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Blind Item Revealed: How a Scorned Form of Gossip Changed Hollywood

For decades, blind items—unsourced, name-free gossip reports—were considered the lowest rung of celebrity journalism. In the post-Weinstein era, they can launch blockbuster investigations. What happens when a powerful whisper network goes (somewhat) public?

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On July 16, 2012, the gossip website Crazy Days and Nights published a typically outlandish piece about a “B- list actress” who had fallen for a guy. “The problem is the guy just doesn’t love women, he also loves teens,” wrote Enty, a Los Angeles–based self-described entertainment lawyer and the site’s anonymous owner. “As in underage teens. As in 16 and 17 year old teens.” The post also alleged that the actress, who was popular among the Comic-Con set, knew about and defended her boyfriend’s proclivities, and had tried to recruit a female costar to participate in a threesome. The item ended with a promise: “This will be revealed.”

Commenters dissected the paragraph, parsing Enty’s word choice for hints and — as is customary for Crazy Days and Nights readers — exhausted their best guesses about the culprits. They listed the names of shows and actors that had appeared at the past few Comic-Cons. Someone suggested Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev, costars in The Vampire Diaries. Another floated the possibility of Smallville actress Allison Mack, citing her relationship with self-help guru Keith Raniere, who, the Albany, New York, Times Union had recently reported, had coerced minors into sexual encounters. Others bickered about whether Mack qualified as a “B-list actress.” Enty got the tip from someone with first-hand knowledge, so six months later, he felt comfortable enough to put his readers’ questions to rest, republishing the original post and attaching three names to the end of it: “Allison Mack, Kristin Kreuk, Keith Raniere.

Chances are you have read about the disturbing nature of Raniere and Mack’s relationship in the mainstream press this year. This spring, the two were arrested on a series of charges that included sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Federal prosecutors say they used NXIVM, an Albany-based multilevel marketing company that Raniere founded in 1998, as a system for recruiting women into what is now widely referred to as a “sex cult.” According to the organization’s former publicist, Kreuk, who also appeared on Smallville, was herself a member at one time. At Raniere’s bond hearing, prosecutors warned of his repeated sexual encounters with multiple teenage girls reaching back to the mid-to-late 1980s. (Raniere was denied bail, and his and Mack’s trials are set for March 2019.)

In the wake of the arrests, many journalists dug up messages that Mack had sent them on Twitter and via email, marveling at the fact they had overlooked investigating the organization themselves. Mainstream outlets like The Hollywood Reporter and Vanity Fair detailed how NXIVM had peddled philosophies of self-help and wellness for years as a way to lure both wealthy and vulnerable members. The New York Times Magazine called it “the ultimate tabloid story in an age of the vast tabloidification of media, and a tale about female empowerment and lack thereof in a time of feminist uprising.” What these pieces did not mention was that the first few hints of the scandal had been reported more than half a decade prior, in the form of a blind item.

“That’s where it all came to fruition,” Enty recently told me by phone. “I was writing about NXIVM four or five years ago. … And nobody paid attention. … It wasn’t until the #MeToo thing that everyone goes, ‘Ohhh look, he wrote about the cult. Why didn’t we notice anything?’”

Writing sensitive things about powerful people has always been a risky business, riddled with legal and ethical concerns. And over the years, the gossip-industrial complex has developed a system to sidestep those concerns and wield leverage. Blind items — anonymous snippets of gossip that require readers to guess the parties involved — are used to transform rumors into printable assertions. An enterprising reporter may, for example, gather several anonymous comments saying that a very powerful Hollywood producer propositions young models, actresses, and assistants for sexual favors in exchange for professional ones. But because the aforementioned producer is both potentially litigious and extremely influential, attaching his name to the story could leave the news outlet with a lawsuit — or worse, a coordinated Hollywood stonewalling. So the news item is altered to be intentionally vague and is placed in an informational purgatory that only the publication’s savviest readers can properly interpret. Such a cost-benefit approach has allowed tabloids to stay in business and Hollywood’s elite to wipe proper nouns from the press for decades. It has also allowed nimble online upstarts like Crazy Days and Nights, Blind Gossip, and Lainey Gossip to become the self-selected lint catchers of the elite’s dirty laundry. And it is why, when back-to-back reports about Harvey Weinstein’s extensive history of sexual harassment and assault were published last year, discussion of the news centered less on the nature of his horrifying behavior than on how long it had taken for the open secret to become public.

