Quindlen: Gossip in the Age of Anna Nicole

The examination of conscience began when a hardworking and pious woman who had never watched "Access Hollywood" asked a question to which there was no good answer: "Who is Anna Nicole Smith?"

It was the day of the death heard round the world, and for the life of me I didn't know what to say. Actress? Model? Celebrity? Sign of the looming apocalypse? Famous for being famous. The mantra of a new millennium.

Don't get me wrong; there's nothing new about gawking, gossip, getting into the business of other people and being gleeful about it. Surely it was happening in caves, huts, the Pyramids, the Parthenon. What's new about it is scope and responsibility, the first vast, the second nonexistent.

A hundred years ago a girl like Vickie Lynn Hogan, which was Anna Nicole Smith's real name, would have lived in a small town, and everyone would have talked about her behind her back until she moved on to someplace bigger. Britney Spears would have left her babies at home to bounce around the bars, and it would have been Topic A at card games and knitting circles.

Instead of reading on a Web site that the embalming of Anna Nicole's body was complete, you would have heard it from the funeral director at the Elks Lodge. Instead of being told on TV Britney needed to clean up her act, you would have heard it from your cousin who heard it from the choir director who heard it from the principal's wife. Human nature being what it is, people would have pretended to be sympathetic when they were really feeling superior. Sinclair Lewis nailed it in his novel "Main Street," the propensity of the herd to try to bring down the maverick.

But the big difference between then and now would have been twofold: most of the people doing the talking would have had actual knowledge of the women involved, and from time to time they would actually have had to see them on the street, or in the store, or at church. Eye contact has always had a dampening effect on trash talk. It's shame-making, quite properly so.

In our frantic modern world, in which many people don't know their neighbors well enough to gossip to or about them, it's a different story. No one has to feel bad about gawking at Anna posthumously slurring her words on videotape. No one has to feel bad about staring as Britney frantically shaves her head inside a beauty parlor, the moment caught on a lens that gives precisely the effect of the scope on a hunting rifle. Distance insulates us.

And it's easy to blame them for their own fate, Paris and Nicole and all the other child-women who have no résumé except for magazine clippings. After all, some genuine stars have perfected the trick of living like everyday people. Their pictures are taken only when they are being the boldface version of themselves, at press tours and premieres. And they do not habitually exit cars in a way that reveals to anyone waving a camera phone that they are not wearing panties.

But laying the blame solely on exhibitionism is the modern equivalent of people in small towns who used to complain that so-and-so never pulled her shades down (and that she wore black underwear). In those situations there are always two parties: the watched, and the watcher. Lucky for us, we don't have to look in windows ourselves anymore. The peeping-Tom trade has been outsourced to the paparazzi. Instead of venom traded over back fences, we have US Weekly and "The Insider" and all those celeb Web sites.

Full disclosure: a lifelong media junkie, I plead guilty to reading and watching this stuff. (The fact that I knew Anna Nicole Smith's real name off the top of my head says it all.) But there's been something about the recent unrelenting coverage of death, drugs and public downfall that illuminates how far we've come: savagery without shame, judgment without knowledge. All the train-wreck titillation without any of that nasty empathy aftertaste that might arise if you had to see the families at the market tomorrow. This way it's almost like they're not people at all. Gossip is so hard-wired into humans that someday scientists may isolate the gene. But at least we used to mainly gossip about people we actually knew.

Knowing, of course, is what is supposed to set humans apart from animals. After stalking the bogeyman she and the other kids have created out of imagination and legend, Scout Finch, the little girl in "To Kill a Mockingbird," meets the real Boo Radley. In the flesh he is vulnerable, harmless and human, and Scout leads him back inside, away from punishing public scrutiny. Today, if the occasion arose, Boo would be photographed through his window, the little treasures he gave the Finch children auctioned on eBay, the people on his block interviewed by Nancy Grace and Pat O'Brien. And none of this would seem noteworthy or gratuitous or cruel. After all, we wouldn't even know the guy. We would just think we knew everything about him.