Gossip in High Places

March 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, small minds talk about people.

I first heard that line when I was in high school — someone in our crowd tut-tutting us for gossiping.

It’s not true, of course. Everyone gossips, the great-minded and the small-minded. But I remembered that line today when I read about the guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby case. Officially, Libby was guilty of lying to a grand jury, but the whole incident was really about gossip. Oh sure, it was also really about the Bush administration’s attempt to sell the false notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But what Libby lied to the grand jury about was not the talk of ideas or events; he had lied about gossip — about who was telling who about Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame.

The people involved may not even have thought of it as gossip. The image of gossip is usually women whispering about trivialities of personal life. A search on Google turns up images like the ones in this post.

But according to a recent British research report, it turns out that men gossip just as much as women, and
Even in universities and the headquarters of multinational companies, where one might expect conversations in common rooms and restaurants to focus on matters of wider importance such as politics, business, cultural or intellectual issues, no subject other than gossip occupies more than 10 per cent of total conversation time – and most of these ‘serious’ topics only account for about two or three per cent.
So I don’t find it surprising or upsetting that people in Washington gossip. That’s what people who share some corner of the social world do. They talk about other people, and the talk often has overtones of moral judgment.

What’s troubling is to find gossip used as an instrument of policy. I had hoped that policy was about ideas and events. The neoconservatives, in the Bush administration and out, styled themselves as people of ideas. One of their biggest ideas was the invasion of Iraq. O.K., maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all, but you’d think that at the highest levels of policy, people would be talking about it in terms of ideas and events.

But no. Cheney, Libby, Rove, and probably many others were using gossip to defend their policies. They could have focused on the ideas and evidence in Joe Wilson’s report. Instead, they were calling reporters to tell them that Joe Wilson had gotten the job (to investigate one part of the WMD claims) only because his wife, who was in the CIA, had recommended him. In other words, Wilson was a wimp who relied on his wife to get him an assignment.

The press doesn’t come off much better in all this. Libby and the others knew when they made those phone calls that the news people traded in gossip. I suspect that Tim Russert, Robert Novak, and the others look with contempt on the celebrity press – the reporters who try to ferret out every secret fact about Britney and Paris and Brad and all the rest. The Washington press probably don’t consider even them to be real journalists. But how is what they do different from stories about Joe Wilson and his wife?

I’m going to be reading the newspaper from a different angle now. I’m going to try to see how much of the “news” is talking about ideas and events and how much is gossip. (Surely there must already be research on this. I’m just too lazy to track it down right now.)


trrish said...

I have not been able to get google to take my comment! This is try number 5. In any case, I have often wondered about journalism vs. gossip and what the difference is (sometimes). I've always figured that if talk enough about ideas, talking sometimes about people in a loving and constructive way, is probably ok.

trrish said...