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CNN Talkback Live

Can People Live Without Gossip?

Aired July 24, 2001 - 15:00   ET


BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Wedding bells for Anna?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kournikova's people come back, denying it. Quote, "It's not true."


BATTISTA: Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are having a baby. What about Brad and Jennifer? Does George Harrison live? Despite a report in a British newspaper saying that he didn't have long to live.

Whispered, written, or blabbed on the air, there is no end to the buzz or the appetite it feeds. True or not.


REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), CONNECTICUT: I took him for his word, that he did not have an affair with Chandra Levy. He obviously did; at least it appears he did. And it's just an incredible lesson.



ROBIN COHN, CRISIS MANAGEMENT ADVISER: Nobody wants to air their dirty linen in public, but once it's out, it's showtime.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think people still turn to these tabloids, for fun.


BATTISTA: Do you gossip? Do you listen? When you hear it, who do you believe? And why do you bother?

Good afternoon and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE.

There's been a lot of conflicting celebrity gossip making the rounds over the past couple of days. Take for instance, the story about former Beatle George Harrison being on death's door from the brain tumor. The report, circulated by the English newspaper "The Mail", quotes Beatle's Producer George Martin as saying that Harrison knows that he will die soon and is accepting that.

Harrison responded with this terse statement: "We are disappointed and disgusted by the report. It was unsubstantiated, untrue, and totally uncalled for, when in fact Mr. Harrison is active and feeling very well. It has caused untold distress amongst our family and friends. The original story was conjured up by "The National Enquirer," "The Globe", and "The Daily Mail."

Now, "The Mail" still stands by its story. Here to talk about that and other stories are Flo Anthony, host of "Gossip to Go With Flo," for the Jones Radio Network. She also writes the "Eye on the Stars" column for "The National Examiner" and is author of the novel "Keeping Secrets; Telling Lies."

Also with us is Amy Reiter. She is the "Nothing Personal" columnist for

Welcome to both of you.



BATTISTA: You know, that's not the only story that's been floating around for the last -- I don't know, 36 hours or so. There was a rumor about whether or not, you know, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were pregnant, and the rumor of Ana Kournikova getting married on the sly with some hockey player. Before we get on the art of gossip and how it has changed, are any of these things true, Flo?

ANTHONY: Well, you know what, I think the jury is still out I guess if Kournikova is married. I kind of think that she might be, and they didn't want it to get out.

As for Brad and Jennifer, I think we have been hearing stories for some time that they want to have a baby. And perhaps she might have thought that she was pregnant and told a friend and maybe it escalated. I don't know whether she is pregnant or not. I kind of doubt it. But I think that they want to have a baby very badly and then the rumors get around if the people -- if they are pregnant.

As for George Harrison, we do know that she is gravely ill, but I think that it's up to God when someone passes on. And I do hope that he is feeling very well. I am a cancer survivor -- and so my prayers are with him.

BATTISTA: Amy, how far do you go to check this stuff?

REITER: Well, my column is actually more a humorous spin on the daily gossip. So what is kind of out there, I will kind of help readers figure out how to take it. How true do we think that this stuff is? You know, really, I think that it's important for readers to read the gossip columns with a little bit of a jaundiced eye. And to kind of really weigh these things and figure out what -- what they think and what their reactions are.

BATTISTA: You know what really gets to people, though? It's like I was reading one gossip column on the George Harrison story, and the details that were in there -- this one went so far as to talk about what plans he had made for his death, that he was going to India to a sacred temple, because he's practiced Hare Krishna for 30 years, that he had all the plans in place -- and it was amazing for the amount of detail, which I think that fools people into thinking, if they know so much about this story, then it must be true?

ANTHONY: Yeah, I don't think that close of detail can be fabricated. Obviously, someone did give the story to "The Daily Mirror." Now, whether or not that person was totally telling the truth or not. They had to get some of that from somewhere. You just can't pull out all of the details out of a hat.

REITER: I think that in that case actually, also in the case of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Those are fairly likely stories. Quotes that have been taken out of context. Or misunderstood. Or you know, it's like Whisper Down The Lane or Telephone, when you are a kid. One person tells something and then kind it kind of distorts, as it gets repeated. Classic rumor story.

