Friday, January 08, 2010


(News-Herald, January 7) Gossip has always been associated with small towns. I don’t think we have a lock on the sweet pastime, but I do think there is a special brand that flourishes only in small communities.
Big city gossip is not a pastime—it’s an industry. Entire magazines and cable channels are devoted to dishing the latest dirt about a variety of celebrities. This is not new. Opponents of Presidential candidate James G. Blain shouted “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” in reference to his alleged illegitimate child (the reply from his supporters was “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”) As long as there has been print, a certain amount of it has been devoted to gossip about the famous and successful.
Big city gossip has upped the ante by creating faux celebrities. We call them famous for being famous, but they are famous because they are fun to gossip about. In the big city gossip industry, people are willing to pay for dishes of new dirt.
This business model clearly does not work as well in a small town setting. At least, I don’t think so. Perhaps it is time for the News-Derrick to start a local gossip page. But small town gossip is a little like Christmas—it’s more fun to give than to receive.
Small town gossip used to come in more varieties than big city stuff. Small towns could gossip about general misbehavior, attributing all manner of rule breaking that, in print, would feed a flock of libel lawyers. During Prohibition, Chess Lamberton was picked up for an alcohol violation, but charges were dismissed weeks later when the evidence had mysteriously vanished. That much I know from newspaper accounts, but I’ll bet that a considerably more colorful story was traveling around town at the time.
Nowadays, malfeasance gossip is a lost art, mainly because people no longer feel much shame over being caught Doing Naughty Things (“Why yes, I cleaned out the pension fund. But let me show you our vacation pictures from Bermuda!”)
It’s not that gossip requires shame as fuel. It’s that gossip tends to shrivel up in the face of well-dispersed hard facts. If everybody already knows exactly how Floyd burned down his mother-in-law’s house, there’s no fun to be had conjecturing and nobody to pass the conjecture on to.
That’s why personal gossip will always provide entertainment. It’s not just that personal gossip is impervious to facts, but that solid facts will never be available.
The fastest way to get yourself on the small town gossip grapevine is to get a divorce. Divorce can be a matter of public interest (just how many businesses around here have been sunk because the owners went through a messy split), but mostly they provide drama surrounding a set of unknowable circumstances.
Regardless of a couple’s circumstances, nobody outside of the two people involved can possibly know what is between them. It’s fun to make guesses about why two people come together or fall apart, but guesses are all you can really have. As long as the guesses are entertaining, you can keep playing.
Guesses and gossip go together like peanut butter and jelly. And small town gossip can travel with a speed and vigor that the best big city tabloid can only dream of. Electricity seeks the ground, water seeks its own level, and gossip seeks the path of greatest entertainment. Gossip is only fun to know if you can tell another person. But not just anybody. You seek out the person who will be most entertained, whose face will register shock and surprise (or the jackpot—real emotions like joy or anger or pain or outrage).
In fact, passing on gossip to an entertained audience can be such a rush that many people just go ahead and pass on gossip about themselves.
Big city gossip has to hunt for an audience. Before you can be entertained by scoop about Paris Hilton or Heidi Montag, you have to know (and care) who they are. Even in a big city, that’s a small crowd. Because everyone knows everyone in a small town, potential audience is everywhere. The trick is not to find a possible audience, but to find it first, before someone else ruins your fun.
Is gossip bad? I’m not a big fan of Not Truth, but I suppose gossip, like the truth, can be spoken maliciously or kindly. Just don’t mistake gossip and truth for each other, and when you’re the subject, don’t confuse gossip with genuine concern.

1 comment:

Dittman said...

You could write a book on this! Wasn't "Ma, Ma..." used against Grover Cleveland though? At least, that's what I heard through the grapevine...

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