BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, some facts are more important than others. You need to know the truth about the functioning of government and the state of our defenses, right? But do you need to know that –
NEWS REPORTER: Hollywood’s most loved couple split. That, according to In Touch Weekly, the magazine on stands Friday, citing an insider wrote, quote “After 13 years of marriage, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have decided to separate.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That clip we just heard was Entertainment Tonight. Michael Lewittes, how would you describe Entertainment Tonight reporting on In Touch?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: In this instance it’s a matter of the blind leading the blind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Michael Lewittes is the co-founder and editor of GossipCop.com. Welcome to the show.
MICHAEL LEWITTES: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have this site which got about three million unique views in February. That’s a lot more than PolitiFact or FactCheck.org. Okay, so people are more interested in celebrities than politicians. But what’s interesting to me is that the stakes are so much smaller when it comes to the future of the marriage of Will and Jada than about the future of national health care.
MICHAEL LEWITTES: You're comparing apples to oranges here, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, that’s so unfair.
MICHAEL LEWITTES: But I think everyone deserves to know the truth, whether it’s sports or business or politics or other interpersonal relationships. You don’t want to be deceived.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it true?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: No, it’s not true.
It started off with they’re going to separate, she’s met with a divorce attorney, she moved out. As months and months go by, well, they’re still perfectly happy together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s your professional experience?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: Well, I worked at The New York Daily News as a gossip columnist. I then went off to The New York Post where I was the entertainment editor for the weekends. And then I went to Us Weekly where I was the news director, and then I produce Access Hollywood. So I’ve been in this business 15 years, almost 20.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What drives you?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: It’s funny, when I was in college I was interested in anthropology. I wanted to study other cultures, and it ended up that the culture that I started to study were celebrities and the way that they live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you consider them inscrutable island people?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: They’re an interesting breed. They live among us but they live differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don’t most people think this stuff is pretty much made up anyway?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: You know, they’re selling millions of magazines, and if they think it’s made up, well, why would you buy it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To project, to imagine what it would be like to be them, to follow narratives, regardless of their veracity?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: I think they take a much more simplified view of it and they go, oh well this magazine told me that’s true, well, then I believe it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re a gossip reporter who’s seriously into gossip and seriously into reporting. In the ensuing decade-and-a-half, celebrity blogs have taken over a lot of that function. Is your FactCheck site a desire, in a sense, to get back to the day when people did engage in real fact-checking?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: Absolutely. When I started out, if you got a story wrong you’d get in trouble, and if it was really bad you’d get fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Come on!
MICHAEL LEWITTES: Absolutely. Now, these people start blogs who were never reporters but they think oh, this would be really cool, to write about celebrities. They don’t have sources, they hear things or they’re regurgitating things that they’ve seen in magazines and embellishing it. There’s no fact-checking at all. It becomes this crazy echo chamber of rumor, and it spreads. And then by the time it gets to the third or fourth blog it’s a completely outrageous story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You strike me as an interesting case, Michael. And here’s why: You have the ethics and the values of a straight news reporter. On the other hand, you’re also using the technique that you’ve honed over 15 years, which is not to cite your sources and to simply be known to your readers as a trustworthy source.
MICHAEL LEWITTES: As you said, some of the standards are a little different when it comes to celebrity reporting. I wish I could get both celebrities to tell me it’s not true, I’m not leaving my wife. It’s not true, my husband hasn’t left me. But unfortunately, in the entertainment world it doesn’t really work that way. Unlike politics, there isn’t really a policy issue here. It’s really about personal relationships. And people don’t like talking about their personal lives, on the record. Will they talk about it on Background? Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it ever frustrating to find yourself, day after day, engulfed in the rumored squabbles of celebrity couples or minor arrests or altercations in bars, or who knows what?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: You know, it’s almost like that line from “The Godfather,” “This is the life I chose.”
You know, I get this question because sometimes people do a little background check and they see the pedigree and they go, really, did you go to Yale for this? I started as a reporter because I was interested in becoming a reporter and finding out the truth. My beat happened to have been celebrities. You might as well be the best you can at whatever your beat is, whether you're chasing down fires, you're working in the cop shop or you're covering celebrities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think I’m a horrible public radio snob?
MICHAEL LEWITTES: Your job is to ask the tough questions, and my job is to do the best reporting. And the two of us are right here, you know, in the midst of how do you reconcile the tough questions about celebrity reporting?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL LEWITTES: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Lewittes is the co-founder and editor of GossipCop.com.