BATTISTA: We actually have reaction from Ringo Starr on hearing the rumors of George's imminent death. So let's run that real quickly for you.


RINGO STARR, FORMER BEATLE: As you know, it's being retracted in England now. George came out and said, that he actually didn't say it and that's the problem sometimes with the media, that they take some craziness, it's not their fault, and then they blow it up. I am sitting up in Canada and I am watching it like you, so I was really surprised. I do think that if anything was going to happen, maybe I would have gotten the call. You know? But anyway, I saw him three weeks ago and he's doing great and you know, he has had an operation, we can't deny that. And, you know, he's recouping and his spirits were high.


BATTISTA: Let me ask you this now, Flo. Now that this story -- Amy, you too -- it's been planted, whether it's any one of the three stories here. Will you guys pursue this story actively? You know, will you -- I hate to use the word stalk. Pull out all of the resource that you can in order to keep following this story.

ANTHONY: Not today after, you know, George Harrison has come out and he's, you know, wants people to know that he is well. But yesterday, before he denied the story, I did call someone who has very good sources in London, and asked them to find out what they could find out about George Harrison. I admit that, I did it.


REITER: I think that that's the responsible thing to do. In the case like this, in my case, I -- because I write a humor column. This is not a story I would report anyway. I mean, it's not funny. So, it's the kind of thing I wouldn't follow up on, personally.

ANTHONY: I will tell you something, though. Years ago, and I won't even say who the celebrity was. May they rest in peace. But I got a story that they were dying and they swore up and down they weren't dying, there was nothing wrong, my sources were crazy, I was crazy, and I think that they died two days later. So, I do not want that to be true in the case of George Harrison. But I am just saying that happened then and it could happen again.

BATTISTA: Let me bring in Deborah Norville into the conversation. She, as you know, is the host of "Inside Edition."

Deb, I know that you are on a car phone. Thank you for joining us.

DEB NORVILLE, "INSIDE EDITION": Hi, Bobbie. Thank you.

BATTISTA: Hopefully we don't lose you going into a tunnel or something.


BATTISTA: On "Inside Edition" for example, how do you separate fact from fiction, especially when the story is driven by gossip or speculation?

NORVILLE: Well, I think that's where every good story begins. I heard that. Every good news story that I ever reported started with the snippet of information which you then have to follow up on. One of the challenges because, oftentimes, a show like "Inside Edition." We are not the newscast of records, but we do try to amplify the stories which are making news.

So oftentimes, it's been reported somewhere else first, but what we try to do is -- first of all, try to verify the story. And there are certain publications that have, by virtue of their existence, a higher level of credibility when way report something than others. For instance, if something is in "The London Daily Mail" we will be naturally more skeptical of that than we would be of, say, "The Times of London" -- both of which might cover the celebrity news, but in different ways and with different levels of credibility.

Flo mentioned the celebrity that was not dying that actually did two days later. And we had a similar situation when Madonna, quote, "wasn't getting married." It was being widely reported that she was, and we did what any responsible news organization would do, and that is check with the person most likely to have good information. In the case of a celebrity who was basically inaccessible, like a Madonna -- you couldn't go to Madonna. You couldn't go to Madonna's brother and get information. So, we went to her publicist and the people at her publicity firm -- you can take it to the bank. She's not getting married, she's not engaged, we don't know where this came from -- well, of course, she was engaged and she was getting married, and later they issued a statement saying we were trying to protect her privacy.

What happens is, you have been diminished the level of credibility that you as a representative for the celebrity has, and it's understandable that any news organization is going to be more skeptical of what Madonna's representatives say in any future news story that may start bubbling.

BATTISTA: I am not...

ANTHONY: And as wild as she lives her life, I mean, who cares? You know what I am saying? I don't understand why they are so protective.

BATTISTA: Well, let me ask you about this because, I am not accusing you guys of anything, but I am not sure that if you could ask the person about this story that you would necessarily go to them, because you know, there's that old joke line about...

NORVILLE: The George Harrison story is a perfect example. The George Harrison story that shot like wildfire around the world was quoting Martin. You know, why did anyone go to Martin and say, you're being quoted as saying X, is that true?

BATTISTA: Because...

NORVILLE: He could have easily nipped this in the bud.

