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tv   Gossip in American History  CSPAN  August 1, 2015 9:20pm-9:41pm EDT

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started his life as a captain trusted to sail this beautiful sailing ship between london then port royal jamaica. for years he did that responsibly and nobly. one day, for reason no one can determine, he stole the golden fleece, recruited a pie recruit, and went on the account. he turned pirate. >> american history tv was at the organization of american historians annual meeting in st. louis, missouri. we spoke with authors and graduate students about their research. >> jennifer frost catherine
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feeley. your panel topic is the same as the book on which you collaborated. when private talk goes public. how do you define gossip? >> that is a big question. many scholars would say there is no airtight cold truly perfect definition of gossip. it varies across different fields and domains. we decided to define gossip as private talk. talk about people's her pharrell personal lives aired privately. if you don't think that boundary should be crossed and private information shouldn't be made public, you would see gossip and eight at in a negative light.
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if you think it is good, building communities, learning about what is right and wrong and how to behave, you could have a different definition of gossip, seeing it as positive. it can be positive or negative but it is that idea that it is private personal information aired in public. >> is this a matter of semantics? is it the word gossip itself, or is this the kind of material that historians have always looked for? prof. feeley: we have always used it. we don't think about it as such. if you have ever looked at the files of an intelligence agency, the fbi or cia it is full of gossip and other material. it makes -- someone got nervous and was like we are looking for the truth. how do you know what the truth is? that is a great question. we concluded we are ok with
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ambiguity. like some would argue that history is elevated gossip or that gossip is counter history. what you hear and gossip is counter to the dominant historical narrative. there are groups that are excluded that use gossip as a weapon of the week to make their case heard. one of the things we're trying to do by writing this book and having our roundtable is to make the case that gossip is a valid historical topic, and that gossip is legitimate historical evidence. the question of truth comes up in some ways it doesn't matter if gossip is true. what meaning to people give to it, to make of it? you can say gossip matters if it is true or false. >> how do you go about documenting gossip and the
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influence it has on historical events and one example that you have addressed in your work is the history of the salem witch trials. prof. feeley: i'm one of our contributors -- she is the influential figure. it was wonderful to have her contribute to the collection. it she looks at the role gossip plays in the salem witchcraft crisis in massachusetts in the 16 90's. how do people who don't know anything about each other start accusing each other? when it is in an intimate community you know where some tension and the accusations are coming from. you can argue maybe it is supernatural forces leading to these accusations, or gossip. jailhouse gossip, community gossip. part of what sustains the crisis
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and leads to its expansion. one good example is you have accusers who don't know each other who testify in one way jail together for a time, and suddenly their testimony lines they are saying the same things pretty have been talking and gossiping, gathering material to throw -- to get someone else targeted. from the outside it looks like they are a band of witches with supernatural powers, or it is gossip fueling it. it is interesting because you can see what are clearly -- these are oral exchanges, verbal exchanges that appear in the record retton -- written record. prof. frost: that gets that your question, it mostly is talk.
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oral communication. it does get put into the legal record. it does get put into letters. it gets put into the media. we can trace it over time. we would say the forms of gossip change over time. especially with mass media etc., gossip is everywhere. the functions stay the same in terms of why it matters, why do we participate in it? many anthropologists would say gossip is a constant human activity. one anthropologist has said language evolved so we could gossip. that we could exchange information about wild animals where the good source of fruit is etc. in that since we are tracing something that has changed over time as historians and has continuity. >> do you think people at the
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time would have recognized gossip in the way that you are looking at it, or is this something that you are seeing with the perspective of time? prof. frost: at that point in time hearsay evidence was fine in court. that is something that in law changes over time. hearsay evidence is not admissible. or the media, accusations of private life were fine in politics in scandal sheets. in the 20th century, no, you were supposed to respect public figures' private lives. with the salem witchcraft folks they would not have seen as god said. they would have seen it as truth. prof. feeley: the part of the reason that it came to light was that many years after the fact people are remembering the
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importance of that talk. they were calling it talk. >> how about during the mccarthy era? mccarthyism? prof. frost: very important. that is an example of the political functions of gossip or how gossip all cute -- works in the political arena. we can see the impact of gossip in politics. that was a significant time period. we see him as the forefront of the anti-communist movement, has given his name to the era. we think of it as the mccarthy era. he deployed gossip against people. if he heard gossip he used it to paint them with the brush of colin muniz him. gossip wa -- of communism. an essay on how mccarthy's
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opponents smeared him through gossip. made implications that he had a clear relationship with his m -- queer relationship with his mail assistant. what did did was undermined his reputation. we see it contribute to his decline. prof. feeley: in this story what is interesting, these powerful images, photographs that were widely in the press. we see this power, this visual culture that is often written often spoken. there is also a really important visual components. >> in the case of the mccarthyism, how did you document, how can you document
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gossip employed politically? prof. frost: in that example andrea friedman found there was a journalist who wrote a piece talking about this. she would say that was one journalist. she also knows that it shaped the discussion around him. cap these point about this photograph mccarthy whispering to his assistant, that image of intimacy and whispering and gossip, that was plastered everywhere. even if there was only one article that talks about what was his relationship that image that didn't look up standing, it didn't look respectful. the other thing we can see is that we see gossip in the hearings when they did their investigations and a hollywood and subversion in hollywood.
