Cutting deals isn’t just for gossip mongers

April 17, 2006

Fans of media devilry were treated last week to jaw-dropping allegations of big time corruption by a veteran contributor to one of the world’s most yapped-about gossip columns, Page Six of the New York Post.

If you never lived in New York you may not understand the cultural significance of Page Six. It’s vicious, it’s irresistible, it’s mean. It flutters amid the rich, the flagrant, the oily and the accomplished, shaming some without mercy and flattering others without shame. Connoisseurs of the dark arts regard it as the best of the breed. It’s credited with helping Rupert Murdoch’s perennially money-losing tabloid nearly close the circulation gap with the Daily News in one of America’s last serious newspaper wars. One estimate claims the Post would lose 40 percent of its readers if not for Page Six. In Manhattan it’s a must-read, and with New York the nation’s media epicenter Page Six ricochets way beyond the five boroughs.

So it’s not unthinkable that a Los Angeles-based billionaire might be so flummoxed by the rough handling he’d gotten from the column that he’d consider paying some $200,000 to a staffer who offered to turn nasty into nice.

That’s what the California supermarket magnate, Ronald Burkle, professed to be weighing in late March when the deal was allegedly put to him by Jared Paul Stern, Page Six contributor, while law enforcement people summoned by Burkle were taping the chat in his rented loft in Tribeca.

According to accounts in the New York press, which is feasting on the story without
pausing to wipe its chin, Stern suggested that Burkle could “finesse” further indignities by paying $100,000 upfront, followed by monthly stipends of $10,000 to ensure immunity from vilification.

Burkle, Page Six had reported, was “a party-boy billionaire” who was buying a modeling management agency for ex-President Bill Clinton to run, leasing a yacht for Michael Jackson, dating a supermodel and doing other vaguely unsavory things. All untrue. Burkle complained directly to Rupert himself, in the kind of super-rich to super-rich demarche the rest of us can only imagine. Amazingly, he got the same brush-off the rest of us can imagine only too well.

Was Burkle the victim of extortion? That, to my non-lawyer eye, seems like a stretch. Worse, it keeps us from drawing the right lessons from this squalid affair.

Extortion requires threats of injury, and Stern doesn’t seem to have ever threatened Burkle with deliberate harm. He simply invited Burkle to become a “friend” of the Page, hence to get immunity from routine coverage. That’s not extortion, it’s soliciting a bribe.

Suppose Stern killed items about Burkle that were totally true and, under the rules of good gossip, wholly newsworthy. Burkle would have been paying for protection not from defamation, but from being covered in ways he disliked. The deal’s real harm would be plain: less an injury to Burkle than a betrayal of the Post’s readers.

We’re talking bribery, and what’s unusual here isn’t the bribe, it’s that the terms were explicit and the currency was cash. Hence, Stern is less a freak than a caricature.

Stern’s alleged dealings replicate, in distorted form, the routines of reporter-source relations. He pitched Burkle on levels of “protection,” starting with the gentle handling Burkle could expect for feeding Page Six juicy gossip about his high-profile pals. At the next level, becoming a “friend” of the Page might involve contracts and “perks” to staffers, and at the premier level  with six-figure payments  his problems would disappear.

Ethical reporters don’t shake down subjects of stories. (Indeed, Stern claims he was set up.) But they do handle valued sources with care. Source transactions are deals  even without cash payments  because things of value are exchanged: some facts are released, others withheld; access to high-level newsmakers is assured, secrets are kept.

Stern apparently told Burkle he’d be treated discreetly if he fed his friends to Page Six. Dozens of reporters provided discretion and silence in 2002 and 2003 to preserve their access to Washington officialdom while war was being planned. They weren’t paid off. But they were rewarded. They kept their coveted jobs.

As Burkle himself wrote in a Wall Street Journal column: “This source game is not only played on Page Six. It is also played for high stakes on Wall Street and in Washington. We’ve all read how well-known and respected journalists have readily protected top-ranked officials leaking classified information.”

Ultimately it’s the public that suffers. The notion that a bottom feeder like Jared Paul Stern belongs on a poster in newsrooms isn’t so farfetched. His sins, if true, were brazen. But they weren’t unique.

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