BATTISTA: ... like I was saying, the old joke line is never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

NORVILLE: No, that's not necessarily true, Bobbie.

BATTISTA: You know what? And you know, I have to say this, only because I was the subject of a tabloid report in "The National Examiner." This was probably about six years or so ago, and I had to laugh, because it said: "We answer the question all America is asking: What's wrong with news gal Bobbie's eye?" And it goes on to say that, you know, that I am mum on this subject.

Well, nobody asked me. You know, and it goes on to say that I don't like to talk about the subject. Well, nobody asked me. And the point is: I never did -- I don't have lazy eye, and I've never had it. And nobody asked me about it. And I am -- you know, it went on to say that I was a source of inspiration for folks who do have lazy eye, which I am very happy about, except I don't have lazy eye, and I never have. So...


ANTHONY: Yeah, I do have deals with certain celebrities where I have to call them and ask them. I mean, if the story is true and they don't want me to go to publicists, they want me to go directly to them. So, there are people that do want you to call them.

BATTISTA: Well, why wouldn't the reporters at "The Examiner" just give me a call? Were they afraid if they called me that I might kill a good story?

ANTHONY: No, I don't know that. I am going to stay away from that because I have a gossip column now. I can't answer that directly, Bobbie. Perhaps they didn't have the access to you that they needed that particular day.

BATTISTA: It's real easy to get me, but anyway...

ANTHONY: Now we know. We'll call you from here on out.

BATTISTA: I got to take a quick break. As we do, the question of the day: is it is a bad thing to gossip? Take the TALKBACK LIVE online viewer vote at AOL keyword: CNN.

While there, check my note, drop us an e-mail. In the moment, celebrities fight back. We will meet the man who handled PR for Hollywood stars Kim Basinger and Kelsey Grammer. Stay where us.


BATTISTA: Joining us now is publicist Michael Sitrick, author of "Spin: How to Turn the Power of the press to Your Advantage." Michael, nice to see you again.


BATTISTA: Now, you are one of the guys that, you know, Flo Anthony might call when there is a rumor floating out there. Are you honest -- are you a reliable source for them, the publicists?

SITRICK: Well, I certainly hope so, and so far as I know, nobody has accused us of misrepresenting or saying something that wasn't true. We always ask the client when there -- when we get a call about something or they call us and say there a rumor floating, the first question we ask is, is it true?

I got a call one time one Saturday afternoon from a producer client of mine who said that -- he said: "Mike, do you know anybody at 'The Globe'?" And I said, "'The Boston Globe'?" He said: "No, no, no, 'The Globe,' the tabloid 'The Globe.'"

And I said: "No, what is the problem?" And he said: "Well, one of the stars of an upcoming movie I am making, they are going to do a story or they are saying that they are going to do story that he has prostate cancer." He was an elderly star. And I said: "Well, does he?" And he said, "Why?" And I said: "You know, if he does, we are not going to say he doesn't." And he said: "Well, no, he doesn't."

And I said: "What is the story here?" And he said: "Well, let's get together Monday, because they gave us until Tuesday," and I got on the phone with the lawyer, and the celebrity, and the producer, and said: "What happened?" And he said: "Well, someone claims they saw me going out of a doctor's office on such and such a date." And I said, "Did you?" And he said: "Yes, it was my internist."

And as we checked further -- it was at UCLA, where there was an urologist, and it turned out he had a regular physical scheduled. We wrote a letter to the editor and a letter to the general counsel explaining that he did see a doctor, but it was an internist. And the lawyer said: "Oh, it doesn't do it any good. They are going to run it anyhow. Don't worry about it, and it's a waste of time."

And within a half hour, we got a letter back from the editor saying they had spiked the story. So, you know, you can't -- I always love that the clients will say: "Oh, I didn't get my side of the story in," and I said: "Well, did you talk to them?" And they say: "No, we refused to take the call." And I say: "Well, how do you get your side in then?"

BATTISTA: You know, that doesn't always happen, as we know. Like, what is -- what recourses is available to celebrities out there when -- when there's this raging rumor that nobody can seem to control? You know, I know that they have legal recourses to some degree, but even those are difficult to -- to make work for you, isn't that right?

