There was a time when journalism was separate from the gossip pages. Investigative reporters went after serious stories, such as Watergate. Issues that could cause public harm were the targets and journalists broke stories because it was their duty and not for acclaim and becoming the center of attention. There is a disturbing trend in which reporters try to dig up "dirt" on celebrities and bring it to the public. It can come in the form of comments made years ago, in a different era, that may now be construed as controversial. It could be a performance, such as a comedy sketch, that in today's sensitive climate would not fly. Is this really journalism?
The Rise of Gossip
In the past, celebrity dirt was relegated to the gossip pages. People like Hedda Hopper made a career of reporting on private matters in celebrity lives. Hopper became a celebrity in her own right by writing these kinds of stories. But at the time, stories of this type were not considered serious journalism and celebrities rarely had their careers destroyed. Fans cared about the public persona and gossip was considered "rag material" and not well-respected.
The Jeopardy! Saga
One of the most recent examples of this new form of journalism is the saga of Mike Richards. Richards, a successful executive producer of games shows such as The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune served in the same capacity on Jeopardy. After the passing of the legendary Alex Trebek, a months-long search for a new host concluded with Richards being tabbed to succeed Trebek. When a story broke about jokes Richards had made on a podcast show nearly a decade ago that were viewed as insensitive, the new host apologized even offering to take sensitivity training.
The damage was done. Richards ended up quitting his role as host after shooting the first week of the new season. He was subsequently fired as executive producer. Were these breaking stories the result of solid investigative journalism? Or just gossip that doesn't belong on the front page?
The Blur Between Journalism and Gossip
Today, there are still reporters who make a career of gossip, just as Hedda Hopper did. Hopper, in fact, outed celebrities as Communists and got many blacklisted. This was a dark time in American history when celebrities' careers and lives were ruined by an overzealous reporter.
Sadly, history seems to be repeating itself. Gossip is now considered investigative journalism by many. There are reporters who dig into the past of celebrities just looking for a story they can break that will shock the public. Some of them are becoming celebrities in their own right, making themselves the story. Rather than seeing reporting as a duty to get to the facts and inform the public, it becomes a path to fame and fortune.
In the case of the Richards story, Ringer reporter Claire McNear, is enjoying her 15 minutes. Some hail her as a hero, closer to Woodward and Bernstein than Hedda Hopper. But taking down the host of a game show certainly does not come anywhere near the importance of doing the same with a corrupt U.S. president. Yet, many of these gossip writers consider themselves to be journalists doing a public service.
The power of the press cannot be denied. But to quote the late Stan Lee, with great power, there must also come great responsibility. We must ask ourselves, is digging into the past of a celebrity for anything even mildly controversial and turning it into a huge story, really doing a good deed for society?