The decline of the gossip columnist
My first foray into journalism was writing “Nasty Knocks and Dirty Cracks,” a gossip column for my high school newspaper (where I was also managing editor).
I loved the column because it was an excuse to write about any and all topics — sports, politics, economics, pop culture — and let me circulate through the jock, stoner, drama nerd and queen bee cliques without having to join any of them. The column was popular, and sometimes scandalous. A “blind item” came a little too close for comfort, resulting in a teachable moment between the paper’s staff and school authorities around libel law and defamation.
But as much as I might have fancied myself a very small fry version of Hedda Hopper or Michael Musto, by the time I graduated high school the era of the big time gossip columnist was on its way out.
I was reminded of that by remembrances this week of Chicago’s legendary Irv “Kup” Kupcinet. Kup died 10 years ago, but his career declined well before then.
When Kup did reign, he reigned big. It is hard to imagine today that a man who regularly dined out on rumor (usually in his own personal booth at the Ambassador Hotel’s Pump Room) could wield so much social power and influence, at least in this town. But he worked for it, starting in the early 1940s.
His sources included movie stars, mobsters and major politicians. His “Kup’s Column” ran in the Chicago Sun Times six times a week, he did color commentary with Jack Brickhouse on WGN for the Chicago Bears, and he conversed with a who’s who line-up of guests (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali) on his long-running late night talk show.
As Robert Feder recalled, Kup knew how “to leverage print and broadcast platforms before anyone had ever heard of ‘synergy’ or anyone had ever called himself a ‘brand.’” Carol Felsenthal (why do I feel like I should be bold-facing these names?), in a definitive profile of Kupcinet written a year after his death, writes that brand had a price tag: Kup traded column mentions for favors and gifts, a practice that came to trouble his editors (though others praised his journalistic skills).
If the nature of the exchange has changed, the job that Kup did hasn’t entirely disappeared.
Gossip is still king, to judge by sites like Gawker, The Superficial, and all the rest. But gatekeeper gossips with Kup’s celebrity clout are oddly scarce. There are a few. Locally, Michael Sneed (who distanced herself from Kup’s “pimp journalism”), is still the go-to outlet for some scandal-plagued figures. Ann Gerber’s society beat has been going strong for more than six decades. Felsenthal and Feder use the framework of gossip to go deep on our political and media scenes. And national figures like Matt Drudge or sites like Gawker still break significant stories, including the ever-evolving spectacle around Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
For better and for worse these days, the gossip beat is less about breaking stories and more about snarking them up, a la the fabulous Michael K of Dlisted. And even that terrain feels provisional. Celebrities don’t need to lunch with Kup or anyone else these days. They can craft — and poke fun at — their own images, thanks to social media and reality TV vehicles.
And the rest of us are following suit. We like to say that “everybody’s a celebrity,” and that claim has certainly achieved full expression via shows like Duck Dynasty, or even better, a site like "Is Anybody Up?," where anyone can act out the fantasy of having as little to say and as much to show as celebs like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus.
When secrets and access have become everyone’s stock in trade, who needs a gossip middleman like Kup?