SITRICK: Well, look, journalists are like, you know, any other professional. They are very good journalists and there are some who are less than responsible. Our experiences is, if you have something that is not accurate, if you can show that it's untrue, you can get a retraction.

We had -- we've had cases, though, where we have had to sort of fight fire with fire, and have gotten -- actually, broadcast television news magazines to change the broadcast because of some pressure that we've brought to bear.

BATTISTA: I have got an e-mail here. Roy in Texas says: "Rumors like these persist because it sells those tabloids. It seems real journalism is getting to be the same way with this whole Condit/Levy thing." Deb, are you still there?

NORVILLE: I'm still here, and I'm glad the person wrote in with that question, because I think that's part of the reason this discussion is taking place right now. If it were only the supermarket tabloids and the cheesy London papers that put the naked women on the front cover, I don't think you would be entertaining this discussion.

But the reality is, the news about the Brad Pitts and the Jennifer Anistons and the celebrities like Mr. Sitrick represents often do find their way into mainstream information programs, including a program like "Inside Edition." We have a certain amount of fair which does deal with celebrities -- although we are not exclusive like "ET" or "Access Hollywood" or "Extra" might do -- and because there has been such a blurring and because celebrity stories, as the writer rightly says, do generate viewer and reader interest, the temptation is to do the story even if there is not much news.

I think the question that ought to be asked in the news room, whether it's at a publication or a broadcast outlet is, how much of this is new? Or, how much of this is just an opportunity to put some gorgeous footage of an attractive celebrity on our program on or our cover?

SITRICK: Look, I think that one of the things that we found, and I think Deborah and the others will agree, if you are shown that something is inaccurate, if you're shown that you've made a mistake, we have had various television shows and newspapers, issue retractions and apologies.

But you know you can't whine that somebody said that you were overweight or that you had gray pants on and they were blue, it has to be something substantive.

BATTISTA: I couldn't anything, by the way, on the report from "The National Examiner." I had no recourse at all, according to our legal department. Al, your comment?

AL: The comment is that the gossip industry is just that -- an industry. They're out to make money and do it anyway they can.

ANTHONY: Well, I don't agree that people will do any -- gossip anyway they can, just to make money. I think that journalists, whether it's tabloids or tabloid TV, or daily newspapers, everybody really wants to have a credible and real story.

I don't think that people are just out to ruin lives just to make money at the expense of someone else.

REITER: Well..

BATTISTA: Go ahead, Amy.

REITER: There may be some publications that may do that. I mean, it's -- I think it's a mistake to sort of lump all publications together. And I think it's important for readers to really think about where -- what the source of the story is that they are reading. That is one of the things that I really try to do is sort of say, look, this is where this is coming from, and you know, take it for what it is.

BATTISTA: That's part of the problem, though. The more these lines blur between mainstream and tabloid journalism the more everyone lumps all of us together and every one together. I've got to take another quick break here though. Gossip is a double edged sword. Careers would die without it. We'll find out how clever entertainers learn to use it to their advantage. Stay with us.


BATTISTA: I want to pursue the point we were making before the break for just a minute. I am getting e-mail that pertain to that, like Steve in Rhode Island, who says,"Don't reporters have a duty to get to the truth?"

Frank in New York, says, "What about all of those editors who are supposed to confirm information before printing? I guess they are at the bank depositing a big paycheck from increased circulation."

I don't know if reporters do have a duty or editors have a duty, Flo, in the tabloid business to confirm the facts, do they?

ANTHONY: Yes they do have a duty to confirm the facts. We definitely do. And believe it or not, even with little gossip items that I write, they want source after source after source to make sure they're correct. Nobody wants to be in trouble. No one wants to get sued. People really do want to write factual stories.

BATTISTA: But in my example, just for instance, they quoted some anonymous source at CNN, one person, they could have just made that up. I mean, obviously they did.

ANTHONY: I'm sure that one person at CNN did say something to them, Bobbie, and they just went on that one person, unfortunately. But I am sure somebody said something because you just don't pull rabbits out of hats like that. Something starts somewhere.

REITER: Some tabloids do. There is no question.

ANTHONY: I am not going to agree with that.

BATTISTA: Michael, go ahead.

