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Gossip's Corrosive Influence

AT what moment should gossip-feeders have noticed that their appetite for sleaze was getting out of hand? Certainly the third "special" on Amy Fisher ought to have sounded an alarm, as should the arrival of the new Joan Rivers show titled "Gossip." And the promise of ushering in spring with one more "docu-drama" on Charles and Diana provides convincing evidence that the taste for titillation has gone out of control.

In a world beset by "ethnic cleansing," homelessness, and famine, gossip hardly rates as a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, and most gossip-feeders, caught between a blush and a smirk, regard their little habit as a vice just a tad more serious than overindulgence in chocolate.

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But harmless is not a word that goes with gossip as it moves out of the tabloids and the info-entertainment shows and finds a corner reserved in respectable newspapers and news programs - in the mainstream. At a certain point in this process, gossip begins to trivialize and distort the way history and life itself are viewed. The eye at the peephole, alas, can see little else.

Consider two of the season's most popular biographies, treating substantive subjects. J. Edgar Hoover's long, controversial career raises important questions about the abuse of privacy by law-enforcement agencies and the acquisition of personal power by unelected officials.

Marlene Dietrich's even longer career practically incarnates a half-century of filmmaking in Europe and America. Yet the prevailing voyeurism has reduced both Dietrich and Hoover to their respective sexual histories.

Mud is not a surgical strike weapon. It splatters everything and everybody in range. While ruining reputations, it corrupts the habits of accuracy, fairness, and compassion among those who consume gossip as well as those who retail it.

Has the time come for inquiring minds to say that more tittle-tattle is positively not what they want to know?

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