By virtue of their form, blind items are far too pithy to tell the full story of a scandal as complex as an abusive Hollywood titan or a sex-cult pyramid scheme. Sometimes the blind items aren’t even true. But often they are the seedlings necessary to jump-start investigations into the rich and powerful. For that reason, the social media accounts, DIY websites, and daily newspapers that publish them are natural honeypots for gossip-mongers and reporters in the realms of entertainment, business, and politics. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, blind items have become harbingers for the next major sexual harassment scandal, reframing the sites that publish them as industry watchdogs and commanding the attention of curious celebrities, publicists, and the mainstream media.

“You see my blind items actually being used as a source rather than something laughable,” Enty said. “That’s something that’s really, really changed. … It was kind of more of an oddity or entertainment. And now it’s more taken seriously as news.”

The blind item, however dubious, has transformed from scurrilous entertainment into the first phase of genuine reporting. Amid a landscape of polarized information — where, on one side of the spectrum, Infowars spitballs that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a D.C.-area pizza restaurant, and, on the other, The Washington Post hesitates to characterize statements by President Donald Trump as lies — blind items represent a choose-your-own-news-cycle adventure that gamifies celebrity gossip without sanitizing it. One person who is familiar with how a New York daily newspaper gossip section functions offered an example by way of a CDAN item posted on Instagram this summer. “There was one about how Anna Wintour and Bob Marley had a love child,” the source said. “It was amazing to see how that split people who cover celebrity and gossip. People being like, ‘That’s absolutely absurd,’ to other people being like, ‘No, no, no, I think that’s right.’”

As the media ecosystem grows more complex, our perception of information becomes more fluid. The same avenues that have been historically exploited to spread accidental or deliberate misinformation are now also pipelines for legitimate news. Bolstered by a groundswell of anonymous tipsters and disparate online forums, rumors about the rich and powerful can now grow from hearsay to blockbuster investigations. With blind items, whisper networks have found their public stage — and in the post-Weinstein era, they are more influential than ever.

Before Enty, there was Colonel William d’Alton Mann. The Civil War hero appeared in the New York City media scene in the 1890s, after inheriting the paper Town Topics from his delinquent brother. There, he hired a network of servants and spies to pass him gossip about high-society figures, which he included in a biting column called “Saunterings.” The paper soon became the go-to source for the foibles of the city’s elite, capitalizing on a new era of Vanderbilt-style celebrity. “When mature spinsters take it into their heads to indulge themselves in a little souse party, they should do it in the privacy of their house,” one particularly nasty item began. “I thought this at the reveillon at a certain hotel on New Year’s Eve, when I saw the hennaed head of a fair but fat and fully forty maiden vainly striving to direct her uncertain feet on a zigzag course around the tables. Ordinarily she is a very handsome lady, but youth — sweet, sweet youth — is the only period at which one may be drunk and still retain some degree of attractiveness.” To avoid being sued, Mann devised a code for readers. Below or directly behind the Sauntering column, he placed an arcane piece of society news that named the subject of the blind item. It was a lucrative practice that flourished even after it was revealed that Mann was also using the paper as a front for blackmail.

Since then, blind items have helped tabloids leverage influence for the most titillating scoops possible. In the 1930s, Walter Winchell pioneered the first modern gossip column for the New York Daily Mirror, blazing the trail for the Hedda Hoppers and Louella Parsonses to come. He rose to prominence as Hollywood’s most powerful reporter, using his position to publish stories, many of them blind, that supported his anti-Nazi, anti-communist political agenda and belittled his professional enemies. In 1953, he read a blind item on his ABC radio show alluding to the fact that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was investigating Lucille Ball’s alleged Communist Party membership. Five days later, the Los Angeles Herald and Express confirmed Winchell’s item with a full report of Ball’s testimony, and a photostat copy of her 1936 voter registration card, on which she had signed her intention to vote for the Communist Party candidate. The fiasco forced her husband, Desi Arnaz, to do damage control at the season premiere of I Love Lucy. “Lucille is 100 percent American,” Arnaz reportedly told the studio audience of 300. “She is as American as Barney Baruch and Ike Eisenhower, and last November we both voted for Ike Eisenhower.”

