Gossip Counts the Most*

In the previous post about Live Earth, I tried to weave in a mindblowing article from the Sunday NY Times Magazine, “The Gregarious Brain.” The article is about Williams Syndrome, a genetic developmental disorder. Among its symptoms is extreme friendliness and aggressive conversational gregariousness, which shows up at an early age.

But while the victims of this syndrome are charming in small doses, they often find themselves socially isolated because their lack of social fear leads to a lack of “social savvy.”

Most of us know when our conversation partners have had enough of us. Williams sufferers do not. In studying how the Williams syndrome brain differs from a normal human brain, some neurological scientists believe the development of social skills, in particular the ability to get information about our peers via conversation, was a key to both individual survival and, ultimately, our species’ dominance.

The people with Williams syndrome bring the nature of those social skills into sharper relief.  It’s a tightrope walk between getting what we need out of our association with a group, and managing our (rational) fears about the group members on whom we must depend.

To get across this tightrope, we depend on our ability to suss people out. Our brains are very attuned to getting information about the people in our group. We figure out who to trust by what others say about them. We’re not like Williams syndrome people, friendly to one and all. We are careful, even among people we’ve known and worked with for a long time.

We get the signals we need from gossip.  If we didn’t have access to gossip, our social fabric would fall apart.  An enormous percentage of our mental energies are devoted to gathering and processing gossip, and our brains have evolved accordingly.

We bring the same wary habits to our public acts, as voters and consumers. We are all part of a global “group” now, processing information not just about our local cohorts, but about our cultural, economic and political leaders from what we learn about them in the media.

When the media puts up artificial filters, they say they do it for our own good. But we don’t feel protected. We feel trapped, and we look for a way out. In totalitarian societies, people are willing to risk imprisonment or death to obtain gossip about their governments.  The controls over information in American society are looser, but they undeniably exist.  When the mainstream media sits on information because they don’t think it’s appropriate to answer its consumers’ questions, we now can turn to the internet, the id of mass communication, to get the gossip we need.

Consider the case of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the past week or so, we have learned first from blogs, then from the mainstream press, that his wife is divorcing him, because he has been unfaithful to her with a reporter who covers him for Telemundo. There are unconfirmed reports about other affairs; the reporter might or might not be his current girlfriend. All these shenanigans played out during the past year, a difficult year for Villaraigosa politically. His signature issue, school reform, crashed and burned in part because of the mayor’s mistaken judgments and temporary loss of political mastery.

To LA Times columnist Tim Rutten, all this is none of our business, so shame on us for our interest in Villaraigosa’s private life and shame on the bloggers who dug it out.

Hang onto something solid, Rutten bloviates up a stiff wind here:

When it comes to reporting on politics and elected officials, distinguishing between what is properly private and what is necessarily public becomes more difficult all the time.

It’s easy to blame the news media for this — for all the obvious reasons. They include an increasing number of editors willing to take their cue from journalism’s lowest common denominator, the gossip sheets, whether online or on slick paper, that continue to proliferate like informational vermin. By its very nature, gossip does not respect the distinction between public and private because it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of such a dichotomy. In fact, part of gossip’s guilty appeal comes from thumbing its nose at such niceties. The insatiable maw of the 24-hour news cycle also is a factor, as is the generalized collapse of confidence by newspapers engendered by print journalism’s passage through an economically wrenching transformation.

He goes on to point out that prior LA mayors had affairs that weren’t reported “because, even if City Hall reporters had been inclined to pursue the story, it would have been virtually impossible to make it conform to the standards their editors enforced.”

Were those editors — who also covered up the misdeeds of national politicians — more virtuous than today’s? Or were they depriving us of information we could’ve used and were entitled to?

Luckily, an even more senior LA Times‘ columnist gets it intuitively. George Skelton writes today:

Those who claim this is nobody’s business except for the people directly involved ignore the fact that many Angelenos voted for Villaraigosa believing he’d be an inspirational mayor and someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model. This infidelity is these voters’ business too. The first Latino mayor of modern L.A. has soiled his image and spoiled their dreams.

Some voters insist that they don’t care about a politician’s dalliances. Fine, they can click the remote or turn the page. Others do care. They’ll factor it into their attitudes about the man.

Outside the Los Angeles Basin, Villaraigosa has been little known. Now, he’s being introduced statewide as a serial philanderer who dumped on his wife years ago, sweet-talked her back into the house, used her as a political prop and returned to the pattern of womanizing. The family breakup is especially disturbing because the mayor and his wife have two teen children.

Later Skelton points out the crucial difference between Villaraigosa and other philandering politicians like Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Villaraigosa’s wife has demanded a divorce. Corrina is not “standing by her man.” That’s an important detail. Another crucial difference? Villaraigosa wants more from us. He wants to put the genie back in the bottle, become again “someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model,” and run for governor.

Rutten ultimately joins Skelton in condemning Villaraigosa, but for the most weightless of reasons: Because his lover is a journalist!

Villaraigosa’s personal connection with Salinas is a private issue that legitimately concerns only the two of them and their families. No one else has a moral or rhetorical right to an opinion on that aspect of their conduct. However, the fact that Salinas continued to report on the mayor while they were involved in this fashion is a public issue.

(snip)

Villaraigosa knows perfectly well that an intimate relationship with a reporter is bound to raise questions about whether he granted her special access. Worse, it also raises profound conflict-of-interest questions for Telemundo. Has the network’s reporting on his tenure been manicured by a reporter in love with her subject? Has that subject used his mutual affection with the reporter to manipulate coverage of his agenda?

Those aren’t particularly pleasant questions, but Salinas and Villaraigosa have behaved recklessly in an environment that, for better or worse, has become unforgiving.

Yeah, Rutten. That’s probably the first question Mrs. Villaraigosa asked. “Did you grant her…special access??” And then the flying plates.

Rutten is a smart man, but writing like this makes him seem almost as disconnected from reality as the Williams’ syndrome people. The ethics of journalism aren’t the only ethics that matter. In fact they won’t matter, if and when Antonio presents himself to the voters again. We’ll be talking about his affair and whether or not he has found the way back to being seen as trustworthy. We’ll be talking about whether he got his act together and saved his mayoralty. We’ll be talking about whether he’s a good person — or not.

We’ll look for clues to the real Antonio, and if we have to search for them on those dreaded “online media” sites — because the LA Times loves its “standards” more than its readers — that’s where we’ll go. It’ s not because we’ve succumbed to “informational vermin.” It’s because that’s how we’re wired as humans.

*Edited, 7/10/07

2 thoughts on “Gossip Counts the Most*

  1. …many Angelenos voted for Villaraigosa believing he’d be an inspirational mayor and someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model. This infidelity is these voters’ business too. The first Latino mayor of modern L.A. has soiled his image and spoiled their dreams.

    He sure did. About the only thing he could do to lower his reputation any further is announce that he has had a second family all along, then he’d become a living stereotype. How sad.

  2. Pingback: Officer Rutten on the Media Beat « From the Desert to the Sea…

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