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1947. the house committee on un-american activities. 1947, and the early 1950's. they are using hearsay. it is a congressional hearing. they could use hearsay. lots of rumors. people were blacklisted for having the same name as somebody who was a member of the communist party. it was all rumor and hearsay and gossip. >> there is a strong celebrity gossip culture today. it has roots in old hollywood. one of the people you have written about, heather hopper was an early contributor to gossip. can you tell us about her and the role she played? prof. frost: she wasn't the first big powerhouse. parsons laid the groundwork and
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hopper challenged in the 1930's. hopper is fascinating to me. if people liked her they called her the duchess of dish. if they didn't like her she was the gargoyle of gossip. she was a powerhouse. she wielded gossip unmercifully. i think what is interesting is she was political. she was conservative politically. she knew gossip to cap about celebrity colterulture as well as politics. most hollywood gossip is positive. it is puffing the actor, to get people to see the movie. the majority is positive. the negative gossip, the scandalous gossip gets the headlines and people remember. they were part of the industry. it was a balancing act. they needed to help the industry
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and maintain their own sense of objectivity and be critical. prof. feeley: parsons -- >> parsons and hopper were rivals. how often did they write? what were their main subjects? prof. feeley: they were operating on multiple platforms. parsons, they are writing daily columns giving radio broadcasts, when television comes along they do television. at sullivan takes it to television most effectively. >> how? prof. feeley: with the ed sullivan show. he was not always walter wind chill -- winchill.
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he figures out how to take his persona as this square, straightman and translates it to television. the ed sullivan show guests come on. they are gossiping about themselves. the power dynamic shifts in a way. all of his rivals tried television. he does it most excess fully. prof. frost: hopper is riding a column every day for 27 years. it is millions. she is syndicated widely. all the big papers, all the metropolitan -- metropolitan areas. it becomes part of people's everyday lives. one of the great things was looking at fan letters. her fans would write to her saying every morning the first thing i do is read what is going on. she is able to shape audiences'
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experience of the movies and celebrity colter, as well as the political side. >> how did you get the idea for your book? prof. frost: i come from a large family. my mother is one of 11 children. i have 27 cousins. i can't keep in touch with everybody on a weekly basis. we have to get by on gossip. before facebook. before facebook we gossiped about ourselves on facebook. i needed to be put to call my sister and hear about eight different people. i saw that gossip was a positive thing. i only heard the negative part. how does it build communities? how does it keep relationships going? how was inch oil double -- how was it enjoyable? we had a moorcock relocated view of gossip and wanted to pursue it.
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historians need to look at gossip as a topic and as a source of historical evidence. >> how successful have you been at persuading your colleagues? prof. feeley: i think it has changed. when i was in graduate school there wasn't much work. that is part of the reason -- i saw you on the program a long time ago. immediately e-mails and thought well, a comrade in this lonely work. since then it has been a couple of years. there are more people doing the work. more people generally take media popular culture and the history thereof more seriously. we are surrounded by a. i just want to kind of underscore the importance understanding gossip. one of its key roles as a
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promotional tool and a marketplace where it is selling a project, selling a brand. with the mass media platform. they continue to proliferate. it is an increasingly important role. media gossip for better or worse. >> historians are late to the party. others have been working with gossip for a long time. anthropologists, sociologists the social cultural side. women's of feminist scholars have look at gossip as women's talk, which we happened addressed as much. we're a little bit late to see this as a scholarly topic. that is not to say that other people have them. this is the first book just on gossip in american history. we're hoping to get people on board. >> have how do you take your research into the future?
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do you have other projects planned? prof. feeley: yes. i'm working on a book on the rise of the hollywood press corps. looking at what is a predominately female press corps . it doesn't exist in 1920. by 1950 it is the second-largest in the nation second only to the [inaudible] in d.c. prof. frost: at this point i think i have put the in don gossip for a bit. i'm working on film and politics. gossip is part of that. it will be the sole focus. question of her frost and kathleen feeley, thank you very much. >> when ida mckinley arrived at the white house in 1897 she was in poor health, suffering from epilepsy. her husband would sit next to
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her so when he saw she was having a seizure he would cover her face with a handkerchief until the episode past. she traveled as first lady, even attending the pan-american exposition where her husband was assassinated. ida mckinley, on c-span's original series, first ladies, influence and image. from martha washington to michelle obama, sundays at 8:00 eastern, on c-span 3. >> join american history tv next weekend as we look back 70 years to the atomic bombings of hiroshima and nagasaki, japan which ended the war and the pacific. coverage includes a conversation with truman's grandson the
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first treatment to meet with atomic bomb survivors. it was president truman who gave the order to drop the bombs in 1945. we will see film footage of atomic bomb tests in the new mexico desert and hear eyewitness accounts from scientists and survivors. hiroshima and nagasaki, next saturday here on c-span 3 american history tv. what's recently, american history tv was at the organization of american historians organization in st. louis, missouri. we spoke with professors about their research. this was 20 minutes. >> alexa roberts history of professor at penn state. and author of a misplaced


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