We have all secretly (or perhaps not) scanned the headlines on those tabloid magazines that are at the supermarket checkout. Is that stuff all true? Or is it all lies? Well read on to see a bit about Hollywood sensationalism and if that new rumour you read about is fact or fiction!
Sensationalism in Hollywood actually has a lengthy history going back to the 1920s and 1930s, but it wasn't quite what we view it as today. The tabloids as we know them were decades away, but there was still media coverage of celebrity and famous people via what were known as gossip columnists. Gossip columnists wrote for newspapers or gossip magazines; the precursors to, and less irreverant and irresponsible than, tabloids. Unlike the later tabloids, the gossip columns were lighter material and based more in truth and fact than in fiction. However, they still mixed in a bit of rumour and innuendo to help create greater interest in the story.
Back in the pre-World War II days, the big studios controlled every aspect of movie-making, from inception all the way through distribution and presentation, and this included the actors and all others involved in the processes. They even courted the gossip columnists. Often, if an actress or actor's profile was waning in the movie world, or if a movie was perhaps not going to bring in the crowds as expected, there was a well timed "leak" of some information about the star. Of course this information was usually of a very personal or private nature, most often regarding some romantic exploits. These "leaks" could also serve to counteract other bad publicity that may have been recently revealed and that may have a greater negative impact on the star.
So while the gossip columnists may seem to be immoral in spreading news about the private lives and conduct of stars, they actually serve a purpose, in keeping that particular star's name in the spotlight. However the more recent growth of tabloids (starting in the 1960s and 1970s) have added a new dynamic to the public's insatiable thirst for sensationalism. These supermarket tabloids (so named because they are often at supermarket checkouts) tend to have a much more scathing tact than traditional gossip columns, and often border on defamation of character.
What is considered libel and defamatory and what isn't? Well, we can use an imaginary celebrity named John X as an example. If a writer reports that "John X is a loser" than that writer has just put his opinion out there and, while perhaps immoral, it is not defamatory. On the other hand, if the same writer says that "John X is a loser who regularly kicks his dog and slaps his kids", but does not have any supporting evidence or a solid source, than that writer has opened himself up to be sued for defamation of character.
In the 1980s and 90s two things occurred within the world of sensationalistic media. First, magazines and papers that previously had shied away from this type of story and reporting, began to embrace the use of "gossip columns" by publishing them under the heading of "Entertainment" or "Human Interest". Secondly, the tabloid press took a huge growth spurt, and quite a number of these "lesser" magazines began to appear. Why? Quite simply, these types of stories attracted vast readership, which in turn attracted advertising revenue.
Of course for that very reason, we, the public, would be fooling ourselves in thinking that we had no role in the propagation of this sensationalistic reporting. As suggested above, our insatiable appetite for hearing about the underbelly of Hollywood and incidents such as public meltdowns, only fuels the production and publication of gossip columns and the tabloid press. Perhaps we should keep this in mind, and turn our eyes to the less "tabloid-ish" magazines on the rack. Or maybe not. Maybe you feel you are helping the publicist achieve his or her goal of the "leak". Whichever side you fall on, the chances are pretty good, that gossip will be around as long as there is a Hollywood!