They Did NOT Do It, Despite Reports

Posted November 21, 2018 9:48 p.m. EST

Gossip Cop exists to debunk celebrity rumors. It claims to surveil “more than 200 websites, TV shows, newspapers and magazines” for inaccuracies. Since 2009, the site’s unmistakably urgent headlines — “Jennifer Aniston Did NOT ‘Flee To Italy’ Amid Brad Pitt Reunion Rumors, Despite Report”; “George Clooney, Amal ‘Divorce’ Claim Is Late And Wrong”; “Selena Gomez ‘Shocked’ Justin Bieber Married Hailey Baldwin Is Made-Up Story” — have been written to challenge even the most frivolous of tabloid stories. When Star reported, for example, that a New York City restaurant prevented actress Emma Stone from consuming a homemade birthday cake on its premises, Gossip Cop located an unnamed “pal” to dispute the account.

That editorial mission makes reading Gossip Cop a confusing experience. Plenty of people would be interested if Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston secretly reunited — one of the many recurring rumors that Gossip Cop deflates — but how much does the populace care about Radar’s report on Jessica Simpson’s monthly expenditure on Postmates deliveries? Or the veracity of Star’s claim that Kanye West secretly wants to open a restaurant? For whom does it matter that these stories might be false?

Gossip Cop relies heavily on celebrity publicists to knock down rumors about their famous clients, so it’s tempting to dismiss the site as a public relations arm of the entertainment industry. But there is an emerging rigor to Gossip Cop’s methodology, reflected in the latest iteration of the site and the actions of the website’s founder, Michael Lewittes. On the surface, it appears that Gossip Cop has ambitions to become, or at least be treated like, a full-blown fact-checking service on par with PolitiFact and Snopes.

This notion is disputed by Lewittes, a former Access Hollywood producer and tabloid columnist who launched the site with financial backing from Dan Abrams, a television journalist and founder of Abrams Media, the boutique online publisher of Mediaite and The Mary Sue. (Abrams is listed as co-owner and co-founder but is not connected to the editorial content of the site; he currently serves as chief legal correspondent for ABC News.) Lewittes and Abrams attended high school together in the Bronx. Both grew up in families laden with lawyers.

Abrams is the son of First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and the older brother of Ronnie Abrams, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. Ronnie Abrams is married to Greg Andres, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the office of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

And Lewittes is the son of Joel Lewittes, a former federal judge, also in New York’s Southern District, and his wife, Lee Kushnir Lewittes, is a booker for the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends.” (According to an online newsletter published this year, the Lewittes family attends Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the Upper East Side synagogue that, until early 2017, counted Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as members.)

In 2009, Lewittes and Abrams framed the site as a corrective to an out-of-control tabloid press. Not only would it be a “media watchdog,” as Abrams put it, but a source of feel-good news about celebrities. Beside videos of paparazzi behaving badly were sections called “Hollygood” and “Hollywood Heart,” both devoted to documenting celebrity philanthropy.

Lewittes, in particular, wanted to combat what he saw as a nihilistic streak in the Hollywood press. “We live in a time when many feel being first or outrageous is more important than being factual, and I want to change that,” he told Abrams’ media news site, Mediaite. “Not only are people filing false reports on their blogs every day, but so much of what is out there is just mean-spirited for no reason at all.”

The site was also built as act of repentance. Lewittes describes himself not just as “creator, owner, founder and ‘Top Cop'” of the site but as “a reformed gossip columnist who knows the industry inside and out” and who worked previously at Access Hollywood, Us Weekly, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. He also did a stint at Star itself. The Gossip Cop masthead now lists only one other full-time editor.

How Should Journalism Treat Liars?

Early on, the site drew skepticism for its methodology. Shortly after Gossip Cop’s debut, an editor at New York magazine wrote: “Publicist denials are not only boring, they’re meaningless. These are people who are paid to lie to protect their clients.” In 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review questioned the wisdom of Gossip Cop’s using anonymous sources to challenge rumors by other anonymous sources. Or, as Craig Silverman, the founder of Regret the Error and expert on corrections in media, put it, “How can we know that Gossip Cop’s ‘source’ is better than In Touch’s ‘Insiders’?”

But for the past two years, Gossip Cop has participated in events held by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), whose signatories are required to undergo an extensive audit and adhere to a detailed code of principles. The company has updated its about page to reflect those principles. Lewittes has attended Global Fact, IFCN’s annual summit, for the past two years.

Being a verified signatory of IFCN is not particularly valuable by itself. It is, however, a “minimum condition” for becoming a third-party fact checker on Facebook’s News Feed, a position that carries with it incredible power. Facebook, through these verified parties, deeply limits the spread of stories deemed false and removes accounts that are flagged for violating policies, it says. The quantity of false stories, these fact checkers said, is vast. Early on in this relationship with Facebook, fact-checking entities noted that there is no way for them to keep up with the high quantity of false or misleading information that circulates on Facebook.

