Gossip Cop is not a fact-checker, it’s a celebrity reputation bodyguard

Originally published June 5 on Medium

Kanye West sure has been behaving erratically lately, huh? Beginning with pro-Trump Twitter storms and leading to a disastrous TMZ interview in which he suggested that slavery was “a choice,” there’s debate over whether this is all a high-wire performance piece or Kanye is legitimately losing it. But if you want some insight into Kanye’s mental state, his reaction to the controversy he started, or what his family thinks of his recent behavior, don’t look to the website Gossip Cop. Since the Kan-troversy began, they’ve limited their “coverage” to one issue: assuring readers that the marriage between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West is perfectly fine — call it the Kanye/Kim damage control beat. It’s a logical continuation from Gossip Cop’s previous Kimye coverage, in which they declared as “proof” of the happy marriage a video of Kim and Kanye making out. If you only read Gossip Cop for your Kanye news, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the man is famous for anything other than his perfect marriage.

Gossip Cop — whatever it is, and it is some weird things — is not a front-line fighter for accuracy and exactitude, and anyone treating it as such probably hasn’t clicked around its pages. The popular website purporting to fact-check gossip may sell itself as a heroic battler of “fake news,” but it’s far closer to a propaganda organ for the Kim Kardashians and Justin Biebers of the world, pushing a version of reality where celebrities are besieged underdogs, bravely facing down the attack hounds of journalism. It’s a stan site, but it stans everyone rich and powerful.

Gossip Cop was started in 2009 by Michael Lewittes, a former New York Daily News reporter and New York Post and Us Weekly columnist, and Dan Abrams, founder of Mediaite, who you may know from his former MSNBC show The Abrams Report. It’s currently owned by Abrams’ company Abrams Media, which also houses Mediaite. Gossip Cop has positioned itself as a legitimate teller of truths, a valuable thing to be in the Trump era. AdWeek called it “well-respected.” Jezebel, not an outlet known for hagiography, published an entirely uncritical podcast and post lauding the site for “keep[ing] the record straight” when it comes to celebrity scuttlebutt. WNYC performed its own fawning interview of Lewittes. The site is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, a global effort to establish standardized practices across fact-checking outlets put together by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Tampa Bay Times and is highly respected in the fact-checking community.

Is Gossip Cop worthy of such accolades? A critical review of it’s reporting, fact-checking, commentary, or whatever descriptive phrase can properly be applied to its posts, reveals that Gossip Cop does little in the way of actually verifying or debunking claims, and the small bit that it does do, it hypes in a misleading way. All of this is weaved into an overall narrative in which the rich and famous are victims, and any claims made against them are the products of jealous, deranged minds.

Let’s first look at some cold, hard numbers. In January of 2018, Gossip Cop published 426 posts with assigned “truth ratings” — the Gossip Cop truth scale goes from 0 to 10. Of those 426 posts, 353 rated a zero, one, or two on the scale, meaning the claims it examined were absolutely or mostly false (most were zeros). The remainder were entirely 10s, but this is misleading: each and every 10 awarded by Gossip Cop was for one of the site’s many posts simply quoting celebrities, or embedding clickbait video. For example, a “10” in Gossip Cop ratings is video of Seth Meyers Golden Globes monologue, or Robert Pattinson telling W Magazine he was a “dork” growing up. Thus as a matter of practice, Gossip Cop simply does not confirm celebrity gossip — it only seeks to undermine it. In fact, Gossip Cop seems to exist solely to convince its readers that any negative stories about their favorite celebrities are made up out of whole cloth, and that any feuds or tensions between celebrities are just the imagined products of the diabolical minds at Us Weekly or In Touch.

Here are the main ways Gossip Cop undermines gossip reporting without actually performing real fact-checking:

Gossip Cop accepts uncritically statements from its own off-the-record sources.

This is the Gossip Cop special: analyze a story from a tabloid that contains anonymous sourcing. Find a different anonymous source who questions it. Rate the original story a “zero” and declare it absolutely false. The problem here is: why should we believe Gossip Cop’s source while disbelieving the source of the original claim? For all we know, Gossip Cop is calling up the celebrity’s publicist and letting them go off the record to make it seem more legitimate. For some examples of “our anonymous source is better than yours” fact-checking, see herehere, and here, and note that all three of these stories date from the first three days of February, 2018 — that’s how common this tactic is.

