Winneker: Of Hot Tips, VIPs and Tales That Wag the Dog

Posted March 18, 2009 at 5:31pm

It must be tougher than ever to be a gossip columnist. There’s too much competition, too much information and not enough shame. A hot item is old news before it even gets into print.

[IMGCAP(1)]Not all that long ago, gossip columnists were kept in their own cordoned-off domain: a land of bold-faced names and bylines with little caricatures, cheeky references and knowing shorthand. They were celebrity journalists of a sort — known, perhaps even loved, but not really respected.

Times — and even The Times — have changed. Gossip isn’t just everywhere, it’s everything. The tales wag the dog.

I’ve been out of the game for a while. When I started writing Heard on the Hill, in 1990, “gossip columnist— was not something you embossed proudly on your business card. The term had a negative connotation. At the time, I was also writing “serious— articles about ethics investigations and campaign finance. I told people I was a “political gossip columnist,— because I thought it added gravitas.

I took over the column from Bill Thomas, who launched it in 1988 and came up with the winning template: short, punchy items exposing the foibles, faux pas, hypocrisies, malapropisms, misdeeds and other colorfully dubious achievements of Capitol Hill’s ever-changing, unfailingly target-rich cast of characters. After Bill left, they asked me to start writing it. I guess you could say I was Ringo Starr to his Pete Best.

The formula was simple:

• Get a hot tip.

• Give it a catchy headline. (Thomas added a literary zest that I struggled to preserve — the occasional winking reference to Pynchon or Wallace Stevens mixed in with the movie lines, TV catchphrases and other pop-culture radio static aimed at hooking the reader with some spurious connection to the mini-scandal at hand.)

• Don’t rely on rumor and speculation; make sure to find at least two sources willing to confirm the existence and rampant nature of the rumor and speculation, and maybe throw in some innuendo for good measure.

• Be scrupulously fair; give the subject of the item a chance to respond (and, with any luck, make himself — or herself — look like a jackass in the process).

• Never forget that it’s all in fun; don’t forget to sink a barb or two into the person making a particular accusation or dishing out a scoop, for he or she is often as deserving as the accused.

• Finally, string together a lot of short items, using bullet points to give the list a pleasing graphical element.

Perhaps the format seems cliché now, as it is the foundation of all printed journalism — whether online or obsolete. Shorter is better, especially if you can do more with less. Unless you are reading this article on newsprint — and if you are, bless your heart — you expect bold-faced words to hyperlink you somewhere else.

I don’t claim that HOH was a proto-blog. Neither Thomas nor I invented the format, which goes back at least to Walter Winchell — and even he probably stole it. I’m pretty sure the column’s name was pinched from “Heard on the Street,— which still appears in the pages of my current employer, the Wall Street Journal.

(Winchell, the proto-Drudge, wrote for Roll Call in his twilight years, after his column had been cut from all the other Washington papers and he was a freeloading hack cadging highballs at the Market Inn. Years later, the HOH logo would pay regular tribute to him, its cartoon persona sporting a dashingly cocked fedora.)

I was no innovator. I followed the time-honored formula but tried to throw in some substance — tried to focus on the Lighter Side of Serious Business. I felt I was doing my small part to keep America’s leaders honest. I’d like to think that, even though I gotcha-ed my share of Very Important People over seven years as the HOH byline, I gave the column a personality that readers could warm to. Stinging, but with a sweet undertone — like a margarita. I look back on it all fondly.

But now I also wonder: Isn’t there more important stuff to talk about? The world teeters on the precipice of an economic calamity. There is the matter of the melting permafrost. The issues facing the world are more serious than can fit into one Twitter. How do we want to use the information-sharing power the Internet gives us? Parsing the latest political nipple-slip? Or following the example of, say, the protesters who were video- and photo-blogging from Myanmar?

OK, OK, I’m no killjoy. Even in these troubled times we still need a fun read as much as we need hard-hitting journalism. But maybe we should think about keeping gossip where it belongs: jumping out of a little box on page one of Roll Call.

Long live HOH.

Craig Winneker, HOHer from 1990 to 1997, is editor of Weekend Journal, the Wall Street Journal Europe’s arts and lifestyle section. He lives in Brussels.