There can also be questions, apparently, of just how factual a fact is. In September, The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine and Facebook-certified fact checker, rated as false an online essay about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s position on Roe v. Wade, possibly squelching that essay’s Facebook readership. The nature of the fact-check, which hinged on the literal and colloquial meanings of the word “said,” and the liberal politics of ThinkProgress, where the disputed essay appeared, unleashed a furious debate about Facebook’s role in refereeing, and suppressing, political commentary.

Gossip Cop would not discuss its future with IFCN, whose signatories undergo a stringent review, or with Facebook, which has certified just five fact-checking outlets in the entire United States, including Snopes and The Associated Press. Certainly the subject matter practice is different for a website that recently debunked rumors that Johnny Depp damaged his brain in a too-hot sauna, that Courteney Cox is obsessed with tarot cards and that Norman Reedus of “The Walking Dead” has a bad attitude on set (“Gossip Cop can debunk the baseless claim. It’s simply not true.”).

While giving verified independent outlets special license to fact-check may help embattled platforms like Facebook and Google help to restore their image in the short term, in the long term, as the Weekly Standard episode suggests, the same arrangement has the potential to do more damage.

Stormy Daniels and the Truth

In January 2016, Gossip Cop began deleting thousands of old posts in what seems to have been an effort to organize and clean up its archives. One of the removed articles, published in October 2011, concerns the now-familiar allegation that Donald Trump and pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford had an affair. The rumor had appeared on The Dirty, an Arizona-based gossip website, and was later picked up by the celebrity magazine Life & Style, which ran a 2-page spread under the headline, “Did Donald CHEAT?” (The question was not actually answered.)

Two days later, Gossip Cop published a piece citing denials from both parties. An unnamed representative for Trump, identified hours later as Michael Cohen, described the rumor as “totally untrue and ridiculous.” An unnamed attorney for Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, identified years later as Keith Davidson, accused The Dirty of concocting a fake scandal “to lure potential customers to [their] commercial filth.'” Gossip Cop’s verdict: “The story is 100% false.”

“The only people ‘cheated’ here are the tabloid’s readers,” the story said.

Gossip Cop’s treatment of this particular story presents a broader journalistic quandary. Confronted with the question of whether Trump and Clifford had a secret affair, the site did what most outlets would do: Ask both parties for comment and publish their responses. But lawyers and publicists are not always forthcoming about their own clients. Nor are the clients themselves. Indeed, around the same time Clifford denied the affair to Gossip Cop, she told other outlets, including The Dirty and In Touch, the exact opposite. In the seven years since the rumor of this affair surfaced, journalists have gathered evidence of its likelihood. Federal investigators have indicted Trump’s former attorney, Cohen, over payments to Clifford and another woman, Karen McDougal, saying they violated federal campaign finance laws. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election spawned the inquiry into Cohen’s payments, has not turned in a final report, but House Democrats, who take control of the lower chamber in January, plan to investigate the president’s role in paying Clifford and McDougal for their silence. Clifford’s defamation lawsuit against Trump, which could unearth even more detail, awaits judgment before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (Representatives for Cohen and Davidson did not return requests for comment. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred questions to Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, both of whom advise Trump. Neither responded.)

In the years since Gossip Cop first debunked the Trump-Clifford affair, it has beefed up its daily editorial process. Several years ago, an item about, say, Jennifer Aniston allegedly boycotting Japan, required a short blog post at most. Now, Gossip Cop regularly publishes lengthy and nuanced analyses of why exactly a rumor is unlikely, citing factors such as the lack of photographic evidence or eyewitness testimony, the publication’s track record and the rumor’s overall plausibility. In early April, the website began appending a list of sources to every article, including the names of elusive Hollywood publicists. Gossip Cop will revisit some stories a year after publication and gauge whether or not they turned out to be true.

The site acknowledges that celebrities and their handlers have a capacity to lie: “In an effort not to be ‘spun,’ we have, for lack of a better phrase, a ‘social contract’ with the stars, the reps and anyone else with whom we work,” the site explains. “If you lie to Gossip Cop, we won’t work with you again.” Around the world, the spheres of politics and entertainment continue to overlap. The need for fact-checking outlets with an understanding of tabloid and celebrity culture, which is now political culture, is only likely to grow.

Facebook, as is its way, wouldn’t go into detail about its process for certifying third-party fact checkers. Controversially, the company enforces nondisclosure agreements with fact-checking partners, leaving the facts about fact-checking in a state of shadow. And Gossip Cop, for its part, would not speak of its plans for the future of fact-checking. But there is a world in which Gossip Cop could help determine what celebrity gossip gets to even exist on the internet.

The Trump-Clifford affair is an uncomfortable reminder that in 2018, celebrity gossip can regularly be the real news. Almost every outlet that has covered the scandal has quoted or mentioned the story in The Dirty to establish the fact that the rumor predated Trump’s presidential campaign. Seven long years ago, Gossip Cop deemed the underlying rumor as false. Maybe more disturbingly, it also was one of only two outlets that bothered to check it out at all.