SITRICK: Look, if you would have sent a letter to the editor with a copy to the general counsel of that paper with a letter from your ophthalmologist saying that you have reported that Bobbie has lazy eye syndrome. I am, in fact, your ophthalmologist, I have examined her, it's absolutely untrue, they would be in a pretty difficult situation and I am willing to bet, and I can't tell you every editor, in every publication, that they would have written a retraction.

BATTISTA: Why didn't I think of that. And where were you. Michael, six years ago.

Let me get to the audience quickly, Lilly, go ahead.

LILLY: Yes the problem with being a celebrity is that you literally live in a fish bowl. Everything you do scrutinized to the last detail. It's sad when people have to turn to tabloids for news and finally Magic says, gossip is always delicious.

BATTISTA: Those are comments from the chat room. Lilly, thanks, very much. Ann in Mississippi e-mails us, "When are reporters going to learn the difference between news and entertainment? There was a time when they showed a little respect and taste." Deb, I will throw that one at you.

Deb -- is Deb Norville still with us? Is she gone? I think we hit the tunnel or we got close to the airport. We lost Deborah but we thank her very much here for joining us. Flo and Amy, do you think that there is a difference between news and entertainment these days or is... ANTHONY: There's not much of one. Let's take the case of Gary Condit and the missing Chandra Levy. I mean, this is an -- a political story that has become unfortunately entertainment. People are just totally intrigued with this story and every single day there is something else that is coming out with it. So right now, there's a very fine line with it.


SITRICK: I think that the media fills a vacuum and what Gary Condit has done by keeping a low profile, by not speaking out, he has created a vacuum. He is allowing others to define him. So first, you know, the news reports denied he had any relationship with her, then the police issued a report saying, yes, he did say he had a relationship with her.

The family, of course, is beside themselves and upset about the flip-flop of information. You have a missing young girl where nobody -- everybody's praying for her safety, but as days go on they become more and more concerned about the fact that she won't turn up. It's a great news story. It's tragic, but it's a great news story as news goes and it has the publics' interest, it has all of the elements.


ANTHONY: Power, sex, you know, it's got politics. Every element.

BATTISTA: Michael, I am curious to ask you, because it's also an example of when bad press, bad publicity and bad decisions can practically ruin, and may ruin this congressman's career whether he's connected to this or not. I take it that you would have handled this a bit differently?

SITRICK: I would have -- I would have and even now, I would have him meet with the media. We have you know, I have a theory that I have developed over the years -- and this isn't any great revelation -- that the media has a herd mentality, and just like any herd, they follow the lead steer and the lead steer can -- doesn't have to be just "The Washington Post" or "The New York Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" or one of the networks: CNN, CBS or so forth.

It can be a journalist within that grouping. And so I would find a broadcast journalist that I would probably lead with, like you -- or another broadcast journalist -- and I would sit down with a one-on- one, much the way Bill Clinton did with Hillary.

I think Hillary is the real heroine of the Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky thing because I think her support for her husband and her saying this is between Bill and me, and it's nobody else's business, I would have Gary Condit and his wife go on and I would answer the questions. And then I would follow-up with a print journalists and I would get the news out and you don't have other people speculating and talking for him.

BATTISTA: I have to... REITER: : Let's face it, news and politics: it's like a soap opera and this is a really good plot line. It makes perfect sense that people would fascinated by it.

ANTHONY: You can't make this kind of stuff up. I mean you really can't make it up.

BATTISTA: Let's hope not. We have to take a quick break here. When we come back, we will talk a little bit about what happens when celebrities take this kind of stuff personally and feel like they and their families have been hurt by it. We will talk about that. Stay with us.


BATTISTA: Let me get some audience reaction. Robert in Rhode Island is on the phone. Go ahead, Robert.

Robert, are you there? We're having phone issues today. Let me go to the audience here quickly -- Bianca.

BIANCA: I wanted to ask Flo how anything could be just totally based on fact, when stories in the tabloids run from aliens abducting people to celebrity love children? I'd like to know how every story -- you said tabloids can't just make things up like that. How...

ANTHONY: Well, I don't think that tabloids do aliens abducting children. There are a couple of magazines or tabloids that are out, but we know those -- like "The Sun" and things like that, you know, we don't think those are really based on fact. Those are kind of fun things.

