In Showtime’s new docuseries “Gossip” a recording of Donald Trump pretending to be his own publicist is played; a story about Tom Cruise’s front teeth falling out during a dinner with former New York Post editor-in-chief Col Allen is told; and 91-year-old Cindy Adams defends her past and present friendships with Roy Cohn, Imelda Marcos, John Gotti, Gen. Manuel Noriega and, of course, Trump.
But beyond salacious Page Six stories and Adams’ questionable friendships, “Gossip,” is at its core an examination of power and how Rupert Murdoch fundamentally shifted the foundation of the news industry via the New York Post and its tabloid journalism.
The four-part docuseries explores how New York City’s most prominent gossip columnists – Liz Smith, George Rush, Richard Johnson and Adams – built their careers and used their power.
“Gossip” director-producer Jenny Carchman is no stranger to covering media outlets, having received an Emmy nomination for her work on “The Fourth Estate.” She and Liz Garbus co-directed the 2018 docuseries, which follows New York Times reporters as they cover the Trump presidency. In “Gossip,” Carchman tracks the rise of The New York Post and how the newspaper’s gossip section created celebutantes like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian while also allowing lies to become reality.
Imagine’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard serve as executive producers on the project along with Imagine Entertainment’s Michael Rosenberg, Imagine Documentaries’ Sara Bernstein and Justin Wilkes, and Troy Searer from New York Post Entertainment.
Variety spoke with Carchman about Adam’s candidness, what scandals to include in the series, and what it means to own gossip.
What drew you to this project?
The whole series looks through the lens of the New York Post, so that interested me because of the journalism piece of it. But when I was told that I’d have access to Cindy Adams, I was like, “Okay, this is amazing.” Because then it became about a person and this person’s history and this person’s story. That’s what excited me.
Adams is very candid in the series. How did you convince her to take part in the doc?
Ron Howard met with Cindy and he was like “Oh my God. What a character.” They hit it off and I think Cindy felt like, “Why not do the series?”
In one interview you did with Adams she also describes how she went after Leona Helmsley when the hotel empress supervillain, and Adam’s former friend, betrayed her. She then warns you about how you chose to portray her in the film, saying with a smile, “I will find you.” Were you ever intimidated by Adams or afraid to ask her anything?
Yes. I also know that in that interview when she said that, I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or if she was serious. I wasn’t sure, so I just decided to go with it.
The series explores Adams’ friendships with controversial figures such as the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Roy Cohn, Imelda Marcos, John Gotti, Mario Cuomo and of course Donald Trump. At one point a colleague says “Cindy’s one of those people who views everybody through the prism of how they treat her. So if Adolf Hitler had been nice to her, well …” Has Adams seen the film, and does she like it?
Yes. She liked the film. Listen, she’s unapologetic. She’s absolutely clear about her feelings and about her relationships. These are her friends. She is very loyal to her friends. They’ve done nothing wrong to her. She doesn’t feel the need to apologize for them or for their behavior. In fact, she was able to further her career by having access to these people. I think she feels like she’s telling it, like it is — from their point of view. She’s a reporter from their point of view.”
Page Six has covered many celebrities and scandals. How did you decide what items to include in the series?
I laid out a timeline. I put all the big stories that Cindy had covered, and the not so big stories. What were the stories that were going to give us insight into Cindy as a person, reporter, and friend? Then I looked for the stories that would help us understand the world we’re in today, which is Trump and how did we get here? So, that was the deciding trajectory of it. As we get later into the decades, there’s stories you can’t ignore like Harvey Weinstein. You can’t tell a story about gossip and not tell his story because he was a master of it. And you can’t tell the story of Page Six and not tell the story of Paris Hilton, because she was created by Page Six.
What I found surprising is that the series is less about celebrity gossip and more about how much power tabloid journalists have. Was that intentional?
Yes. It’s all about how to manipulate the media. In the series we learn about befriending gossip columnists; giving people stories; trading stories with people; having information that you can barter for more self-interested publicity. We see how celebrities of all types — from Donald Trump to Kim Kardashian to Harvey Weinstein — use the media. It’s about, using this form of gossip as a form of journalism for one’s self-interest.
Why make this series now?
I thought that this would be a fascinating look back at where the idea of a transactional relationship with the media formed. I mean, that’s been going on forever so, I don’t want to say that it was born in 1976 when the Post was bought by Murdoch, but that’s where we start our story. I do think Murdoch, along with the internet and television — all of these pieces came together in this perfect storm of combining news with entertainment and the entertainment is salacious and gratuitous, stuff that you see mainly in gossip. Then (that combination) became part of our everyday life.
The series is called “Gossip,” but it’s about so much more. Was the title chosen as a way to appeal to viewers that wouldn’t normally watch a doc about the evolution of the New York Post and how it shifted journalism?
Everybody gossips, right? Everybody loves to do it. It feels good. It’s information that you have, and it gives you power. The point of this series is how to use that power with the information. It would be great if we appeal to a (really broad) audience and they watch it and learn about the history of the New York Post and Cindy Adams and Donald Trump. But either way, the series is trying to take that word “gossip” and unpack it. Like, what is it actually? And I think where we come to is that the word is enormous power.
“Gossip” debuts Aug. 22 on Showtime