Gossip Cop lays on heavy rhetoric unsupported by any actual reporting.

Let’s take a look at this Kris Jenner/Jennifer Lawrence story, which tackles the low-stakes topic of whether the Kardashians are jealous of Kris Jenner’s “friendship” with the Oscar winner. We’ve already seen that Gossip Cop claims to have its own, allegedly highly credible but mysteriously always anonymous, sources. Okay, fine. But does that justify calling Life & Style’s source on the story a “supposed insider” who is in fact “ill-informed or possibly manufactured”? This is Donald Trump style, “the sources don’t exist” rhetoric. And what about this unsupported claim, dropped in the middle of the fact-check without any further explanation or context:

While it’s true that the two women are close pals, the idea that their friendship has “gotten on the nerves” or “under the skin” of Jenner’s own daughters is absurd.

Gossip Cop declines to explain why this is “absurd”. Call this whatever you want to call it, but it does not feel like Snopes-style fact-checking.

This is a common Gossip Cop tactic — to perform no actual reporting at all, but to nonetheless purport to debunk a story simply because it doesn’t “ring true,” while lavishing inflammatory rhetoric on the original, sourced story. Fox News does more work. (Gossip Cop loves the “fake news” disclaimer — it has applied it to literally hundreds of its debunkings. Ditto the backhanded label of “so-called ‘source’”.)

Gossip Cop categorizes all stories from certain outlets as “false” without actually fact-checking them.

Almost every post of recent vintage on Gossip Cop ends with a paragraph or two slagging on whatever outlet deigned to report critically on a celebrity. Gossip Cop is particularly vicious toward gossip blog HollywoodLife, which it calls, in Trump style, “HollywoodLies.” It customarily assigns zero ratings to any claims made by HollywoodLife, without doing any reporting of its own to undermine their sources. Gossip Cop recently soothed the fans of OneDirection and “debunked” HollywoodLife’s mildly critical Zayn Malik reporting without citing a single source, a tactic it repeated in defending Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez from Hollywood Life’s “tendency to fudge stories.” The reader would be forgiven for wondering how Gossip Cop’s approach is any different from a fan club Twitter page casting aspersions on any stories that don’t fit into a preferred narrative. (In contrast to its treatment of HollywoodLife and other outlets like OK!, celeb-friendly People Magazine is deemed “reputable,” and enjoys heated defenses from Gossip Cop when its stories are undermined by its more gauche media cousins.)

So how, one might be curious, does Gossip Cop treat a prominent celebrity who has behaved badly enough to merit negative coverage in actual, non-gossip news outlets? Justin Bieber is a good test case for this — Bieber has been arrested and credibly accused of assault and vandalism, and such staid outlets as Newsweek and CNN have felt the need (and the desire for views, of course) to comment on his “erratic behavior and breakdowns” and “troubled timeline.”

Did Gossip Cop fact check any of these claims about Bieber? It did not. Instead, readers of Gossip Cop learned that young Justin “is NOT going bald,” based on reviews of his Instagram and the word of an anonymous source classified as a “Bieber insider,” whatever that is (Truth rating: zero out of ten) and that he did “NOT Pee His Pants, Despite Report” (another absolute zero). Gossip Cop is also all over the Bieber/Selena Gomez beat, publishing stories on an almost weekly basis that defend the rumored couple from any articles even hinting at strife or ill feelings.

One example best sums up Gossip Cop’s approach to celebrities, truth, and particularly, to Mr. Bieber. While declining to dig into any stories of Bieber’s actual alleged drug troubles or proven legal problems, Gossip Cop nonetheless felt it necessary to “fact check” whether the hosts of The View “[had] the superstar’s back” when he recently cancelled a series of tour dates. The story — which, remember, purports to be a fact check — embeds of a video of The View hosts defending Bieber in various ways, and pushing back against Louis Tomlinson’s mild public rebuke of the singer. It goes on to simply quote the video at length. For this, the “claim” that Justin Bieber was defended on The View receives a perfect 10 on the truth scale.

The majority of the stories “debunked” by Gossip Cop are harmless trifles — this celebrity doesn’t like that celebrity, this singer behaved badly in a club. While it can be frustrating to see the country’s most rich, beautiful, and powerful so strongly defended, on dubious grounds and with questionable methods, usually there is no larger issue or truth at stake. But Hollywood doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and gossip often does touch on issues of larger cultural importance. Case in point: the #MeToo movement.

