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Joseph Epstein on the ever expanding roll gossip is playing in American public life.
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AS ANOTHER GOSSIP REPORTER, Epstein singles out Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-winning reporter “who has lived off leaks.” Hersh, he writes, “is a journalist…who without the benefit of leakers might just be out of business. His professional life has been based on the anonymous source…. Like any good gossip, Hersh prefers dramatic over staid stories. A good Hersh piece might have the U.S. government secretly financing an Arab terrorist group out of Henry Kissinger’s Swiss bank account.”
He chides the New York Times, a publication increasingly dependent on gossip, for its shabby election year front-page story about John McCain’s imaginary relationship with an attractive lobbyist, based solely on leaks and gossip; and for its refusal to go ahead with a reliably sourced account of the despicable John Edwards’s affair.
There are moments when Epstein speaks of the deep personal damage that gossip and the new media transmitting it can do. “Malice…is also too often an element of gossip, and the Internet…can be a powerful aid to malice, by spreading falsehoods-or even harmful truths—with a speed undreamed of by small-town-over-the-back-fence gossips.”
Epstein, who taught English for two decades at Northwestern, and who knows that our campuses are among the nation’s busiest gossip centers, says that he “is glad to have ceased teaching before the internet culture got going in a big-time way.” This new culture, he continues, “has quickened, and much intensified, the harm that gossip can do to its victims.”
But that’s the way we live now. And in the end, Epstein concludes, “Once a secret vice, gossip threatens to become the chief way we obtain our information, and there doesn’t appear much we can do about it…. ‘Live with it,’ as the kids say, and we may as well learn to do so, because living without the intrusions of gossip seems unlikely except in a Trappist monastery, and maybe, gossip has it, not even there.”
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