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2022 has seen celebrity gossip become mainstream news. But why?

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

In 2022, a lot of what we might have once considered celebrity gossip were big stories in mainstream news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHRIS ROCK: Wow. Will Smith just smacked the [expletive] out of me.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: To the other major headline late today, the verdict to the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial - a seven-person jury siding with Johnny Depp.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The fallout continues for Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, whose recent antisemitic comments have caused public outrage.

LIMBONG: From the slap heard round the world to Ye's antisemitism to the Harry and Meghan documentary, celeb business felt like our business. And for a lot of us, it felt a lot more like news. Constance Grady writes about culture for Vox.

CONSTANCE GRADY: This was a year when gossip was really getting a moment in the mainstream news cycle in a way that it hasn't in previous years.

LIMBONG: Of course, the business of hot goss (ph) is not new. Celebrity gossip has been around since there were celebrities, growing in popularity throughout the 20th century. In the 1940s and '50s, columnist Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons scoured scandal and personal news items from the rich and famous, becoming as famous as their subjects.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And here with the latest Woodbury Hollywood headlines is Louella Parsons.

LOUELLA PARSONS: Hello to all of you from New York. Well, here I am in the big town, but with movie news from both Hollywood and New York. My first exclusive - the Frank Sinatras are expecting another baby in late May. Well, this ought to put an end to those silly rumors that Nancy and Frank are separating.

LIMBONG: The popularity of gossip has expanded across media platforms pretty much as fast as they are invented. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says that it's not a surprise that gossip has always been popular and why celebrity stories find their way into mainstream news.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: We're in a news environment where it's really hard to get people's attention. And I think, you know, these stories about celebrities draw a lot of page views. They draw big audiences. They draw high viewership. You know, that's also a really strong motivator to find a way to talk about these stories because you know they're going to pop with the audience. And we can't lose sight of the fact that that's the reason why, you know, gossip is such a big business.

LIMBONG: As more and more celebrity stories slip into mainstream news headlines, where do we draw the line between news and gossip? And how do we know when that line has been crossed?

DEGGANS: I've spent my entire career negotiating this balance where you come to a story that looks like it's gossipy and you say, is there something there that's larger, that's more important? I'm always someone who believes that at the heart of a lot of pop culture stories are important subjects for society to consider.

LIMBONG: Eric Deggans writes about TV and culture for NPR. He says that many of the year's most sensational celebrity stories centered on larger issues.

DEGGANS: If you're covering the ins and outs of Kanye West and what he's doing, you know, that dovetails with the rise of antisemitism in America. It dovetails with Trump's Republican Party and, where are they going and what kind of people are they associating with? It dovetails with questions about his mental health and the state of mental illness and how people who are in crisis may or may not be getting the help that they need.

Similarly, if you're talking about Will Smith, you know, again, at the heart of the story of what happened after he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars is, how does a major celebrity like that - how do you make somebody like that pay a price for doing something that was so terrible in front of the world? And how much is enough? And when that person decides they want to reenter the mainstream of entertainment, what does it say that they are essentially able to do that? And that's a lot of questions about how we regard issues of assault and celebrity and power. Those are all real substantive questions.

LIMBONG: Deggans also points to society's evolving idea of celebrity. It's not just movie stars. Celebrities can be anyone, from TikTok influencers to eccentric billionaires.

DEGGANS: Somebody like Elon Musk - you know, covering that person and, you know, he's had a lot of children and he has this whole quirky personal life. But this is a guy who just bought Twitter, and it seems to be devolving under his stewardship. And now because of that, his other company has lost a lot of value - Tesla. And so, you know, there's a business story in there.

LIMBONG: Despite the blurred lines, Deggans says journalists and news outlets still need to discern the difference between celebrity gossip and news that serves public interest.

DEGGANS: The traditional definition of gossipy news coverage would be news coverage about well-known people that is about their personal lives and not so much about whatever they do officially as famous people. So gossip is, you know, how is Kanye West treating Kim Kardashian now that they're divorcing? Non-gossip is, you know, what happens to Kanye's brand now that he's said all these antisemitic things publicly? And I think the challenge for ethical journalists is to come to these stories and figure out news-based reasons to pursue them. And frankly, I don't think it's that hard.

LIMBONG: But according to Constance Grady, the Vox culture reporter we heard from earlier, there's something to be said for the fact that these stories aren't necessarily hard-hitting.

GRADY: But I think perhaps moving away from sort of around-the-clock coverage, first of Trump and then of the coronavirus pandemic, sort of opened up a space in news coverage for something that was maybe a little less traumatic to talk about. And so in that vacuum, you can kind of get stories, like the Good Morning America anchors are having an affair, that are not really that meaningful. Like, they're adults. It does not matter. But there's this sort of pleasure and joy and fun-ness (ph) in sort of just gossiping about this kind of trivial story. And that's able to take up more space in this year in a way that I think was kind of a relief for a lot of people.

