When Does Gossip Become News? p. 9

By: Tony Case Gossip columns spread a rumor about Rolling Stone founder
Jann Wenner for months before it receives prominent news play sp.

IT WAS WHISPERED about in media circles and hinted at in gossip columns for two months that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner had left his wife of 26 years for a former male model.
So why did newspapers and magazines everywhere suddenly determine that it deserved prominent play?
The New York Post, London Mail on Sunday and Advertising Age started spreading the rumor weeks ago. But only in recent days did it receive full-blown coverage in the press, ostensibly because repercussions the breakup could have on Wenner Media's holdings amounted to a business story of wide interest.
Wenner's estranged wife, Jane, whose parents threw their financial support behind the fledgling Rolling Stone in the 1960s, has some stake ? said to be as high as 49% ? in the magazine group that today encompasses Us and Men's Journal. The company's struggling Family Life was sold to Hachette Filipacchi last week.
After the Wall Street Journal related the most intimate details of the Wenner split ? in a Page One treatise, no less ? the tale took on a life of its own.
One article after another appeared, recounting the personal travails of publishing's baby-boomer icon ? fretting, all the while, about what might become of his $200-million empire. The New York Daily News, Washington Post and New York magazine all ran major pieces.
The Associated Press, the magazine industry trade paper Folio and New York Post columnist Taki were among those alleging a conspiracy to suppress the news.
Taki reported that the so-called Velvet Mafia ? a coterie of wealthy and powerful media, entertainment and fashion executives who are reputedly gay ? had threatened to pull advertising from publications that wrote about the Wenner affair.
"A funny thing happened on the way to the newsroom," Taki quipped. "The news is not being reported."
The writer charged that "liberal orthodoxy and the rigid etiquette of political correctness debase the consequences of whatever is new before they decide that it constitutes news worthy of being reported."
AP's Rick Hampson said in his analysis, "The story dribbled into print as editors tried to define the story. A split between business partners? The workings of the news media? Or a plain old 'outing'?"
Village Voice executive editor and media writer Richard Goldstein devoted his substantial weekly space to the "Wennermania," pointing out that the journalistic standard against publicizing a person's gayness apparently had changed overnight.
"When last we looked," Goodstein wrote, "outing was a scurrilous invasion of privacy, invented by militant homosexuals to promote their agenda on the backs of closeted celebrities."
The columnist couldn't resist ripping the serious-minded Journal for delving into the salacious. Even though the broadsheet kept the focus on the business angle, "there were gossipy tidbits sprinkled throughout the piece," Goldstein related, "and the Schadenfreude was almost palpable."
Times have changed when the country's preeminent financial daily outs a well-known businessman on its front page, as, only a few years ago, gay publications and activists were castigated for identifying homosexuals.
Everybody concurred that if Wenner had taken up with another woman instead of a man, papers wouldn't have hesitated to run in-depth accounts.
Wenner reportedly made phone calls to editors he knew were planning pieces ? New York's Kurt Andersen, among them ? in a futile effort to squelch the story.
In its examination, New York said, "In daring the world to write about him, by pursuing his affair so publicly
. . . Wenner may have thought he was protected by an unstated policy deeming celebrity gayness the last taboo subject. But he was done in by the press's increasing impatience with the have-it-both-ways hypocrisy of it all."
A Wenner Media spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the mass of coverage, citing company policy.
Charles Kaiser, Eastern regional coordinator of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, theorized Wenner wasn't so much displeased his sexual orientation was aired as steamed he couldn't contain the flood of reporting about his personal business.
"Like most powerful journalists, he's used to controlling the public version of his life," Kaiser said, adding that Wenner had been more than a bit hypocritical about this turn of events.
"My basic position is that someone who's made so little effort to keep his bisexuality a secret over the last 20 years can't expect the press to keep it a secret after he's left his wife for his new boyfriend," he stated.
When asked why outing appears to have become acceptable, Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto said editors may finally understand that they've been following a double standard.
"Outing was a revolution at first. It was shocking to people, because it seemed so scandalous and outrageous to write about celebrities being gay," he observed. "But, now, people realize it's perfectly natural, and there's nothing wrong with saying someone is gay."
Goldstein refutes this position in his piece. Reporting Wenner's sexuality may seem revolutionary, he wrote, "but it's actually another sign that we are living in nasty times."
Musto ? who admitted in his catty column that he, like so many others, had kept the Wenner revelations under wraps, bowing to legal concerns ? noted that a celebrity is a celebrity when it comes to news, even if he's gay.
"If we all band together and say we're not reporting anything on public figures, I'd be willing to go to that meeting, but I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "Celebrities, since the beginning of time, have been fair game, and we have to accept that that's the system."
Musto draws the line, though: He'll only report someone is ill if the person comes forward himself. "But," the columnist added wryly, "I don't perceive homosexuality as an illness."
Kaiser said the many newspeople who have come out have experienced no real consequence in doing so. He contends that someone of Wenner's stature isn't likely to see earth-shattering effects, either. "It's hard," Kaiser offered, "for gay journalists to think of this as a big deal anymore."
?( Rolling Stone magazine's Jann Wenner is the subject of a media controversy, following reports that he left his wife for a former male model.) [Photo & Caption]
?(A funny thing happened on the way to the newsroom," New York Post column Taki Quipped." The news is not being reported.") [Photo & Caption]
?( The New York Daily News played the story o Page 3.) [Photo & Caption]


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