Winchell's Legacy: Journalistic Excess

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Walter Winchell was all about celebrity. A mention - a mere mention - in his syndicated column or on his Sunday night radio show during the 1930s and `40s gave instant celebrity to aspiring stars and starlets, would-be Broadway and Cafe Society power brokers, even national politicians.

Not only did Winchell confer celebrity; he controlled it. Press agents and politicos crossed Winchell at their own peril. Celebrity was redefined; Winchell could even give a stock celebrity - a tout on Sunday night would guarantee a blind run on that issue Monday morning.

And never mind how hollow all this might be. To appear in Winchell's column ``meant that one's name was part of the general fund of knowledge,'' writes Neal Gabler in ``Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.'' ``It meant that one's exploits ... rated acknowledgment. It meant that one's life was validated, albeit validated by fame rather than accomplishment.''

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Along the way, Winchell became his own greatest creation. A child of the Jewish slums of East Harlem, who left home for vaudeville before he was 14, he became the most famous journalist in America. His column appeared in 1,000 newspapers; more people listened to his radio show than listened to Jack Benny or Amos and Andy. Hollywood wanted him to play himself in the movies. He was such a valuable property that his sponsors and employers took the extraordinary step of indemnifying him against libel. Gabler describes one bizarre visit to Chicago during the 1930s when Winchell enjoyed the protection of bodyguards from the FBI and the mob, both wary that the other would do him harm.

There was no quarreling with Winchell's celebrity. But does celebrity entitle the man and his career to historical relevance? The consensus of history would seem to suggest that it does not.

The obscurity to which Winchell has been consigned in the quarter-century since his death would seem to demonstrate that celebrity is as perishable as a day-old newspaper column.

Yet now, in a work of stunning thought and clarity, Gabler forces us to reconsider Winchell's legacy. His career marked a sea change in American journalism, and the waves it wrought are still washing ashore. ``Winchell had created a new and highly imitated form of journalism,'' Gabler writes. ``[H]e had expanded the purview of news into the most private behavior of public personalities and ... in doing so, he had torn down not only the long-standing barrier between the private and the public but the barrier between marginal gossip sheets ... and the daily newspaper, making it nearly impossible to tell where to draw the line.''

W.W.'s legacy is the coverage of Paula Jones and Bill Clinton. Charles and Diana. O.J. The political discourse where the voice held to be the most persuasive is often simply the one that shouts the loudest. Gabler makes clear that Winchell is father to all of the wretched excess in journalism today.

``You have neither ethics, scruples, decency or [sic] conscience,'' an editor told him once. ``Let others have those things,'' Winchell replied. ``I've got the readers.'' Journalists today who claim to walk a higher moral ground than Winchell ever did make the same rationalizations: The ratings are good. Circulation is up. Look at the book sales.

Gabler's complex and richly written portrait is neither sympathetic nor gratuitously condemnatory. Gabler gives to his readers what Winchell never gave to his - a full, fair, well-supported, non-judgmental airing of the facts.

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