11/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Gossip Matters So Much It Hurts

To get an idea of how strange today's gossip scene is we need to look at the history of gossiping. There is no beginning to speak of. We assume that buzzing about others is one of those immutable truisms of the human condition: people talk about other people for the sake of talking about other people.

The English word gossip originated as godsibb, meaning "a person related to one in God," or a godparent. Until the 1800s, actually, gossip denoted friendship. Today gossip is defined by the dictionary as chatty talk or the reporting of sensational or intimate information.

The Puritans punished gossip in extreme ways, often dragging convicted gossipers through town and inviting townsfolk to point and call names. (They were pretty big on public humiliation.) These people had a habit of confining gossiping women to chairs and unceremoniously dunking them in cold water.

Always a useful tool in American politics, gossip nearly tore apart the Union in the 1830s. President Andrew Jackson appointed John Eaton his Secretary of War. Political enemies of Jackson spread the rumor that Eaton's second wife had been pregnant with Eaton's child before her first husband was out of the picture. Advocates of nullification -- the belief that the states have the power to ignore federal laws regulating their activity -- used the incident as "proof" that Jackson was accepting of immoral ideas and was therefore an ineffective leader. The nullifiers gained momentum from this "scandal" and Eaton was forced to resign.

No one is sure which magazine was the first regular "rag" in the U.S., but the consensus is that 1916's Broadway Brevities & Society Gossip was a pioneer. That weekly covered the "A-listers" of the day -- back then, the famed Broadway set. Just like today, outing closeted gay public figures was a popular, effervescent activity.

In 1938, B-level actress Hedda Hopper began writing a regular column in Hollywood. She was perhaps the first to use her perch to consciously scare objects of her wrath, even naming her home "The House That Fear Built." Hopper really made a name for herself when she printed the names of suspected communists during the blacklisting days. Hopper was not at all liked by the movie stars. In fact, after spreading rumors that actor Michael Wilding was gay, Wilding sued her for libel and won.

And yes, he was gay.

Liz Smith was the first notable gossip columnist to be a properly trained journalist. Smith earned her Journalism degree from UT Austin in 1949. After graduating, she worked on Mike Wallace's staff before becoming a ghostwriter on one of Hearst Newspapers' syndicated columns. Smith today continues to be one of the most respected (is that possible?) gossipers in America. Her work appears exclusively on Joni Evans' and the fact she still publishes amazes, since her last few years as a columnist for the Post had crazy errors in them. Today she babbles on about her anger toward "first night" reviewers no longer being allowed to vote in the Tony Awards. It's a little unseemly.

Gossip is now the province of the shouters on the Web. Leading the charge are (a favorite of mine because of a double-shot of loud and proud) and silly cartoon character Perez Hilton, who was one of the first gossip guys to gain favor of celebrities instead of ire. Perez is funny but he takes himself a bunch too seriously -- and picking on Demi Moore's kid was dumb. Plus he wasn't very good on Degrassi Goes Hollywood. Also, he is about to start a company paid to Tweet under his name. (That's a big shrug.)

The problem with TMZ on TV is that much of the talent giggling over the papp shots don't know much about history. One day the kids saw Liam Neeson walking with a guy they called "Ralph Feens." Had no idea who it was. Then there was the time they cheerfully chatted about Roma Downey "coming to party" after she hadn't been out for a while. That party was at Mark Burnett's house. Oh, that's Burnett's WIFE!

"Ralph Feens"
Where gossip of yesterday served as a kind of satisfaction of the public's desire for knowledge, today it has only a purpose that is trivial at best: to sell media while granting the "now famous" a chance to get their names water-coolered. This is all one great effort to make us think what they did was accidental. In other words, the gossip media treat us like idiots.

Michael Jackson proved that to stay a star you got to have people gabbing about you. The fact that it quenches the thirst of Americans to read "dirt" is not the aim of the industry these days. This is simply a lot of collusion on the part of desperate grabbers-on. And now, as dessert, I would like to proffer examples of unreal gossip, or stories that effect nothing except to transport the famous:

David Beckham Turning His Back on England: Great gossip and nothing based in fact. All conclusions drawn from tenuous (at best) innuendo based completely on photographs. David Beckham is not turning his back on England. He is wearing a Yankees hat. The purpose of this particular nugget: print pictures of a mostly naked Becks. He gets more famous, TMZ sells more ads. Are you happy?

Bill and Hillary Actually Like Each Other: This "story" (really picture and caption) isn't quite like all the rest. Sure, some of the media still seems transfixed by Bubba's every breath but the Clintons aren't the media figures that they were even five years ago. So why is this here? First, you have to admit that it is a little bit surprising that these two do like each other enough to hold hands. Mostly it is a space filler. The Secretary of State and a former president do not need publicity. Not anymore. They're fine.

The Tucker Max Movie Will Be Funny: First, let me assure you this movie will not make you laugh since he is all the adjectives for disgusting. This is perfect gossip because it says nothing AND draws a conclusion. There's no news yet it gets prominent placement. How's that work? Ask the producer or director or star of a film whether that film is going to be good. The answer you get is "Yes"! Right. It's like last week when Nicole Kidman said her "next movie is my first passion project." The others were -- ambivalent projects?

The Grey's Anatomy Sex Tape: In this case, a B-list TV actor whose sexual antics with his wife and a stranger (no sex, just playfulness) was leaked by the roommate of the third party, a deranged former country star who also needs ink. The purpose here is to make a guy from Grey's Anatomy more known since his steaminess is not as apparent. No one was shocked to see a guy like Dane in the sack with others, nor that it was recorded. People want to see other people (especially good-looking types) naked so the rags include all skin shots if it's a boldface name. Some money for publications covering it, and a scandal that Dane will be known for. He has a tag.

Lastly, I turn my gaze on Jenny (Please Look At Me) Aniston. She's a corporate concoction if ever there was one (pretty; does what she's told). Her movies follow the life story created for her -- The Breakup after a loud split from a perfect husband; and now The Baster while she is talking up single motherhood. Fact is there are a lot of people making an awful lot of money off the career of a friend. A star who wants to remain "in the pack" plays her part guilefully.

Imagine how funny in retrospect: Jennifer Aniston is being called the lonely girl in the mass media. You're telling me that someone good-looking and famous in LA is unable to get Guys Lining Up (GLU)? She has been "linked" (quotes mine) to so many men but it is no coincidence they all happen to be Bradley Cooperesque, or boring, with nothing to say, and a need to have their notoriety staged.

With Jen (except for Brad, who I'm pretty certain she lived with), it's all guilt by PR. In reality she hooks up with everyone -- handymen, pool guys, local bartenders -- but whether she did more than handshake peers like John Mayer or Vince Vaughn is between you and your imagination. Mayer and Butler and Vaughn are handy single men to have around when the cameras snap.

When Aniston complains about seeking love, women in relationships feel good about those regular guys keeping them safe at home. It's therapy through the cover stories. Now, if only Aniston would sign on for a movie worth running to instead of non-starters like Love Matters, this would in fact be a public service.