Let's Ship Kitty Kelley to the Ashanti


April 12, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Did Teddy Kennedy Have Anything On Underneath His Oxford Shirt?

Did Nancy Reagan Have An Affair With Frank Sinatra In The White House?

Do I Have Your Attention Yet?

Gossip and news. News or gossip? Not even my dictionary makes a very helpful distinction.

Gossip is mildly defined as ''the casual talk about other people's affairs.'' News is staidly described as ''information about recent events.'' Tell me where one ends and the other begins, and I'll make you editor.

This week, the Kurds are dying in the Middle East while the headlines are focused on whether it was a rape or a romp at the Kennedy Compound in Palm Beach. The hole in the ozone has grown while the lead story says that Nancy recycled presents. Unemployment has grown to 6.8 percent while Julia Phillips' down-and-dirty book about Hollywood is the No.1 best-seller.

And before any of us get too self-righteous, I give you the words of my neighbor, a think-tank type who downed an entire page of Kennedy copy with his morning coffee, and told me: ''I regret to say that I read every word.''

That just about sums up everyone's ambivalence about gossip-news. Love to read it. Hate to have read it. Inhale the dirty details. Exhale criticism of the reporters who write them.

Even Michele Cassone who leaked reports of being ''weirded out'' by the sight of Teddy in only his oxford shirt turned around after reading the headlines and said, ''I'm very upset at people who are trying to discredit the senator.''

Ivana Trump, Gary Hart, Elizabeth Taylor. In the global village, there is an odd parity between celebrities of every stripe from Washington to Hollywood. They are our neighbors and we want to know them. National Enquirer aside, how should a reputable ** newspaper cover the rich, famous and occasionally infamous? This is the sort of question that editors actually worry over when we get together, as we are doing this week in Boston at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.

Is it news when the nephew of Senator Kennedy, William Smith, is named as a rape suspect? Absolutely. Is it news when someone says he saw a naked woman with long hair walk into the water at the beach? Uh.

Should reporters find out what happened that night? Sure. Should so many swarm around the alleged victim's house for so long that a lunch truck adds the stop to its route? Er.

Do we have the right to know if Nancy, not Ronnie was running the country? Yup. Do we have the right to know if Nancy's mother loved bathroom jokes, or if her husband was stepping out on her the night Patti was born? Well. . . .

We come up with all sorts of excuses for reporting information that is something between scandalous and scurrilous. We can write and read about sex and sleaze while under the guise of character and governing. Kitty Kelley herself, author of the Nancy Reagan book which came Federal Express for immediate publicity, once won an award for ''cultural'' reporting.

Her hatchet still carries samples of blood from other victims, including Jacqueline Onassis. But this time, she justifies her work as investigative journalism: ''It goes to the very heart and soul of hypocrisy.'' So does that comment.

Whether newspapers run Ms. Kelley's reporting or our own, we salve our conscience by debating the journalistic ''standards'' of gossip-news. Do you have two sources on Teddy's undies or lack thereof? Did Kitty lift quotes from her book on Frank? Can Julia Phillips prove that Warren Beatty is ''priapic''?

These sometimes ludicrous standards are ways that we attempt to responsibly report the irresponsible. After all, in West Africa there is a tribe called the Ashanti that cuts off the lips of members caught gossiping about the chief. But here we have to figure it out on our own.

The gossip-news conundrum comes down to this: How do you write for readers who don't always want you to report what they want to read? How do you publish what people want to read without feeling scummy the next morning?

Gossip and news. News or gossip? Among the editors, news is what we talk about on panels. Gossip is what we do over dinner. The best definition still comes from my neighbor. Gossip is what you read every word of. While regretting it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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