We Want to Be Titillated with Sex and Gossip

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, September 5, 1986

The killing of Jennifer Levin — and the firestorm of publicity attendant upon it — is the kind of event that periodically affirms that we are living in the Age of Gossip.

She died at the hands of a “golden-boy” friend, we are told, while making love in Central Park in the hours before dawn, on Tuesday of last week. They were said to be privileged children, she 18 and he 19, who went to private schools and move in Manhattan’s affluent circles of the young.

What is striking about the case is that so many people are talking about it, seem intrigued and consumed by it — even as some of them complain that the press has been intrusive and voracious in its pursuit of salacious detail.

There is nothing new in the public’s fascination with society scandal or murder in the salons of the upwardly mobil. We have always been disinterested in the homicides of the poor, dismissing them as ordinary or dull — much the way the better private hospitals in this town disdain, when they can, the treatment of poor people bearing such ordinary diseases as alcoholism and tuberculosis.

On might fairly argue that in writing this column I am doing nothing more than joining the trend, exploiting the event because it makes good copy. But it also offers an occasion to kick around some thoughts about why we seem hooked on the narcotic of such gossip.

For it is by any definition gossip, especially at this stage. The police tell us that the young man, Robert  Chambers Jr., strangled his friend, and they have leaked alleged details of a videotaped statement he made on the day of his arrest. The press used the police account without seeing the tape, which raises questions about the ethicality both of the leak and the use of it.

The story the police say the youth told them maintains that the death was an accident, cause without intent. But the police and the prosecutors provided the press with intimate details in a quantity that certainly exceeded what was necessary to demonstrate to the public that they had ample reason to charge Chambers with the crime.

The youth’s attorney, Jack Litman, no stranger to such cases, has also skillfully orchestrated the press and the public to build sympathy for his client — which, we must remember, is a central part of what a defense lawyer is engaged to do. Earlier this week, Chambers granted an interview in prison with a reporter from the New York Post. It was not likely done without his lawyer’s approval.

The youth said, according to the Post, that “I am frightened, I am scared, I am dazed.” He was also quoted as saying that “I like Jennifer very much” and “I am sad over her death.” The report said he described the media coverage as “unfair” and as saying that “the press has blown it all out of proportion.” 

As this case proceeds, it will be continually necessary, since Jennifer Levin can no longer tell us her story, to remind ourselves that she was the victim, not the victimizer. The lawyer, Litman, will tell us that there were two victims, because his client’s life is now facing ruin. A jury will decide.

Meanwhile, we turn to our morning newspaper to devour every last prurient jot and tittle.

Some of the reasons for our gossip addiction are simple and obvious — such as the appetite for vicarious spice to liven the routine of ordinary life.

Others are more complex. For example, we insist, as a society, that we believe in individual privacy and in the sanctity of a person’s home. but we also insist on a daily diet of tittle-tattle “insider” stories about who is sleeping with whom among the rich and famous and even mini-famous.

Two decades ago, Confidential magazine was considered lurid and sensational; if someone spotted a copy in a friend’s house, the friend would say the housekeeper or babysitter brought it in. Now we have People magazine and supermarket tabloids that make Confidential seem tame.

There is a need, perhaps, to create an American royalty, our own peerage of celebrities, and at the same time to discover instantly their secrets and flaws and sins. This process may bring the comforting assurance to some of us that we haven’t done so badly at life after all. Some parents with self-doubts about child rearing may subconsciously take solace in reading about the truly tragic outcomes in other families.

The Levin case has also provided an extra comfort — the kind that politicians take from publicity opportunities. Mayor Edward Koch seized upon the killing to launch a crackdown on drinking by teenagers in the city’s bars. The death occurred after Jennifer Levin and Robert Chambers left an East Side bar where, it was said, you didn’t have to be 21 to get served. The mayor ordered undercover cops to start hitting the singles bars looking for greedy publicans and youths with fake ID’s. 

However, this is but a sideshow comedy. The main arena remains the titillation contest over that somehow still-dirty word, sex. 

I have read complaints, some of which I agree with, about the media’s slavering thirst for the details of the liaison that preceded this killing. But I have also seen that when newspapers have employed euphemism in reporting this story, in the interest of restraint and good taste, readers have reacted by panting for more of the graphic nitty-gritty.

Indeed this is the Age of Gossip.

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