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Sources: Gossip Writer Angled for Pay Dirt

Times Staff Writers

Stepping into the hypercompetitive arena of New York gossip, Jared Paul Stern wasn’t afraid to spew a little poison.

As a writer for the New York Post, he described Melanie Griffith and Goldie Hawn as “cryogenic freeze jobs gone awry,” called Elton John “too old, fat and short to look ironically hip in ugly sweatsuits,” and once mused that “whenever you see a beautiful girl, it pays to remember that somewhere, someone is sick of her.”

Stern, 35, became the story himself Friday after it was revealed the FBI videotaped him allegedly offering to protect Los Angeles investor Ron Burkle from damaging coverage in the Post’s popular Page Six column. The reported price: payments that would amount to $220,000 over the span of a year. People familiar with the investigation said Stern made the offer at two meetings with Burkle, who had protested a series of Page Six items, one of which described him as a “party-boy billionaire.”

Publicists on both coasts Friday were alternately aghast and delighted to see scandal touch the nation’s most powerful newspaper gossip franchise. In an era when celebrity sightings are posted on the Web within minutes and paparazzi are accused of physically harassing stars, some say gossip columnists have pushed their symbiotic relationship with their subjects to the breaking point.

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“There’s a human incentive to test the limits of their own power,” said one publicist for a major movie studio, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she deals with Page Six and other gossip writers. “They’re not making a fortune, they’re very powerful people in a big city, and it’s possible that kind of goes to their head.”

For 10 years, Stern has cut a noirish figure in gossip circles, affecting a fedora, pocket watch and a preference for rye whiskey. His writing is racy and caustic, evoking Walter Winchell, whose broadcasts beginning in the 1930s routinely wrecked careers and marriages.

Stern, a freelancer who worked two days a week as one of a handful of contributors to Page Six, was suspended Thursday afternoon after an assistant U.S. attorney told lawyers for the New York Post that they had tapes of Stern in an apparent extortion attempt.

The newspaper agreed to preserve Stern’s computer hard drive and other possible evidence for investigators, said Howard Rubenstein, a Post spokesman. Rubenstein said Post editors were told the investigation is confined to Stern.

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“Should the allegations prove true, Mr. Stern’s conduct would be morally and journalistically reprehensible, a gross abuse of privilege, and in violation of the New York Post’s standards and ethics,” said Col Allan, the Post’s editor in chief.

Edward Hayes, one of Stern’s lawyers, said his client had not been contacted by federal authorities. He said the videotaped conversations had been taken out of context.

“He was advising Mr. Burkle how he could improve his relationship with the gossip column,” Hayes said. “He couldn’t have offered [protection]. He couldn’t supply it. He was a freelancer.”

Hayes said Stern was “not doing well.” He would not comment on specifics contained in the tapes because he had not seen them.

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“I do think he made mistakes. Sometimes in the gossip business, you get too close to the people you cover.... Those relationships are very hard to pin down,” he said. “Celebrity magazines are entirely based on the concept of making deals. It’s the basis for an entire industry.”

Burkle is well-known in business, political and philanthropic circles. A good friend of former President Clinton and an investor in Al Gore’s television venture, Burkle often hosts fundraisers for Democratic candidates. He runs Yucaipa Cos., a major investor in supermarkets that is now bidding for 12 daily newspapers owned by Knight Ridder Inc.

The Post’s rival, the New York Daily News, on Friday published a detailed description of the two conversations between Stern and Burkle, which took place March 22 and 31. According to reporter William Sherman, who watched the tapes, they show Stern sitting across a glass table from Burkle, describing the internal workings of the gossip column and suggesting ways to ensure better coverage. In a statement, Burkle said the Daily News account was accurate.

Stern told Burkle that the billionaire could get protection by paying him, and by making a top Post executive an official at one of Burkle’s media ventures, according to people familiar with the investigation.

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Before meeting with Stern, Burkle’s name had appeared 17 times on Page Six. Burkle had been complaining that the column inaccurately reported many things about him, including that he was considering buying a modeling agency on behalf of Clinton and that he was dating certain women.

Burkle and his lawyers even complained to Post owner Rupert Murdoch and the paper’s editors but got nowhere, a spokesman said. After one such complaint, Stern wrote an e-mail to a Burkle employee in March, saying that the investor needed a “strategy” for dealing with the paper.

“It’s not easy to accomplish, but he certainly has the means to do so,” Stern wrote. “I have a plan I’d like to discuss.”

After receiving the e-mail, Burkle’s lawyer contacted federal authorities who arranged to videotape meetings in a New York apartment.

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At the meeting, the Daily News reported, Stern sketched out three “levels of protection” from damaging Page Six coverage. “Level one” protection, Stern said, would involve passing on tips about other celebrities, thereby becoming a source. Additional help could come from hiring other Post staffers, he reportedly said.

Burkle finally asked Stern, “How much do I need to pay you to make this stop? I need level one, level two protection, level three protection.” Then Burkle asked, “How much do you want?” After a pause, Stern said, “Um, $100,000 to get going, and month to month $10,000.” At a second meeting, on March 31, Burkle asked Stern to reassure him that there would be no more requests for money.

“Um, well, I mean, it is not a stickup,” Stern replied.

Publicists in both New York and Los Angeles said they were shocked by the news, and said asking for money is unheard of. But several said gossip columnists routinely print false items without fact-checking. Items -- true or false -- are subject to negotiation, and writers will agree to withhold items in exchange for other tidbits, they said.

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“Some publicists will sacrifice a lesser client for a bigger client,” said Howard Bragman, who represents Stevie Wonder, Ricki Lake and Sandra Bernhard. “The best way to avoid wallowing in the mud with them is to ignore them.”

Lloyd Grove, a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, recalled phoning Stern in 2003, shortly after Grove arrived from the Washington Post, to ask for a correction of a quote attributed to him.

Stern listened to his complaint and replied, “We won’t rest until we send you back to Washington on a stretcher,” said Grove, who added that he now has a cordial relationship with Stern.

Not everyone does.

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“There is enough schadenfreude in New York today to organize a parade down Fifth Avenue,” he said.

Stern himself addressed some of the nuances of his work in a January 2005 interview with the Web magazine the Black Table. Asked whether he ever felt guilty about his work, Stern answered, “It’s hard to feel sorry for celebs with oceans of money who employ armies

But he flatly denied charges that gossip pages intentionally protected some figures and attacked others.

“Good gossip is the coin of the realm and the only thing that matters,” he said. “Everything else is either paranoia or wishful thinking.”

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Barry reported from New York and Menn from San Francisco.


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