A week after my ranking of the “25 Most Powerful People on the Austin Music Scene” made higherups at the Austin American-Statesman uncomfortable, I unleashed this column that got me called in on the carpet again. From Feb. 24, 2000 XL.
A few months ago, several music critics held an intervention of sorts on me. We were all sitting at a table at the Bitter End and I was updating everyone on the status of the Farrah Fawcett-Greg Lott romance, when suddenly they all turned on me. “Man, what happened to you?” said one guy. “Do you actually like writing a gossip column?” asked another. “Is that any way for a grown man to make a living?” These friends of mine were concerned that I’d gone over the edge, pushed to insanity by having to review one too many Lyle Lovett concerts. They couldn’t understand why anyone with a job as a music critic would suddenly decide to shift focus to a column about parties, local celebrities and inside media dirt.
But I think sharing secrets is a much more personal and worthwhile pursuit than listening to a record four times in a row and then writing if it’s any good. Music critics should have term limits and so, even though I still keep my hand in on the music side, I decided to try something different.
In a 1994 bio of Walter Winchell, who popularized the three-dot format to connect the tidbits, Neal Gabler wrote that “(Winchell) understood that gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader.” When I started my “Austin Inside/Out” column a little more than two years ago, I felt like a National Guardsman called into active duty.
The response was instant and often intense.
“Invading the lives of the famous humanizes them,” Gabler continued, “and in humanizing them demonstrates that they are no better than we are and in many cases worse.”
A theme of such lauded recent films as “Happiness,” “The Ice Storm” and “American Beauty,” is that if you go deeper than the facade of the good life you’ll find dysfunction. “Blue Velvet,” the pioneer of Hollywood’s new social pornography, laid it out with an opening that showed a beautifully green lawn, but then the camera zoomed beneath the lushness to show a couple of insects grappling. A good gossip column operates with a similar eye for the grimy truth.
But I don’t see the role as a three-dot columnist as digging for dirt as much as it is to be the great equalizer, building up those who deserve it and knocking down those who have too much. I’m the drawback to being rich and famous. In this game of pop culture, celebs are the quarterback and I’m the linebacker. If I get a good, unblocked hit/item on them, I can’t feel guilty if they lay there in pain. The fans/readers demand that I don’t hold back, though sometimes I do.
Writing gossip is a risky business and I’m constantly asking myself if running a certain item is going to be worth the screaming phone message or the call on the carpet. I try not to print anything that could have a profound effect on someone’s life or livelihood, so all you married philanderers are safe. But sometimes I just have to forge ahead and go with my instincts, prepared to deal with the consequences.
That this can be an emotionally hazardous occupation has been recently exemplified by the flap caused when Austin Internet movie newshound Harry Knowles posted what he believed to be the Oscar nominations the day before they were officially announced. In a remorseful, apologetic follow-up, Harry related that his list, which he touted as “deep from the halls of the Academy” a day earlier, had actually come from the computer of an ABC.com researcher who was digging up bios on probable nominees. Though Knowles’ list of eight names per category contained all the actor and actress nominees, it didn’t mention “The Cider House Rules,” up for the best picture nod, so Knowles was left with bits of omelet in his beard. Oscar’s head man Ric Robertson told Variety that the Academy was considering charges against Harry’s aint-it-cool-news.com pending an investigation to discover “how Knowles knew to hack into that particular database.” Knowles insists that he received the list from a first-time source and no hacking was involved.
I’ve also been burned by trusting a source who, it turned out, overstated their access to the truth. In the firestorm that followed, I just kept running all the details through my mind, like a football team watching film after a painful defeat, and in the end I became a better columnist because of that setback. Hair grows back thicker after a head is shaved.
I’m committed to the gossip biz, no matter how sissy such a job may seem on the surface and I hope to continue writing “Austin Inside/Out” until it’s no longer fun and challenging. Or until the day my son comes home from school all bruised and tattered and says, “Dad, the kids at school said you’re a gossip columnist.” If that happens, I’m back to asking the 17-year-old kid sitting next to me what song Bjork just played.