Around the same time, the pioneering scandal magazine Confidential began pushing the limits of gossip, detailing the sexual behavior and substance abuse of celebrities with little citation. “Rather than being coddled and revered by columnists and fanzines, celebrities were suddenly being exposed and ridiculed in the press,” Jeannette Walls wrote of these early tabloids in her book Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show. Per Walls, one of Confidential publisher Robert Harrison’s “all-time favorite” articles was a thinly sourced report that claimed Frank Sinatra took breaks from having sex to eat bowls of Wheaties cereal. “He had the nation’s front page playboys dizzy for years trying to discover the secret — Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Gloria Vanderbilt, Anita Ekberg. How does that skinny little guy do it?” asked the story. “Vitamins? Goat glands? Nope — Wheaties … After his fourth visit to the breakfast room, an unbelieving babe could plainly hear the crunch, crunch, crunch, of a man — eating Wheaties.”

Liberace, Maureen O’Hara, and Errol Flynn were among the scorned celebrities who sued Confidential for libel, but celebrity lawsuits were frequently derailed by the worry that a court case would make even more embarrassing details public. The magazine ran amok in Hollywood until leaders of the movie community appealed to their government connections. In 1955, a California state Senate subcommittee investigated whether private investigators were selling stories to scandal magazines. Two years later, California attorney general Edmund “Pat” Brown indicted Confidential, Harrison, and its contributors on “conspiracy to commit criminal libel.” What followed was a titillating, celebrity-filled trial that both tarnished the entertainment industry’s image and left Harrison broke. After spending more than $400,000 defending his magazine, he reached a plea bargain with Brown: If he dropped the charges, Confidential would give up its damaging exposés for more flattering coverage.

As the art and legal boundaries of gossip reporting evolved, editors found more subdued ways to institutionalize blind items into tabloid culture. In 1985, Richard Johnson took over the Post’s gossip section, “Page Six,” and streamlined the reporting tactic. Columnists at its longtime competitor, the New York Daily News, also became well versed in the technique. “There are many reasons for doing blind items; the majority of them are legally you don’t have the legwork to report a story out,” Paula Froelich, a former deputy editor of “Page Six,” told me. “In their best form, blind items are actual news: ‘This is what’s going on, this is what’s about to develop.’”

When Froelich helped run the Post’s gossip section with Johnson from 1999 to 2009, she was one of three employees who were responsible for publishing 17 to 20 news items a day in the paper. It was a requirement that lawyers look over each story before the close of the issue. Their limited resources meant that if the legal department felt something was not adequately sourced, it was either axed or printed as a blind item. Froelich recalls one summer in 2007 when she was at a party in New Jersey and she received a call from a woman who’d been at a party with Rielle Hunter. The woman told Froelich about a conversation she’d had with Hunter: “She was like, ‘I’m in love with this guy …’” Froelich said. “And then five minutes later she’s like, ‘It’s John Edwards!’” (At the time, the former North Carolina senator was once again running for president, after serving as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004.) “She was so drunk and she called so many people … so we did it as a blind item. John Edwards was married and you can’t do an item just off this drunk girl saying she was having sex with John Edwards.” (Hunter did not respond to a request for comment.)

Her team wrote it according to their legal department’s standards, which dictated that each identifying adjective could conceivably apply to between two and five people. (If an anonymous description can apply to only one person, that person may have grounds to sue a publication for libel.) The final product ran in “Page Six” on August 27: “WHICH political candidate enjoys visiting New York because he has a girlfriend who lives downtown? The pol tells her he’ll marry her when his current wife is out of the picture.” Two months later, the National Enquirer broke the first in a series of stories about Edwards’s affair that would later allow the often-derided gossip mag to qualify for a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the areas of investigative and national news reporting.

Froelich, who oversaw blinds about the collapse of Mel Gibson’s first marriage and Whitney Houston’s drug problems, said that items were often made anonymous when describing private behavior. “They almost always involved cheating on someone, drugs, or something you could definitely be sued for, because you weren’t there watching them do drugs or cheat on their wife or husband,” she said. But even though the anonymous sourcing of these stories allowed the paper to avoid legal exposure for unsubstantiated reporting, she says the section took them very seriously. “We handled ours responsibly: You know all parties involved, or you know the majority of the parties involved; you also know each other’s grudges,” Froelich said. “The perfect storm of the irresponsible blind item is grudge, mixed with ego, mixed with a little bit of FOMO.”

