NEW YORK — Pushy publicists, blind items and the ethics of outing were on the menu Tuesday night, as held a panel on which four gossip columnists discussed the inner workings of their profession.

“We’re fighting against publicists everywhere,” said Jeannette Walls, a gossip columnist for MSNBC, in the backroom of the lowly lit East Village bar where the event was held. “We make fun of people who can destroy us. We’re the bottom feeders trying to get the story the publicists don’t want out. What we write is the stuff you won’t see in the authorized piece that appears in Vanity Fair.”

This story first appeared in the July 19, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Publicists are like dogs guarding hell,” said Michael Musto, a columnist for the Village Voice. “It’s their job to keep you from writing the item that you want to write. So then you have to talk to the acupuncturist or the massage therapist. Figuring out whether it’s true is tough though because the source always has an agenda.”

“Yes,” said Walls, “but just because they have an agenda doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

“We’re in the minority,” said Musto of those who dare to defy the powerhouse PRs. “And if it hurts [the celebrities’] feelings a little bit I’m sorry, but nobody’s career is more wrecked than mine. I cannot get any access, publicists will not talk to me, and I am getting no freelance work because of what I write. So if you think this is making me incredibly popular or successful, you’re wrong.”

Musto was similarly unapologetic when it came to the matter of outing closeted celebrities. “I don’t see it as ‘outing’. If someone is gay, I write it. I’m out.”

Walls offered up a slightly more mainstream view on the topic. “NBC has a policy against it; I would take it on a case by case basis. If you have a gay senator voting for anti-gay legislation and you can find a point of hypocrisy, there’s a legitimate reason to out. I outed Matt Drudge because he was writing about everyone else’s private lives.”

“We have to show documentation just to write on the page that someone is gay,” said Jared Paul Stern, the model-obsessed gossip columnist who pens the Nightcrawler column for the New York Post as well as serving as the understudy for Page Six editor Richard Johnson. “We cannot be the first to print it. It must already have been in print.”

As the host, Mediabistro’s Albert Lee, asked the columnists whether they ever felt guilty about scorching celebrities for a living, the writers continued to defend themselves.

Marc Malkin, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, said, “I won’t do an item on people being sick, and I won’t do stuff on the children of celebrities unless it somehow pertains to the work of their parents.”

But Stern seemed less concerned with political correctness or with the stigma that might accompany running such an item. When asked whether he felt guilty about including a recent blind item on Page Six in which the Post claimed an A-list movie star was HIV positive, or whether he was certain about its factual accuracy, Stern replied, “not guilty and no. We could not have proven that one in court. That’s why we ran it as a blind item.”

“For me,” said Musto, “I always know 100 percent that a blind item is true. It’s just that it’s libelous and I can’t prove it.”

“I go back and forth on blind items, though New York Magazine will not print them,” said Malkin. “Basically, if you can’t prove it in court, you shouldn’t print it.” The other problem with blind items, he said, is that they unfairly tease the reader: “They get very insidery; it’s like this way of telling your reader ‘we know this and you don’t.’”

‘Well,” said Musto, “It’s usually just about Courtney Love. “Blind items are always about her.”

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