But, I mean, a lot of celebrity love children stories have been true. We look at the case of Reverend Jesse Jackson, for one, that just happened recently. And I don't think that anyone is just going to say, well, someone's had a child, or who is this? I mean, a year or so ago, it came out that Julius Irving had a love child that's a tennis player now. So all of those stories are very factual.

BATTISTA: I'm curious as to whether you guys give a thought to how it does affect the families of celebrities or those around them. You might remember Nicole Kidman put this statement out to the Sydney paper in April. She said: "I understand that people are interested but it's my life -- my personal life. It's very difficult seeing your life being dragged through the newspapers and the tabloids and your children being dragged through it."

Do you think about that at all, or do you just close yourself off to that, Amy?

REITER: I think that that's actually a really interesting question, particularly in that case, because what that was -- she had had a miscarriage, and her PR person confirmed that. And then, of course, that was picked up, and then, it was -- the perception is that reporting that was an invasion. Once her PR person actually comments on that story, that's fair game. That's a news story. And I think in a high-profile case like that, that's part of the bargain. Certainly you feel sympathy, but it's part of the bargain. It's the game of being a celebrity.

BATTISTA: Well, Michael...

ANTHONY: Not only did her PR person confirm that she had a miscarriage, then they said and the baby was definitely Tom's. I don't even know if anyone had questioned whether or not it was Tom's. But I mean, they went one step further.

BATTISTA: Michael, I'm curious as to what sort of privacy zone -- we heard the congressman refer to that, that he felt like he had a privacy zone. What sort of privacy zone do those folks have? Is there nothing that's off-limits?

SITRICK: Well, you know, in the terms in the case of the miscarriage, the comment could have been, look, this is a private matter, we're not going to confirm or deny that. That's between Mrs. Kidman and her husband. But, you know, the problem is when you're a celebrity, when you're a public figure, your privacy is greatly reduced and it's a much more difficult situation to be in.

BATTISTA: Robert's back on the line from Rhode Island. Robert, go ahead.

ROBERT: Good afternoon.


ROBERT: I think the mass of misinformation we receive from the media is confusing to many people. I think the great objection is that is seems to be selective -- it's gossip, innuendo, rumors. And when you have an opportunity, or rather when there's a controversy, your talk-show hosts engage in cheap shots, bringing in people who have had problems in the past. And I think a great many Americans object to that.

BATTISTA: That kind of goes with Jerry in Florida, who says: "Gossip is supposed to be fun. When it stops being fun it has gone over the line." Is that true, Flo?

ANTHONY: I don't think I would want to do this job if it wasn't fun. I mean, I don't think that any journalist or gossip columnist is actually out to hurt someone or to be cruel to anyone. I always look for the fun story, you know, I look for marriages and babies and happy occasions.

I mean, of course you've got to report on sad occasions. You don't have any choice in the matter, because it's life. I mean, a certain celebrity was arrested for soliciting an undercover officer for sex, and the person was someone that I really liked a lot. And I said first, this is something that's very difficult for me on the radio this morning, because I like this person a lot. But it's a news story, it's happened and I've got to say that it happened.

BATTISTA: You know, one thing we haven't talked about, Michael, is the old adage that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. How many times is it that these sorts of rumors or innuendoes are orchestrated or planted by publicists?

SITRICK: Well, you know, I don't know of any of those happening. I always tell clients you can get bad publicity on your own, you don't have to hire me. But, you know, this -- I have to say that a lot of what you see and a lot of what you read is -- I'd quote Pogo and say we have met the enemy and that is us, and I just butchered the Pogo quote, but you get the idea.

You know, they get a call. They don't comment, the story is inaccurate. And then they say, OK, the story is inaccurate. Now, it's true that it's not the source's responsibility to tell the journalist what's wrong or what's right. It's the journalist's responsibility to get the facts right. But on the other hand, what I always do is say let's at least get the questions. We can then decide whether or not we comment.

And I've been in situations where the client doesn't want to comment. I'll get the questions and I'll say, look, my client doesn't want to comment but your facts are wrong. And in one case I actually said, "I know you got this information from out of date book, and that book is wrong." And it delayed the story and it dramatically changed the story because we were able to say -- we knew what his source was and we were able to point out that it was inaccurate.

BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience -- Margaret.

