The price of defame
I KNOW ABSOLUTELY nothing about L.A. billionaire Ron Burkle, but I think he’s a slimebucket. Why do I say that? Because if New York Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern was able to ask Burkle for $100,000 plus $10,000 a month just to keep the guy from being defamed in the tabloid, I figure it’s worth trying to get the guy upset at me too.
Burkle taped his meetings with Stern and contacted the FBI, and as a result, the fedora-capped, bow-tied, 35-year-old Stern might be going to jail, where fedora-capped, bow-tied people don’t traditionally thrive. While others believe Stern’s mistake was extortion, I see it as a matter of mispricing.
As a fellow newspaper columnist, I figured it was important to understand my potential value as an extortionist in case things ever got drastic and I needed to pay for a life-saving operation for my mother, or the finance payments on a really nice Porsche.
I contacted Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of “Freakonomics.” He told me that, as I suspected, Stern’s price was way off. “You can supposedly hire a hit man for $10,000,” Levitt said. “Most reported cases of bribery and corruption are much less. Dan Rostenkowski was taken down for stamps and office furniture.”
There was no way I was risking my newspaper’s reputation for stamps and office furniture, unless of course the L.A. Times, which won’t give me an office, doesn’t quickly pony up some stamps and office furniture.
“He probably could have gotten away with it if he’d been reasonable,” agreed “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen Dubner. “But by asking for $200,000 from one payola victim, he’s basically saying his services are worth a few million a year because he could easily try to shake down a dozen or two [dozen] people at the same time.” This extortion thing was starting to sound like far more work than journalism.
Dubner thought Stern’s big mistake was assuming that $200,000 meant nothing to a billionaire. Though being left alone might be worth the pocket change to Burkle, an economics law called the “disgust effect” shows that people will act against their own self-interest if they think they’re getting ripped off. I’m sure the disgust effect comes into play with extra strength when you’re dealing with 35-year-olds who wear fedoras and bow ties.
Still, I wanted to know how much I could pull in, so I contacted some Burkle-level powerful people and asked them how much they’d pay to stay out of my column. My best offer came from Matt Tupper, president of the pomegranate juice company Pom Wonderful. I have lots of dirt on him from college, during which Mr. Tupper drank things besides fruit juice. Things which made him drunk.
Tupper was willing to fork over $137.80, the cost of his yearly L.A. Times subscription, which he only buys to monitor my column for his name. That sounded like a pretty good deal -- until I realized that amount was, like, two bottles of his pomegranate juice.
CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper told me he wouldn’t pay a cent: “No one knows you have a column, and besides no one reads in L.A. anyway.” City Council member Eric Garcetti offered me $5 not to write about him, and $10 to stop writing altogether.
Not even my mother, a therapist who sits me down for hours to discuss my “repressed anger” and “passive-aggressiveness” every time I mention her in print, was willing to pay. “I don’t know people in California,” she said. “I don’t know anybody who reads your column other than our family, and I don’t care about them.” I don’t know how Stern had the ego to withstand all of this.
I had better luck with singer Robert Goulet, who is also actor Robert Goulet, who offered me Stern-rates for mentioning Robert Goulet’s name as often as possible. “I’ll give you that much for mentioning my name,” Robert Goulet said. “Even negatively. For as long as you dare.” That’s the Robert Goulet-sized ego of Robert Goulet.
Actress Marilu Henner offered me hundreds of dollars a week to write about her every day, “as long as you mention that I don’t eat dairy.” Robert Goulet, however, can’t get enough dairy.
It was becoming clear that the main thing I was going get out of a life of crime was getting made fun of. That’s because Stern’s mistake was the same one most people in the media make: thinking he’s far more important than he is. Luckily, I have a mother who helps me with that.