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L.A. to Page Six scandal: ho-hum

Special to The Times

Last week, news of Jared Paul Stern’s Page Six payola scandal rippled through New York’s media circles with all the force of an 800-pound bomb. The story has all the stranger-than-fiction twists you could ask for: media figures accused of Mafia-like strong-arm tactics, boldfaced names in compromising positions -- and at its core is a terrific Los Angeles story, hinging on a Southland billionaire and with tantalizing implications about the entertainment industry’s backroom dealings.

So why hasn’t the scandal captured this city’s imagination?

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 14, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Gossip scandal: An article in Wednesday’s Calendar about local reaction to a gossip column scandal said the New York Daily News reported that Page Six columnist Richard Johnson at the New York Post accepted a $50,000 expenses-paid bachelor party trip to Mexico from “Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe Francis. The Daily News corrected the story Tuesday. Francis said Johnson paid his own airfare and declined Francis’ offer to pay for food and liquor at the party.

Media observers and Hollywood publicists alike say L.A.'s status as a one-industry town is part of it.

“It takes more to make a scandal in Hollywood than Jared Paul Stern,” said Mickey Kaus, who writes the Kausfiles blog for Slate.com from Los Angeles. “Hollywood has looser ethical guidelines. People get gratuitous [movie] producer contracts just to keep relationships going and they don’t pretend there are no conflicts of interest. Nobody makes any bones that it’s a mad scramble for sex, power and money.”

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Stern, 35, a fedora-wearing longtime contributor to the New York Post known for casting his gimlet eye over the city’s ever-changing bonfire of vanities, catfights, freakouts and power grabs, was caught on tape in an FBI sting allegedly attempting to extort at least $200,000 from Southland supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle. According to the surveillance tape, in exchange for $100,000 upfront and a monthly stipend of $10,000, Stern promised him positive coverage in the tabloid’s most influential gossip column, Page Six.

While the number of publicists per capita in Los Angeles is among the highest in the world and gossip mongering ranks near the top of the city’s list of high-profile exports, there is no local equivalent to Page Six. In fact, the closest thing Hollywood has to Page Six is Page Six itself; the Post is available for home delivery here, and the column regularly covers and skewers the Southland’s rich and infamous. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ chattering class has remained largely indifferent to what has shaped up as 2006’s biggest media story so far -- think of it as this year’s answer to Jayson Blair.

It’s not as though Angelenos remain habitually passive in the face of local intrigue -- just look at the fallout from February’s Ferrari Enzo crash on Pacific Coast Highway. That story has become unavoidable dinner-party conversation, its development tracked avidly in newspapers and on local TV news. But the general shrug toward Payola Six, which is, at its core, a Los Angeles story with an entertainment industry hook, speaks volumes about gossip culture and the balance of power and media in L.A.

Burkle became a Page Six subject of interest for his attempts to change California law to keep details about his divorce proceedings under wraps. And Stern is heard on surveillance tape bragging about how Page Six staffers have finessed former Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein into giving them lucrative publishing deals in exchange for flattering coverage (implications a spokesperson for Weinstein has refuted).

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Yet locally, only L.A. Weekly’s “Deadline Hollywood” columnist Nikki Finke has mined the local angle, posing a “Page Six Scandal Q&A;" on her deadlinehollywooddaily.com website.

Mark Lisanti, who writes the entertainment industry’s must-read blog, Defamer.com, put up what he calls a “token posting” about the story (defamer’s New York sister site, Gawker.com, on the other hand, has posted six items relating to Stern). But Lisanti, who takes undisguised glee in rebroadcasting and editorializing about the embarrassing missteps of studio bigwigs, movie stars and tabloid fixtures, says the scandal falls well outside of what normally captures his readership’s imagination.

“It’s not hitting L.A.'s sweet spot,” he said. “It’s not really an industry story and that’s what gets people buzzing out here: industry stuff. If it had turned out to be, let’s say for the sake of argument, [Paramount President] Brad Grey, there’d be a lot more chatter.”

Payola Six has piqued New Yorkers’ interest by exposing a widely known but seldom discussed quid pro quo between powerful people and gossip reporters -- a culture in which buzz is worth more than money and where gift baskets, preferential treatment and luxury perks can buy laudatory column inches while crossing the wrong reporter can result in an avalanche of bad press. As if to highlight this information-for-favors commerce, the New York Daily News reported that Page Six’s editorial overseer, Richard Johnson, accepted a $50,000 all-expenses-paid bachelor party trip to Mexico from Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis, who has had his praises sung in Page Six.

Deborah Schoeneman -- a former Page Six reporter who in May will publish “4% Famous,” a novel about young New York gossip columnists who trade favors and confidences -- explained that New Yorkers have become fascinated with Stern’s predicament for its apparent violation of the city’s accepted rules about gossip reciprocity.

“What is so shocking to people is the cash payoff, the over the table arrangement,” Schoeneman said. “In the past, Page Six payoffs have been quieter, a bit more creative, a bit more informal and unspoken.”

Schoeneman added: “There is a certain level of glee from anyone who has ever felt misrepresented by Page Six.”

In the Southland, the celebrity-industrial complex functions with a comparatively workman-like efficiency. Although celebrity journalists and gossip columnists are accustomed to a stream of swag trinkets and lunches at Kate Mantilini, and even press junkets to exotic locales including the Bahamas and Hawaii on publicist dimes, Page Six’s “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, or else” style would not fly.

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And while she may be exaggerating a tad bit, L.A.'s powerhouse publicist Pat Kingsley put it this way: “If they bother to ask us, we check things out. Other than that, we have no relationship with any columnists. We don’t seek or ask for favors with columnists. We just treat them like we treat everybody else.”

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Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.


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