For scrappy news organizations that do not have the resources to launch months-long investigations, blind items can also expedite the reporting process. Amid Charlie Sheen’s very public drug-fueled meltdown, the National Enquirer spent two years piecing together a report that the Two and a Half Men actor was secretly HIV-positive, and had put his many sexual partners at risk. The story hit all the tabloid journalism sweet spots, combining the lurid details of a celebrity meltdown with a morally sound mission to put an end to his endangering behavior. After threats from Sheen’s lawyers, the Enquirer paused to bolster its sources, running a blind item about “a bad boy Tinseltown star” who had an “explosive secret” in the form of a serious sexually transmitted disease. “It worked,” Dylan Howard, the editor-in-chief of the tabloid, wrote in a Hollywood Reporter retrospective about the scoop. “More individuals came forward … and I took a phone call from a member of Charlie’s team asking if we intended to publish his name. My response: Why, if he was not the man in question, were they even calling to ask?” A few days later, after hearing that Sheen was shopping a tell-all interview on NBC, the Enquirer broke the story online. (Sheen did not respond to a request for comment.)

Though tabloids like the Enquirer do sometimes pursue stories with an admirable moral end goal, they’re also frequently guilty of using their aggressive reporting to assert culturally conservative viewpoints. In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, many sought to air out a longstanding blind item saying that the producer had sabotaged the career of actress Gretchen Mol. (In 1998, Vanity Fair put Mol on its cover and wondered whether she was “Hollywood’s Next ‘It’ Girl,” but following roles in Rounders and Woody Allen’s Celebrity, her career never quite took off.) Inquiries into her relationship with Weinstein grew so frequent that Mol was finally forced to publicly refute the issue. “For 10 years or so, I’ve been aware of rumors that I had some kind of transactional relationship with Harvey Weinstein,” she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. “They seemed to start on a gossip website that made money by peddling ‘blind’ items. A few facts had been taken from my Wikipedia page, were combined with stories about a movie mogul who was known for harassing women, quotes from ‘reliable sources’ were added and a malicious, viral rumor was born. Over the years, it was gleefully embroidered, becoming increasingly bizarre and baroque — but the salacious, slut-shaming and misogynist message to the fable remained the same: In Hollywood, a young woman must build her career by humiliating herself and sleeping with powerful men.” Even if these blind items were meant to highlight Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, they also perpetuated falsities rooted in sexist assumptions, damaging Mol’s reputation by association. (Mol did not respond to request for comment.)

On the flipside, blind items that are at once identifying but vague may generate unintended story leads. Froelich said that during her tenure at “Page Six,” she would frequently field inquiries from executive assistants about the subjects of blind items and those stories’ primary sources. In 2014, when the New York Daily News ran a cover story that told of “a secret, steamy relationship between one of NBC’s best-known on-air personalities and a network executive,” Matt Lauer called the newsroom to ask whether it was about him. Years later, when Lauer himself was under investigation for sexual misconduct in the workplace, the paper published a story disclosing the conversation.

When combined with the distributive power of the internet, blind items often had an immediate and powerful effect. Around the mid-aughts, digital-first outfits like Radar Online and Gawker adopted the same techniques as the dailies, running blind items to prompt discussion that might lead to bigger stories. “Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?” read the headline of one anonymously written Gawker post from March 2012. Leading up to that story, John Cook, then an editor at the site, received an anonymous tip by email about an incident in which Louis C.K. masturbated in front of two female colleagues at the Aspen Comedy Festival, and began reporting it out as a story. After being shut down by the women whom the anonymous tipster named, and exhausting other sourcing avenues, Cook finally settled on running it as a blind item.

“I was embarrassed by that, and I didn’t put my name on it,” Cook told me. “At the time, I felt that it would be beneath me to be writing blind items.”

Nevertheless, the story set off a slow but steady drip of information about the incident. After Cook’s write-up was published, comedian Doug Stanhope posted it on Facebook, and multiple people commented that the subject was C.K., who did not respond to a request for comment. Three years later, Gawker named C.K. in an anonymously sourced story that displayed emails with the comedian related to his alleged behavior. That post allowed more mainstream outlets like New York magazine to broach the topic when it came time for C.K. to do promotional interviews. In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo revelations, The New York Times published an investigation in which five women said the comedian had committed sexual misconduct, describing the same behavior that Gawker alluded to in its headline five years before. Though Cook recalls some condescension toward the outlet’s reporting techniques, Gawker’s contributions nevertheless prompted widespread conversations among both industry insiders and the media, and pushed the story forward.

“Gossip is the weapon that the powerless have,” he said. “The assistants can’t do anything when their boss shits on them and treats people horribly, but they can shoot off an email. We were able to sort of seize on those power dynamics and hold people accountable.”

