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Sink to gossip, or turn the page

THE only thing surprising about the ongoing controversy over a New York gossip writer’s alleged attempt to shake down Los Angeles investor and businessman Ron Burkle is that it took so long for something like this to come to light.

In this case, the accused perp is a preening and rather preposterous character called Jared Paul Stern, a sometime journalist and wannabe garment maker, who performs a variety of odd jobs around Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. (At some point, there’s probably a useful psychological study to be done on the unwholesome predilections of people who affect three names.) Before the tabloid suspended Stern, his tasks included contributing items to Page Six, a celebrity gossip compendium that is the paper’s most popular feature.

Burkle gave his version of their encounter -- one widely disseminated by the Post’s New York competitors -- in an op-ed piece published this week by the Wall Street Journal. “Two weeks ago, a New York Post writer made me an astonishing offer,” the billionaire wrote. “If I forked over $200,000 or so, he promised, the Post’s Page Six gossip pages would stop publishing false items about my personal life. The video recording of that conversation and others that occurred during my three hours of meetings with [Stern] are now in the hands of law enforcement authorities, as are the volley of e-mails between him and a member of my staff.”

That’s law enforcement, as in the feds, though no charges have yet been filed against Stern, who already is on his second lawyer and third story about what happened. Initially, he spoke of regretting a “mistake” and having caused the Post embarrassment -- as if that were possible. Still, there’s nothing like a good heart-to-heart with the right attorney to help one recall what really happened.

Now, Stern is the target of Burkle’s “diabolical plot” to entrap him and to discredit him, as he told the popular Gawker website this week, with an edited videotape that combined “discussions about an investment in my clothing company with one about advising him on media coverage.”

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Right -- naked extortion, bad; seeking investments and employment from somebody you write about, OK.

It’s nice to know that there are standards at Page Six, even though it requires a pretty subtle eye to discern exactly where the line is drawn.

Stern, by the way, now is threatening to sue the “responsible parties ... if this smear campaign can be shown to have damaged my clothing business.”

This is a nicely media-savvy variation on the DeLorean defense, which won the late automaker’s acquittal, even though the feds caught him on tape with a pile of drugs and a suitcase of money. Stern’s lawyer might want to recall, however, that Howard Weitzman’s winning move in that case turned on proving that the authorities had provided automaker John Z. DeLorean with both the drugs and their purported purchaser at precisely the moment he was facing bankruptcy. As it turned out, he wasn’t any smarter a drug dealer than he was a carmaker, and the jurors not only were moved by pity but also recognized entrapment when they saw it.

It’s interesting that Stern extends his defense to Page Six’s alleged journalism and to his colleagues there, who -- as it subsequently has emerged -- accept freebies by the literal carload from the people they write about. “You just have to know how the game is played,” he told Gawker, “and know the playing field isn’t 110% level. It’s a gossip column, for chrissakes.”

Call us simple-minded, but if you put it in a newspaper, aren’t you supposed to believe it’s true, and aren’t the readers supposed to have some degree of confidence that you weren’t paid to put it there?

Stern takes a more sophisticated view of these matters. As he told the Toronto Globe and Mail this week, “If we do an item and we say, ‘There’s a rumor that so-and-so is doing something,’ it’s not inaccurate that there’s a rumor of something. We report on what people are talking about.”

Oh, sort of like laundering.

Somehow, images of the drug trade keep intruding into consideration of this story -- and there’s a reason for that. Just as every attempt to stamp out drug production is going to fall short, so long as Americans and Western Europeans are willing to spend vast sums of money on illicit chemical recreation, so the sleazy trade in innuendo and phony items will continue so long as this generation of readers and viewers insists that it has a right to be entertained at every moment.

It’s that appetite that fuels the current vogue for what is euphemistically called “celebrity journalism.”

It’s somehow appropriate that one of the better and more pointed analyses of this whole incident has appeared in PRWeek, which pointed out that questions of normative journalistic ethics are not “terribly relevant to the staffers of Page Six, whose industry sits far outside that world.

“The public appetite for celebrity fluff is voracious. Its limits are far past the horizon of good sense.

“The people want to hear about unsubstantiated Paris Hilton rumors and see pictures of Brad Pitt’s vacation, damn it, and we don’t care how you get them. Stern’s actions were egregious and pretty stupid, to boot.

“But further revelations that Page Six editor Richard Johnson accepted the use of a private jet, private car and private bachelor party from those he covered highlighted the fact that gossip writers play by their own rules.”

The magazine went on to ask Lloyd Grove, who writes a gossip column in the New York Daily News -- the Post’s tabloid rival -- whether the people who work his side of the street ought to be governed by the same ethics that prevail elsewhere in journalism. We’re speaking here of complex and burdensome restrictions -- such as, don’t make anything up or solicit bribes or trade favors for things you want.

“If those sorts of practices were put in place overall in celebrity journalism,” Grove responded, “I think it would be the death of celebrity.”

There speaks a witness with the voice of experience, and -- whatever those federal authorities decide to do about Stern -- we rest our case.


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