As humans, we often seek to find the imperfections of other people to make ourselves feel better. Salacious gossip about celebrity cheating scandals, chit-chat about new employees, or even conversations about a stingy neighbor occur daily and pique the interest of everyone. Researchers have confirmed that gossip is good for people, as it releases the hormone oxytocin and allows them to vent their frustrations. Although the goal of both Walter Winchell and Harvey Levin was not to gossip for their own health reasons, they shared the same objective of spreading shocking news purely as means of entertainment and their own personal gain.
Harvey Levin, founder of the celebrity news website TMZ , continued the gossip train Walter Winchell started. A major difference between the two, however, was the fact that Walter Winchell came from a background of extreme poverty while Levin was born into a middle class family and was well educated. When he was thirteen-years-old, Winchell dropped out of school to join a vaunderville troupe, an array of, “circuits, singing, dancing, and telling jokes, largely in the American backwaters” (Gabler American Heritage). According to the Whitman, News York Times, ‘Winchell rapidly learned personal and family background and gossip about others with him on the vaudeville circuit, and he took to posting such intelligence, neatly typed and punctuated and with often far-fetched puns, on theatre bulletin boards.” His analysis of people led him to leave the vaudeville circuit and turn to sharing gossip about celebrities through his newspaper columns. Winchell spread rumors, built and destroyed reputations, and created an adjoining network of gossip which ultimately built a loyal following for his articles. Levin who began his career in entertainment later in his life, started with a more intellectual background. After attending college and law school, he made his mark in California arguing the pros and cons of Proposition 13. His popularity led to a radio talk show in which he gave legal advice to callers. His coverage of the O.J. Simpson Trial in 1995 put the spotlight on him and gave him the opportunity to host People’s Court (Borchers The Washington Post). Finally, in 2005 Levin created the celebrity tabloid news website TMZ which is followed by 86% of Americans, similar to Winchell’s posts which captivated two-thirds of the nation’s population (Petersen Chicago Tribune). Although they had different ways of achieving their goals, their passion for the media led both men to deliver the most popular means of gossip in America. Winchell and Levin did not necessarily want to ruin the reputation of celebrities as much as they wanted the public to enjoy a new, intriguing form of entertainment that was not present in any other news industry at that time.
Like hard news reporters, Winchell and Levin met with their U.S. Presidents to discuss world issues. Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Winchell to the Oval Office to discuss his New Deal because he wanted to use Winchell’s popularity to his advantage. FDR gave Winchell “news tidbits and encouragement for the columnist’s vitriolic attacks on the ‘Ratskis, (Nazis)’” (Whitman New York Times). On the other hand, Levin’s political career was not as long-term. President Trump invited Levin to the White House, although their conversation was more mysterious than informative, “Both (Trump and Levin) spoke on condition of anonymity to share details of their conversations that were intended to be private” (Grynbaum New York Times). In both case, the presidents used Levin and Winchell for their popularity, and Levin and Winchell used the presidents to further their careers.
Obtaining celebrity information is very difficult because it involves being at the right place at the right time. When beginning his gossip-reporting career, Winchell overheard intriguing conversations he included in his articles. As he became more popular, however, he paid a team of people called “neWWsboy” to find interesting facts about celebrities (Whitman New York Times). These scouters would unearth the salacious gossip and report it to Winchell. In a similar way, Levin and TMZ as a corporation pays outsiders who have details about a story. Contrarily, Levin has the advantage of using social media and the internet and a source to use in his articles.
Gossip, whether it comes from the internet or from word of mouth, sells newspapers, magazines and advertisements; it is a way for those of us to know the juicy details of the rich and famous people’s personal lives. Winchell and Levin made their money delivering those goods. Winchell, the father of gossip, and Levin, the current king who has picked up that gauntlet for the twenty-first century, have made celebrities’ personal information public knowledge.
Gossip as a form of entertainment has embedded itself into our culture, telling the world of the good, the bad, and the sordid details of the lives of those who are constantly in the news.