I was looking for some info about my first book, Celebrity Tantrums, and hit up Google. The book was published in 2003 so some of the details are fuzzy in my memory. Google never forgets. One link seemed a little strange so I investigated further and that’s how I found out about a mistake I’d made in the manuscript.
Granted, Celebrity Tantrums: The Official Dirt, wasn’t a product of my own experiences. I didn’t personally interview Alec Baldwin, Michael Jackson, or anyone else whose outbursts I profiled in the book. I also didn’t claim to have done so. The stories had to have been published by a reputable, recognized news outlet and found in at least two other sources. I also looked for denials or corrections. That’s a general, somewhat standard benchmark for using someone else’s story. It’s in the public domain by that point and not exclusive to any one journalist or media company.
The link I followed took me to a comment by the nephew of Jerry Lee Lewis,. He explained that I’d gotten it wrong when I told how Jerry Lee came to shoot his bass player. Oh, Lewis did shoot the man, but apparently the dispute wasn’t over what I’d said it was. (A quarrel over a game of billiards.) A couple of other commenters piled on about what a crummy book this must be if the writer couldn’t even get her facts straight.
I had unintentionally used a story that was only half-true. No harm done, really. It was a mistake. Jerry Lee Lewis did, in fact, shoot his bass player, who survived, but sued over it. His motive was where I made the error.
Contrast that with what happened to Ben Affleck late last year.
How many people took that for granted and assumed Affleck blamed his ex-wife for his drinking? Most, I think. I smelled a rat and went to the Stern show’s archives to listen to the Affleck interview. It was two hours of riveting, honest, talk from the double-Oscar winner. And he didn’t say Jennifer Garner was to blame for anything. In fact, he said he loved and respected her and they both did their best to work on the marriage.
What he said that was he coped with feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage for the sake of his kids, by drinking and falling asleep on the couch. That became twisted into headlines such as, BEN AFFLECK WOULD STILL BE DRINKING IF STILL MARRIED TO JENNIFER GARNER!
Ben has always been an easy punching bag. He and Matt Damon had burst out of nowhere and won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, which they wrote and starred in. But Ben told Howard about how his career tanked after three movies in a row bombed. Executives bought him out of his next movie, rather than risk making flop number four. However, his agent stuck with him and Affleck went on to direct the Oscar-winning picture, Argo. (Despite no nods to Ben for directing or starring.) But this is not a man who goes around insulting or blaming the mother of his children for his problems.
What does it say about us that we freely accept something so awful even when it isn’t true? Web writers twisted the interview for click-bait. Who could resist wanting to know how a rich Oscar-winner dared to criticize one of America’s sweethearts? Ben Affleck isn’t my fave actor or anything of that nature. But wouldn’t a recovering alcoholic who’s had major career challenges just want to be a good Dad?
It’s gossip, pure and simple. And we, as a species, love it. Celebrity Tantrums was a big ol’ gossipy book, I admit it. But in my defense, I applied journalistic standards to the contents. Turns out it wasn’t perfect and neither am I. Neither of us will ever be in a room with Ben Affleck or Jerry Lee Lewis. We’ll never have to answer for gossiping about them. But isn’t that how gossip works? The subject is never in the room.
If I had deliberately set out to disparage Jerry Lee Lewis, if I’d made up the shooting story, would people pile on and join the party? After all, he once married his teenage cousin. He was a hell-raiser. Tried to wriggle out of paying the IRS, Two of his wives died mysteriously. But I didn’t do anything out of malice. He DID shoot his bandmate. The mistake was about why he did it. (Which I’m still not clear on.)
Entertainment news is mostly noise. Especially in times like these when choosing who you believe about your health might literally mean life or death. But it’s also a welcome distraction for the same reasons. Even when it comes to a fluffy story about Ben Affleck, we need bullshit detectors. Gossiping is a habit, whether it’s about a movie star or an acquaintance. Reserve judgment until the dust settles. I can’t help applying journalism guidelines to everything I read, and I do a lot of double checking before I decide how I’ll react to a story. However, even people like me with the best intentions and integrity screw things up sometimes. Just ask the nephew of Jerry Lee Lewis.
BTW The Tender Bar, starring Ben Affleck, is well worth your time. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime. That’s not gossip – it’s opinion!