Last night, the New School’s Center for Communication held a panel about gossip reporting—or, more precisely, ethical gossip reporting. “Despite the temptations and stereotypes,” flyers posted around the university’s Greenwich Village campus read, “you CAN write a gossip column with integrity!”
The panel comprised Jo Piazza, former executive editor of In Touch; former Page Six columnist George Rush; current Page Six columnist Richard Johnson; and Johnson’s colleague, New York Post theatre columnist and former Page Six reporter Michael Riedel, who served as moderator. If anyone present doubted the purpose of Post employees interviewing themselves about ethical reporting, they definitely didn’t show it.
In the auditorium of Arnhold Hall, on West 13th Street, Johnson and the rest dished, somewhat hesitantly, about their reporting techniques; their battles with power publicists; and, in an extended segment, their most memorable scoops (which Riedel called “clean kills.”)
The gossip trade, some of them noted, had its pitfalls.
“It’s just exhausting,” said Piazza, describing her career as a celebrity rumor merchant, “because it’s less your job and more your life. You are just on and working no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing.”
“It’s a hugely important job,” Piazza said shortly thereafter. “Celebrities control so much of what people think, what they buy, what they do, that there needs to be that system of checks and balances, calling them out and keeping them honest.”
Her Page Six counterparts offered a slightly less lofty justification for becoming gossip columnists.
“Was there an egomaniacal drive to you that you wanted to be more famous than just a jobbing reporter?” Riedel asked Johnson, who replied: “Well, it’s not like I hide from cameras.”
The thrill of gossip, the gadabout columnist later added, came from “the pleasure of the squirming, and the negotiating” with story subjects. The point of the endeavor, he explained, was “exposing their feet of clay, exposing their humanity.”
There were limits the panelists would not breach, though. “I do think there is a sense of what’s fair play in what we do,” Riedel said, “and hacking somebody’s phone seems to me to be not fair.” Johnson explained that Page Six once had an editor who forbade items based on eavesdropping. (That editor seems to have departed.)
Pay for Play
As I listened to the four panelists, I waited for one of them to bring up what has haunted the late Page Six era: The FBI investigation of reporter Jared Paul Stern for the attempted extortion of grocery store titan Ron Burkle, and the Post’s subsequent admission, in 2007, that Richard Johnson accepted a $1,000 payment from restauranteur Nello Balan in exchange for favorable coverage. This was, after all, a panel about integrity.
Then, during a brief question-and-answer period, an audience member asked the panel: “How common is it for the sword, or the pen, to be for sale?”
“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘for sale,’” began Piazza, who distinguished cash payments (bad) from free press trips to foreign locales (iffy). “It’s a fuzzy line, between the perks of being a gossip columnist and making your own code of ethics,” she said.
“People are always thinking that a dinner or something is going to sway you,” Rush added. “I think that usually is naive.”
Johnson, sitting two chairs away, took a sip from a bottle of water before noting that, “back in the day,” nightclubs would ply gossip columnists with free drinks in hopes of securing positive items. He didn’t say whether the trick worked on him.