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January 07, 1994 - Image 105

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1994-01-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

was enhanced by idle chatter.
Like Mr. Hart, the president
was involved in indiscretions.
But he admitted them.
"In fact, I contend that's what
put him in office," Professor
Levin says. "(George) Bush was
boring."
And remember the whole
Nancy Reagan-astrology thing?
Or the rumors about how it
was dear old Nance
who really wore the
pants in the family?
Believe it or not,
those reports positively
influenced President Rea-
gan's image, Professor
Levin insists. "A little
dirt can actually help your
reputation. It makes you hu-
man."
Gossip also can help the
office greenhorn acclimate
himself to his new work-
place, he adds. "Everybody
knows that if you really
want to know what's hap-
pening at the office, you follow
the grapevine at the water cool-
er."
So, how can something so
good be so bad?
Halachah, Jewish law, for-
bids gossip, and Jewish texts
are replete with axioms about

ART BY BOB LYNCH

a ( DoIt i f

It's enticing. It's naughty. It's gossip. Here's what a sociology

professor says it means, and why Halachah says it's wrong.

ELIZABETH APPLEBAUM ASSISTANT EDITOR

hey know virtually everything:
Barbra Streisand's favorite
drink. Where Michael Jackson
buys his clothes. What Sted-
man bought Oprah for her
birthday.
Their resource: garbage.
They're called tipsters, and
they regularly scour the trash
of the rich and famous. Colum-
nists and certain reporters —
some refer to them as sharks —
will pay big bucks for tidbits
about Madonna and Rush Lim-
baugh, Michael Jordan and
Leona Helmsley. Anything to
feed the public's unquenchable
appetite for gossip.
Sociology Professor Jack
Levin of Northeastern Univer-
sity in Boston is an expert on
gossip. (Ask him — as so many
National Enquirer-bashers will,
"Why should anyone care what
Al Gore likes for breakfast, any-

way?" and he'll respond, "Why
not?") He believes gossip is an
integral part of a free society.
"We depend on knowing
about the personal lives of our
leaders because we use that in-
formation to predict how they,
as public officials, will treat us,"
he says. "That's why gossip is
indispensable to democracy."
Remember Gary Hart? He
was the presidential candidate
who insisted he never fooled
around. Then his picture —
complete with a buxom blonde
on his lap — turned up in the
National Enquirer. The public
saw Mr. Hart as a liar, explains
Professor Levin, author of Gos-
sip: The Inside Scoop. No one
wants a liar heading the coun-
try.
But don't confuse Mr. Hart
with Bill Clinton, whose image,
Professor Levin says, actually

the evils of idle chatter.
"Even if all of a slander is not
believed, half of it is," according
to the Midrash. Proverbs states
that "What your eyes have seen,
report not hastily to the mob."
And the Talmud observes:
"Your friend has a friend, and
your friend's friend has a friend
(so be discreet)."
The problem, explains
Rabbi Martin Berman of
Congregation Beth Achim,
is simple: "Tale bearing and
slander destroy people's '
lives."
Professor Levin, also an
expert on mass murders,
concurs. "Gossip," he says,
"can be very dangerous
when it's used as a weapon I
against a group of people
or an individual."
Professor Levin does his
research on gossip by
eavesdropping. He has
even had his students sit
for hours a day and sim-
ply listen to others' con-
versations. Their findings

Jack Levin:
Dirt makes you human.

show that men and women gos-
sip just about the same amount,
though men talk more about
people they don't know — like
sports stars and passing
strangers — while women tend
to focus on family members and
friends. About one-third of all
gossip is positive.
Gossip also is big business,
as anyone who works for the
National Enquirer can testi-
fy.

The National
Enquirer
pays up to
$70,000 a year to
one source.

So what if every other En-
quirer story begins, " 'Dear
God!' I screamed in terror as I
felt (a shark or a man-eating
bear or a crazed space alien)
take hold of my arm." So what
if the Enquirer actually ran a
story about how the Clintons'
cat, Socks, faced a nervous
breakdown. The tabloid, which
has been known to pay up to
$70,000 a year to a single
source, is the largest-selling
newspaper in the country.
Enquirer reporters earn
twice as much as their coun-
terparts at the New York Times.
(A former student of Professor
Levin was hired 10 years ago at
the Enquirer. The starting
salary was $42,000).
Maybe that's why Enquirer
reporters aren't interested in
what anyone thinks of their
methods (which include send-
ing sources to rummage
through stars' garbage).
"They don't really care if you
say it's unethical," says Profes-
sor Levin, whose gossip re-
search has brought him into
frequent contact with the En-
quirer staff and gossip mavens
like Star columnist Janet
Charlton. "It's irrelevant to
them."

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