MARGARET: A former premier of France had an extended affair with a woman and it was never reported in the French press. Why do we, as a society, feel the need to know everything about celebrities and politicians and everyone in the news?


ANTHONY: Well, I think that Americans -- somehow we feel we have higher standards of morals than anyone else. I mean, I think that anybody in any other country looking at all that went on with the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky -- I mean, they thought that we were total idiots. I mean, why is this man in court over an affair, why do you have to be impeached over an affair?

I mean, but as Americans somehow we feel that our morals are a lot higher than others.

BATTISTA: Burt in the audience, go ahead.

BURT: Yeah, I think there are quality journalists who report on these types of issues, but whether journalists reports the facts and spends a lot of time making sure they are true or whether they are not true, we as people eat this up. It's our demand that drives it.

BATTISTA: I got to take a break. Melissa in Texas kind of hits the nail on the head: "Gossip is fun when it's not about you."

How important is the Internet buzz? We will talk more with Amy about that in just a few minutes, and we will take a look at supersonic cybergossip after this.


BATTISTA: We had a good little conversation going here. Frances, go ahead.

FRANCES: I had a comment about the French prime minister comment. I grew up in China, and when the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky thing was going on, they thought it was the greatest thing, because it was a tribute to freedom of press and open society, because they were saying that if the same thing had happened in China, that this would have gotten absolutely no coverage because the state controls the media, so it would not have come out at all.

BATTISTA: Anne, on the other hand, would like for most of us to try to control ourselves.

ANNE: Right. Gossip is a collective behavior. It's something that's a vice of our society, and I think that if we collectively stop gossiping, we stop buying "The National Enquirer," or even stop talking about it, and we turn off the -- I don't know...

BATTISTA: Entertainment shows.

ANNE: Yeah, the terrible entertainment shows, then perhaps, you know, they would lose money and they would stop, they would go bankrupt eventually.


JOHN: Yeah, I think with the French prime minister, a lot of people don't realize there are big cultural differences too. In France, that was almost like a badge of honor for the French prime minister to have an affair on the side, and the French people look the other way. They really didn't mind. In this country, it's gossip. In France, it wasn't, it was just a way of life.

BATTISTA: Amy, before the times gets away from us here, I'm just curious as to how the Web has changed the art of gossip, if will you.

REITER: Well, it has definitely speeded up the news cycle, there is no question about it, that stories break, break, break.

And what I think is actually -- that I choose to see it as kind of an unfolding story. So, what's sort of in the news, what pops up one day -- if there is something, you know, that maybe needs correcting later, if there -- if the story as a story has developed -- you know, people are constantly tuned in, so they are getting the story in a sort of episodic way, which is a little different from kind of concise, all at once, you get your newspaper in the morning, and that's all, or even watch the news at night.

So, you know, obviously it has sped up the process, but I think that our approach to it has also changed. Another thing I think is that people -- probably more people are consuming gossip now than ever, because you can do it secretly at your desk at work. You click on your little work break and you peak and you see what's going on, and it's not like you have to go out and buy a tabloid to get it.

BATTISTA: You know, at the bottom of your column, you have a little, you know, a square, you can click on if you have a tidbit or an item to e-mail you. I'm just curious as to what you get.

REITER: I get all sorts of things. I get...

BATTISTA: For a lot of them -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

REITER: I get tips that I choose to follow up on and that leads somewhere, and I get tips that don't. You really never know.

BATTISTA: Yeah, that's what I wondered, if a lot of them were kind of a waste of time?

REITER: Yeah. Well, maybe surprisingly, actually, what I mostly get is a lot of feedback, people kind of wanting to comment on stories that are actually in the column. That's -- people really, really, I think want to respond.

BATTISTA: And Michael, one of new things for celebrities now out there is they have their own Web sites where they can counteract a lot of these rumors, right?

SITRICK: Yes, they do. And you can also use the Web to combat what you think is unfair practice by journalists.

We had a television news magazine coming after one of our clients. We found that one of their main sources was employed by a competitor, and so we talked to the producer, and we said: "Do you know this guy is employed by a competitor?" And they said: "Well, we don't think that would affect his objectivity." And I said, "What?" And they said: "No, we don't think it's going to effect his objectivity." And I said: "Well, you are going to identify this individual as an employee of the competitor," and they said, "no, we are not."