By the time the story came out in the Times, Gawker was no longer around for a victory lap. The same aggressive reporting that helped reveal C.K.’s harassment was also what led to its shuttering in 2016, thanks to a lawsuit funded by billionaire Peter Thiel over the site’s decision to publish a leaked sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan. Following the C.K. revelations, The Washington Post considered whether there was unrecognized value in the outlet, which was frequently lambasted by the mainstream media. “As rumors about alleged misconduct by powerful men burst into the open, often accompanied by the names of newly emboldened accusers, it is worth considering the legacy of Gawker, which practiced newsgathering in a way that made J-school professors squeamish but also held a candle to some of the famous figures now under the klieg light of the mainstream press,” the legacy paper wrote. Though the #MeToo movement would’ve happened regardless of Gawker’s contributions, the site still asserted early and often that the personal lives of the powerful constituted coverage.

Gawker was the only place that was reporting some of these stories about so many people, but one of the reasons that The New York Times and Washington Post weren’t reporting on those powerful people was that their standards forbade them from doing it,” said Cook. “The Louis C.K. thing probably wouldn’t have been a story to those places. … That conduct and behavior became a beat with the Trump campaign.”

The circumstances of Gawker’s demise are proof that pursuing damaging stories about powerful people leads to perilous threats, and also that the blind item — and gossip coverage in general — is still a legally murky territory. In Cook’s view, Gawker’s willingness to endanger its reputation made it unique. “We created space for other places to operate by pushing the envelope, by being willing to take the criticism and take the attacks for being out on the edge and saying things you shouldn’t say and doing things you shouldn’t do.” Though the site received posthumous credit for being the first to identify a handful of #MeToo offenders, its reporting tactics made it too large a target. (Even if they’re reporting the truth, publications that choose to walk a fine legal line risk ending up on the other side of it.) In qualifying traditionally salacious stories as legitimate news, it risked its existence.

“I can’t see where journalists can do a story like [Louis C.K.], a blind item like that, today,” Cook said.

Running through a list of some of the most prominent men whose sexual misconduct has been exposed in the past year demonstrates just how vital gossip sites have been to pushing the #MeToo movement forward. Gawker also regularly reported on the sketchy sexual behavior of Kevin Spacey, who was said to have sexually harassed underaged men and crew members on the set of House of Cards, and Brett Ratner, who lost a $450 million deal with Warner Bros. this year after six women described sexual harassment and abuse by the filmmaker. Alongside his early warnings about the NXIVM scandal, some of Enty’s other past blind items have rung true. On James Toback in 2013: “This former A-list movie director who still thinks he is the hottest thing on the planet has not done anything worth noting for many years… he has been the worst casting couch director there has ever been.” (Toback was unable to be reached for comment.) On Matt Lauer in 2014: “This television talk show host likes to show the world that he has the perfect marriage and life but he rarely sleeps at home at night any longer and has quietly been hooking up with a woman who used to be an employee.” (Lauer did not respond to request for comment.) On Weinstein in 2016: “Her career could have crashed and burned when she refused the legendary advances of this producer/mogul. He threatened to destroy her career but she found a mentor who actually is not afraid to go to war with the mogul and the mogul backed down.” (Asked by The Ringer for comment, Weinstein’s publicist denied the veracity of the blind item: “This is utter bullshit.”)

This recent success rate has earned the attention of mainstream media, reversing gossip sites’ longtime reputation as sleazy, frivolous, and typically unreliable. On top of expressing nostalgia for Gawker, The Washington Post recently ran a profile of Elaine Lui — the founder of Lainey Gossip — that described her as “part investigative reporter, part breaking-news ethicist, part social anthropologist.” Both Vanity Fair and The Daily Beast have dubbed Enty the undisputed “king” of blind items, the latter going so far as to conclude that his motivations for running a gossip blog were “not just about ‘dirty laundry,’” but “about justice.”