LIMBONG: OK, so maybe celebrity gossip is a welcome respite during a stressful news cycle. But what does this blurred line - you know, between celebrity news and news news - tell us about the current media environment?

GRADY: People have to cover something in the news. And I think that right now there's a desire to be talking about a few things that are more frivolous, which is not to say that all gossip is frivolous because some of the big celebrity gossip stories this year have been parts of larger cultural stories that are more upsetting and speak to some cultural regressions that are worth unpacking.

LIMBONG: What do you think happens to, like, the gossip industry - right? - the Page Sixes and Daily Mails - when now, like, their, quote-unquote, "beat" has been infiltrated by mainstream news?

GRADY: It's interesting. I think that for gossip industries, this is a good thing in a lot of ways, because if a mainstream news outlet is covering a story, that is going to be driving interest in it. And a mainstream news outlet is unlikely to be doing quite the same sort of reporting on these stories that a gossip-centric site is going to have. Those sites are going to be sourced in different ways. They're going to be considering different parts of the story more worthy of coverage. So if a mainstream site is covering the slap or the Depp-Heard trial in detail, that just suggests that there's going to be more and more interest in the story, which will drive more people to the gossip sites.

LIMBONG: Do you think that means the gossip sites will change? Like, will they lean into some of their more salacious tendencies or will they, like, play it normal and just, like, reap the benefits?

GRADY: I think certainly there's an incentive for gossip sites to lean into their more salacious sides if the mainstream news outlets are covering things in a more straightforward way. That's something that we can see a little bit right now in coverage of the Meghan Markle-Prince Harry Netflix documentary. There will be sort of straightforward, you know, reviews and news hits from mainstream outlets. And then from tabloids, you get things like the columnist who said that he thought Meghan Markle should be stripped naked and paraded down the street while people shouted shame at her - right? - this sort of very tawdry, salacious...

LIMBONG: That was - let's - that was Jeremy Clarkson, right? Was that his name?

GRADY: That was the one.

LIMBONG: I'm curious. So there's the, like, Daily Mails, Page Sixes, Perez Hiltons of the world - right? - that we all know and love. I think it's also been a big year for the sort of, like, DeuxMoi, Instagram gossip world, right?

GRADY: Yeah, definitely. And this is something that we can see especially in stories like the Depp-Heard trial, which really provided strong economic incentives for tiny, little, like, one-person operations on YouTube and on social media. As long as they were Team Johnny Depp, there was a huge amount of money to be made for people to build an audience basically on trashing Amber Heard and praising Johnny Depp. And we can see those outlets now turning their attention to stories like the trial between Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson. She has accused him of domestic violence. And also even the Prince Harry-Meghan Markle story. There is a lot of money to be made right now from this sort of misogynistic #MeToo backlash, sort of outrage-driven coverage of these various famous women.

LIMBONG: How do you think our relationship as an audience has changed when it comes to the sort of, like, media literacy of differentiating between gossip versus news?

GRADY: That's a really good question. It does seem as though there is a lot of confusion in the news-reading public between what kind of outlets are reputable and what are not. That's something that people complain about a lot on Facebook, where their interface will sort of take away the visual branding from various sites. So that's - something from a random little gossip website will look the same on your newsfeed as an article from The New York Times that's been heavily vetted and fact-checked.

It's as though anything that appears on the internet, in print or even said out loud or on video, acquires this aura of being factual, even though it may not necessarily be the case. It seems as though audiences don't necessarily have a clear sense of when they're reading something that has been through a fact-checking process and when they are just reading gossip.

LIMBONG: What stories do you think we'll be thinking about next year? Like, are there any, like, simmering, you know, stories that might be boiling over soon?

GRADY: Yeah, I think we're going to continue to see this #MeToo backlash playing out in stories like the Evan Rachel Wood-Marilyn Manson stories. Also, the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie lawsuit is going to be continuing, and we're also seeing similar backlash playing out there.

LIMBONG: Can I ask really quick about that? Something I've been thinking about, too. I think after the Britney doc dropped, right?

GRADY: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And then after, like, the trial - there's a lot of navel-gazing in media - right? - and I'm using media kind of broadly here - both, like, the Perez Hiltons and, like, late-night talk shows and da-da-da (ph) - being like, oh, you know, just, like, really, like, oh, I think we, like, messed up with talking about her that way and this and that. Do you think anybody's actually changed?

GRADY: Great question. I think that people are perhaps trying more now, but I think we can also see from the public reaction to the Amber Heards and Meghan Markles of the world that there is still a great appetite for the shaming of women who are behaving in public in ways that we don't like. That is not something that has changed. That may not be something that will ever change.

LIMBONG: That was Constance Grady, senior correspondent at Vox.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.