Scientific research described in this very interesting NYT article by Benedict Carey suggests that, in essence, gossip is good for you (and the social groups to which you belong). Here are some choice excerpts:
Gossip has long been dismissed by researchers as little more than background noise, blather with no useful function. But some investigators now say that gossip should be central to any study of group interaction.
People find it irresistible for good reason: Gossip not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, studies suggest, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual. As often as it sullies reputations, psychologists say, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.
"There has been a tendency to denigrate gossip as sloppy and unreliable" and unworthy of serious study, said David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of "Darwin's Cathedral," a book on evolution and group behavior. "But gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors in a group and defining group membership."
Interesting stuff! This suggests that reading UTR may help federal judges and law clerks by informing them of the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and by giving them a greater sense of belonging to a larger Article III community.
Later on in the Times piece, we learn the following:
Long-term studies of Pacific Islanders, American middle-school children and residents of rural Newfoundland and Mexico, among others, have confirmed that the content and frequency of gossip are universal: people devote anywhere from a fifth to two-thirds or more of their daily conversation to gossip, and men appear to be just as eager for the skinny as women.
Sneaking, lying and cheating among friends or acquaintances make for the most savory material, of course, and most people pass on their best nuggets to at least two other people, surveys find....
In one recent experiment, Dr. Wilson led a team of researchers who asked a group of 195 men and women to rate their approval or disapproval of several situations in which people talked behind the back of a neighbor. In one, a rancher complained to other ranchers that his neighbor had neglected to fix a fence, allowing cattle to wander and freeload. The report was accurate, and the students did not disapprove of the gossip.
But men in particular, the researchers found, strongly objected if the rancher chose to keep mum about the fence incident....
"We're told we're not supposed to gossip, that our reputation plummets, but in this context there may be an expectation that you should gossip: you're obligated to tell, like an informal version of the honor code at military academies," Dr. Wilson said.
Could such reasoning apply to the federal judiciary? Absolutely! For example, let's say you're clerking for a nightmare of a judge. Do you have an ethical obligation to warn interviewees that your judge is awful to clerk for? Maybe so. (At the very least, you should tell A3G all about your boss, so she can write a suitably snarky "Justice Is Blind" item.)
If you have juicy tidbits about a federal judge that you've been wanting to share with A3G, but have been withholding out of guilt, consider this observation from the article:
Given this protective group function, gossiping too little may be at least as risky as gossiping too much, some psychologists say. After all, scuttlebutt is the most highly valued social currency there is. While humor and story telling can warm any occasion, a good scoop spreads through a room like an illicit and irresistible drug, passed along in nods and crooked smiles, in discreet walks out to the balcony, the corridor, the powder room.
Knowing that your boss is cheating on his wife, or that a sister-in-law has a drinking problem or a rival has benefited from a secret trust fund may be enormously important, and in many cases change a person's behavior for the better....
So, please, do your good deed for the day -- email A3G with some primo judicial gossip!
The scientifc vindication of gossip comes at an interesting point in time for the gossip industry. The field is being transformed by at least four major trends:
(1) Gossip is booming. As reported here, the first half of 2005 witnessed dramatic increases in circulation and newsstand sales for the major celebrity gossip magazines (including People, In Touch, and Us Weekly). The public has a seemingly insatiable appetite for the 411 about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ("Brangelina"), Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes ("TomKat"), etc.
(2) Gossip is moving beyond its traditional outlets, extending into more staid quarters. As noted in this NYT article about staff changes at The National Enquirer, "Gossip has been legitimized and has metastasized, spreading to every corner of the culture, and cable and network television is full of breathless updates on the tiniest doings of B-list celebrities. Readers cannot open a magazine or newspaper, including this one, without being offered tasty morsels from someone else's life."
(3) Gossip is getting nastier. As this NYT piece about the celebrated gossip Liz Smith points out, "what sets Ms. Smith apart is that she doesn't trash her subjects. This helps her maintain access, but it also means her column often lacks the prerequisite of the day: edge."
(4) The gossip cycle has gotten much faster, a development fueled in large part by the internet and by blogs. As noted here, "[t]he real-time pace of Internet gossip has made it difficult for newspaper gossip columnists to stay ahead of the curve. Richard Leiby [of the Washington Post] said that many people in the Post newsroom monitored Wonkette.com, a Washington blog, all day long. 'She often has the lead on me because she's in real time,' he said."
In short, these days are challenging but exciting ones for gossip mongers. Not unlike being a junior associate, being a gossip queen is a tough job, but someone's got to do it!
For more discussion of the research mentioned in the Times, check out this interview of Michael Musto, the famed gossip columnist of New York's Village Voice, conducted by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. Article 3 Groupie especially appreciated this comment by Musto (alterations by A3G):
I'm totally vindicated, Keith. Everyone says I was the skanky trash peddler. Turns out I'm the new Mother Teresa, spreading joy and wisdom through the world. I just say a piece of gossip, I don‘t know, like [Judge Alex Kozinski] is a total [hottie]. And I'm adding to purity and goodness to the world. Bring on the Pulitzer, bring on the Bravos.
What a relief! Now A3G can view her pro bono obligations for the year as satisifed.
One final observation: the scientific studies discussed in the Times piece suggest that gossip columnists and lawyers are more similar than one might think. Far from being "skanky trash peddler[s]," as some members of the public accuse us of being, we're actually making the world a better place!