Breaking these blockbuster stories has also encouraged competition. In a news economy where the investigation of a porn star’s backdoor agreement with a tabloid leads to the implication of the president of the United States in a criminal conspiracy, the realms of national affairs and gossip have grown increasingly intertwined, and the standards for legal review increasingly stringent. “I’ve noticed that a lot of these stories have been grabbed by the news sections more and more,” a source with knowledge of New York daily papers told me. “The gossip page has sort of crossed over in a way that it didn’t before. So part of it has been that it’s, like, you always want your celebrity gossip story to stand out more, so you almost end up working harder on it because of that.” The gossip blogs have been eager to point out this crossover. When The New York Times ran an anonymous op-ed from a senior member of the Trump administration in September, Lui was quick to highlight a familiar reporting technique. “Gossips, it’s a BLIND ITEM!” she wrote on her site. “Blind items out of Washington, obviously, are not new. But a blind item getting this much international play, with people analysing vocabulary use, and the turn of a certain phrase, breaking down every sentence for clues — this is what we’ve been doing in celebrity gossip for years. And now news journalists are trying to do the same.”

The heightened pursuit and publishing of sensitive information has also begun testing the limits of legal recourse, which has often kept tabloids in check. Survivors can post their own accounts on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, making descriptions of misconduct harder to contain. (Such was the case when, the same night that James Franco wore a “Time’s Up” button to the Golden Globes, actress and former costar Ally Sheedy insinuated in a tweet that doing so was hypocritical. A Los Angeles Times investigation in which five women described sexual misconduct by the actor soon followed. Franco did not respond to a request for comment.) And because the Communications Decency Act dictates that internet service providers cannot be sued over something that’s posted by a third party, there are fewer legal avenues for prominent figures to quiet gossip. “People can make basically unsubstantiated allegations and it’d be printed,” said Neville Johnson, a Los Angeles–based entertainment media lawyer. “I think that there’s a feeling on the part of the media that they believe it’s truthful, and there’s a diminished willingness on the people who are the objects of the claims to do anything about it. So that kind of writing and boldness is new, I would say, overall.”

In the past, the personal nature of gossip journalism was, for many national news outlets, an indication of their frivolousness. When Time Inc.’s chairman put together a test proposal for a magazine called People in 1973, it was “widely held in contempt” at the company, Jeannette Walls wrote. “The consensus was powerfully negative,” one member of the committee told her. “The words often used were ‘sleazy,’ and ‘cheap.’” Now, as mainstream media rushes to capitalize on the same subject matter it once ridiculed, the vocabulary and presentation of these stories are being altered to offer more serious context. The unsavory behavior that was so often smoothed into “casting couch” references is now being described in detailed vignettes from multiple survivors that tell a tale of coercion, intimidation, and sexual assault. The salacious, playful tone once used to describe “on-set romances” has been replaced with the careful consideration of workplace policies, conflicts of interest, and gender imbalances. And the overused italics, exclamation points, and colorful imagery has been overhauled to more closely resemble the somber approach of a natural disaster.

When New York magazine first sought, in 2015, to feature the 46 women who had given accounts of sexual assault by Bill Cosby, its editors pondered this very dichotomy. Photography director Jody Quon had done research into the survivors who had been covered by the tabloids over the years, and felt they would make a compelling cover. In the initial stages of the project, as editors were thinking about how to write an essay explaining the imagery, features editor Noreen Malone said they discussed examining the way the media had treated Cosby. As the accusers Malone spoke to shared emotional recollections of the pain caused by their encounters with Cosby, it became clear to her that the story was also about “a record of trauma and survival.” The final product, which featured 35 survivors in black and white on the cover, set the tone and aesthetic for a new kind of media coverage — one that evaluates sex and relationships in the context of interpersonal power, not sleazy entertainment.

“We were going to take their stories seriously on every level, and treat them with dignity,” Malone said. “If you’re coming forward in a tabloid, which I think for many of those women, that was the only sort of option, the company you share on the page is the way people are going to think about it. If you’re right next to Jennifer Aniston’s nip slip, people are going to automatically think about it in different terms. In terms of presentation, it was, implicit in everything, a rebuke to that treatment.”

With the correct context, what was once relegated to the exclamation-point-riddled coverlines of a gossip magazine can now be a groundbreaking national story. The whisper networks that have long informed people how to navigate their workplaces and communities have been made plain.

Enty, a scholar of the gossip news economy, has another theory about all the second lives his blind items have lived. “I think that if you look at my readers, it’s not just we already read it there, it’s more like, we don’t expect anything less,” he said. “Did you ever expect Brett Ratner? Yeah, I did.” In other words, everything was already there; you just had to look for it.

An earlier version of this piece included a misstatement by Paula Froelich about her reporting on a John Edwards item; Froelich spoke to a woman who had met Rielle Hunter, and not Hunter herself.

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