The headline all but crackled atop the philly.com blog post last Wednesday: “Mayor Nutter, young blonde, out late at bar.”
The story it promised was almost juicy enough to consider hitting the pause button on the latest “Down the Shore with Erin and Tonya” video.
But the brief item beneath the headline disclosed little—save that Mayor Nutter and a “young blonde” had been spotted at the Happy Rooster at 16th and Sansom at one in the morning. [SIGNUP]
Desperate for more details, we took to the streets to dig a little deeper. According to two sources interviewed separately, the young blonde sitting with Mayor Nutter at the Rooster ordered a pizza on the night in question. The waiter, we’re told, then casually asked the young blonde if she’d like the pizza cut into six pieces or twelve. Sources say the young blonde didn’t hesitate.
“Six pieces, pleeese,” she purred. “I could never eat twelve.”
We kid our mysterious “young blonde”—and why not? Her identity is unknown, and if there’s a just God it’ll stay that way.
Besides, isn’t all this late night gossip just some mid-summer silliness, a little red meat to goose online hits and give online commenters something to hoot over?
(“Whose rooster is happy?” cackled Palmyra21.)
Well. Yes. Kind of. But.
A disquieting trend appears to be developing. The Nutter-young-blonde item landed on the heels of the Ed Rendell-may-have-a-girlfriend story (published in the magazine that operates this blog), and to complete the gossip trifecta, there’s the rumor fueled by a few local blogs that a player on the Phillies is messing around with the wife of a teammate.
All three of these rumors have one very big thing in common:
Who gives a shit?
They also have another thing in common: all three, though loaded with implication, were disseminated with proof of nothing—leaving the subjects of the rumors unwilling or unable to adequately defend themselves, damned to look guilty, or at least silly, whatever their reaction.
Do the authors of these stories think about any of this before pushing the send button? Do the mores of our times play a role? Is everyone so under the gun to increase readership that anything goes? Or are these simply mistakes in judgment [disclosure: this writer’s made doozies] that may well have been caught, or at least questioned, back when there was adequate staffing in place for just such situations.
Whatever the case, slippery and unsubstantiated rumors invariably bring up a host of unsettling questions.
Instead of being a young blonde, suppose Nutter had been with a young female African American? How would the headline have read then? Would there have been a headline at all?
Does the responsibility for stories heavy on implication and light on substance extend to those who pass them along?
(A link to the Nutter/young blonde story was prominently displayed here on Philly Post, where it immediately shot past “Is 40 Too Old for a Bikini” as the popular post of the day.)
Not so long ago, before Gawker and TMZ, before the economy and the Internet cratered the traditional media landscape, back when copy editing and fact checking were valued skills that could make you a living, there were rules about stories and sexual indiscretions.
If a politician campaigned hard on family values and wasn’t practicing what he preached—then, okay, nail the hypocrite.
If a public servant’s illicit tryst was taking up so much of his time or otherwise impeding service to constituents—and you could prove it—well, okay, get the bastard.
In general, though, a reporter approaching an editor with a tale of purported infidelity would invariably be told to hit the bricks and not come back until they had something that readers would actually give two shits about.
Old school thinking, for sure. But a little revival of old time editorial religion regarding the right to privacy and the need to focus on stories that affect us in real ways, especially in these trying times, couldn’t hurt. It might even get those among us who still care about substance and journalism crowing like happy roosters.
Tim Whitaker (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.