So, we took the whole interview, raw footage and all, and put it up on the Internet in streaming video, and then took a full-page ad in "The New York Times," saying "see for the first time ever the complete, unedited broadcast of such and such a show before the program airs." Why are we doing it? We put all the things that we felt they were doing improperly, and the broadcast that aired was very different than the broadcast that we thought was going to air beforehand. So, there are ways to use the Internet to get your point across.

BATTISTA: Up to the audience here -- Fahad.

FAHAD: Yes, I heard some comments saying that, you know, gossiping is just like in the States, and I lived for some years in the States, and also many years of most of my life was abroad, and I could that it has spread all over. Gossiping is human nature, and in the States or anywhere else in the world, people love gossiping.

Just for the tabloid magazines, for a reader has to accept the fact that these are not accurate, the information, whatever he receives, is not accurate.

BATTISTA: All right. I got to go to break. We will be back in just a moment.


BATTISTA: I'm curious, Flo, one thing we haven't touched upon here, when there's a crime involved with a celebrity report or rumor or whatever. For example, Robert Blake comes to mind, most recently. What sort of legal parameters do you have to be conscious of?

ANTHONY: Well, once something is a police matter, not many. Because it's totally out there. And people probably do take a lot of editorial liberty because of the fact it's a legal matter and you can get away with it, but I don't think, once again, that anybody is making up things in printing. In the case of Robert Blake, most of the things that were printed came from members of Bonnie Lee Bakley's family.

BATTISTA: I have on the phone with us Mary Ann Norbom, the managing editorial at "Star" Magazine.


BATTISTA: Good, thanks.

We have been talking the last hour about how far the tabloids go to verify the facts and the rumors and the innuendoes about celebrities, politicians, whatever, how far do you go at "The Star"?

NORBOM: We have strict policies in whatever we publish. We have multiple sources. We never just go with a single source on any story even a gossip item. When it comes to a story, while you are talking earlier about George Harrison -- when it comes to a story about illness, we go to the ends of the earth and back.

We talk to sources around the celebrity. We go to the celebrity themselves and this is important point. "Star" Magazine always goes to the celebrity or the representatives and looks for comment, looks for feedback when are preparing a story for publication.

BATTISTA: So you are saying that every single story that "The Star" prints is true?

NORBOM: Let's address George Harrison for a second. That's a good story the people are talking about right now, and I can explain to you "The Star" process. That is a story -- George having cancer is a story that "Star" Magazine broke. Our columnist Jose (UNINTELLIGIBLE) broke the story. He had the original tips.

He went to George Harrison's people. They denied it to him initially, he went back to them again, he volume of evidence to support the story that George was ill, and at that point, they decided to go public with it and put out a press release acknowledging George's illness. But we approached them repeatedly to try to get their cooperation on the story. And to make sure that they understood how much information we had, so they would work with us on it.

BATTISTA: So when George Harrison comes out with a vehement denial about his eminent death, for example, do you print a retraction?

NORBOM: No, hold on, I'm talking about the original story about him having cancer. "The Star" certainly did not publish a story that he was -- was in -- asking "Star" did not publish a story he was about to die in the last 24 hours. I'm talking about the original story about him having cancer was a story we had a tremendous amount of material on, and went to his people. You were speaking earlier about not being approached for comments. "Star" always approaches representatives of celebrities and asks comments, asks for input.

BATTISTA: Question from the audience.

TARA: I was wondering if a story is broken and a headline is real big, and they find out that it is an error, why aren't their retractions as big as the headline?

BATTISTA: Do you ever do that Mary Ann, at "The Star," do you print the retraction, and does it get as much play as the original story?

NORBOM: Well, I can't think of a specific story. "Star" tries to never be wrong about stories. So if a caller has a specific example that I could address. But we try to go to great lengths to make sure we are not wrong in the first place. If there is, in very general terms, without addressing a specific story, if there is a story we later determine that we have an error on, yes, we do a correction on it.

BATTISTA: All right, Mary Ann Norbom, thanks for phoning in, appreciate your input on this. Flo Anthony, thank you for joining us. Amy Reiter, thank you. Michael Sitrick, good to see you again as well.

We are done for today. We will see you again tomorrow for more TALKBACK LIVE.