As noted above, Gossip Cop almost never actually confirms gossip — it only tries to undermine it. Nonetheless, it awarded a perfect 10 — “real” — to the story that Danny Masterson denied the rape allegations made against him. Is it technically true that Masterson is denying the claim against him? Yes, but for Gossip Cop to even categorize this uncontested claim, that Masterson is denying rape, as “gossip” is itself bizarre. Gossip Cop then uncritically reports Masterson’s denial (including quoting three lengthy paragraphs taken almost entirely from Masterson’s rep) and assigns a perfect truth rating to the whole story, leaving the overall impression that Masterson’s denial, not the allegation against him, is the “real” story here, which Gossip Cop has managed to confirm. It has to be stressed that positive truth ratings — “confirmations” of gossip — are almost unheard of on Gossip Cop. Nonetheless, Danny Masterson’s rape denial merited just such a rating.

Overall, Gossip Cop has declined to utilize its perch to either confirm or debunk any of the many, many claims of sexual assault and harassment that have been floating around Hollywood in the wake of the #MeToo movement. When it has waded into these topics, its response has been strange. For example, without citing any sources, Gossip Cop reported that Alyssa Milano, who coined the hashtag that started the #MeToo movement, was not, in fact, terribly upset at Matt Damon’s parsing of the various forms of sexual misconduct and which are more serious than others. While acknowledging that Milano criticized Damon on Twitter, the site nonetheless claims that quotes attributed to a friend of Milano’s must be false (Gossip Cop does not say why) and that Milano did not attribute Damon’s comments to his male privilege. The whole “fact check” should be read in full — it’s a confusing, unsourced mess that seemingly exists just to assuage Gossip Cop readers that anyone in Hollywood could be mad at anyone else.

Gossip Cop’s refusal to confirm gossip that harms a celebrity’s public image can lead to glaring blind spots in its coverage. For example, its posts tagged “Scientology” contain no confirmations of stories connecting celebrities with the religion or its practices. How can this be, when Scientology’s influence in Hollywood has become a frequent topic of gossip in the very publications Gossip Cop likes to police? Gossip Cop declined to touch Us Magazine’s Leah Remini interview, in which Remini claimed Elizabeth Moss, an open Scientologist, refuses to speak to her since Remini became a critic of the Church. Or what about In Touch’s claim, which received wide circulation even outside of gossip circles, that Tom Cruise hasn’t seen his daughter in four years? Gossip Cop has not published any fact check on that story, even while publishing several fact checks that are sourced to anonymous people close to Cruise and that are generally Cruise-positive. Cruise may be a Scientologist, but he is a celebrity first, and that makes him a protected class on Gossip Cop.

The rhetoric and tactics used by Gossip Cop hew closer to those favored by Trump than by the outlets that debunk his lies. At least circumstantially, this might not be so surprising, as Gossip Cop has been surrounded by right-wing media personalities since its founding. (And it’s heavy “cop” symbolism seems a little outdated, and a lot “All Lives Matter”.) Lewitte’s wife, Lee Kushnir, is a booker at Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning show and indeed, the show that often seems to set the president’s policy agenda for the day. In this position, she endured a rather infamous reality check herself some years back. If she shared any lessons from this experience with her husband, it is not apparent from Gossip Cop’s approach to truth in reporting. Gossip Cop’s corporate sibling Mediaite has also been the target of accusations of conservative bias, and saw one of its top columnists leave the site to join the Trump campaign as an adviser, while its former managing editor defected to the hard-right Independent Journal Review. When one spends hours reading Gossip Cop’s overheated, bitter, and quasi-gaslighting output, as this writer did for this story, none of this seems surprising.

It’s nice to indulge in fantasies about the lives of our personal favorite celebrities — where they lunch, who they hang out with, how pure their morals must be. But let’s recognize this for what it is, idle (and idol) fantasizing, disconnected from the reality that celebrities, like all humans, sometimes engage in poor behavior, go through life struggles, and generally don’t walk on water. While gossip is often trifling, that understanding is anything but — it’s what keeps us from worshipping these beautiful, wealthy, powerful people selected by society to live, in a very real way, somehow above the common man. Gossip Cop is propaganda for the people who need it least, and by embracing the label of “fact checking” in an era that really does require such, Gossip Cop reveals itself as a cynical celebrity protectionist racket more than happy to glom onto the hard work performed by real fact-checkers and share some of the residual prestige.