the Economist. And while there is room and reason for both hallmark reporters and gossip chroniclers, blurring the line between them is risky. In an effort to satisfy the varied needs of their consumers, many reporters are trying to be all things to all people: Straight and saucy, proper and prattling.
It is a delicate dance for the journalists, certainly. But in the end, it is the readers who may find the choreography far too dizzying.