My first thought about the New York Post gossip-column scandal is that Gayle Fee, Laura Raposa, Carol Beggy and Mark Shanahan must be eating their hearts out — or faxing their résumés to New York. Why shouldn’t they lust after some boodle of their own?
My second is that Jared Paul Stern, the gossip columnist charged with attempting to shake down billionare Ronald Burkle for $220,000, must feel like someone who’s been thrown into the volcano in a desperate attempt to appease the gods. It’s not that what Stern is accused of isn’t reprehensible — it is. It’s just that he doesn’t look a whole lot worse, qualitatively or quantitatively, than his fellow Page Six gossips. Especially his editor.
The Post’s archrival, the New York Daily News, broke the story last week (technically, the Post itself broke it on its own Web site), reporting that Stern and Burkle had met over Burkle’s complaints that Page Six was writing unflattering fiction about him. According to the Daily News, Stern responded that a $100,000 down payment and $10,000 in 12 monthly installments could ensure him all the good coverage he wanted.
But the thing is, no one is coming out of this looking good. On Sunday, for instance, the Daily News reported that Page Six editor Richard Johnson and his staff are regularly lavished with high-value gifts. The story continues:
Johnson was feted at a bachelor party last month that cost in excess of $50,000 hosted by soft-core porn king Joe Francis at his palatial estate in Punta Mita, on Mexico’s glorious Pacific coast. More than 2,000 miles from New York, the resort area boasts 343 days of 80-degree sunshine.
Francis, 32, producer of the topless “Girls Gone Wild” spring-break video series, flew the party from New York on his private jet. Francis appears regularly in the column, almost always in a positive way.
Johnson also got a free trip to the Academy Awards last month, paid for by ABC and Mercedes-Benz. The trip included first-class airfare, a three-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel and a car and driver.
Johnson may not have taken money, but it sounds like virtually nothing else is out of bounds.
You might expect that the New York Times would react to all this with bemused attachment. Well, bemused, yes; detached, not at all. The Times has been riding this story since the moment it broke, and its editors appear to be enjoying themselves at least as much as Daily News editor Martin Dunn, who, by the way, was the Boston Herald’s editor for about 15 minutes during the early 1990s.
In this Times account of Stern’s being caught on tape, Stern told Burkle that a business executive (reported elsewhere as Ronald Perelman) bought himself good coverage by hiring Johnson’s fiancée (now wife) — and that media mogul Harvey Weinstein had helped himself by publishing books written by Page Six gossips and had put Johnson to work on a screenplay.
OK, Stern’s not the greatest source. But the bit about Burke’s fiancée is true. And it ought to be easy enough to verify the Weinstein stuff — as I hope the Times did before publishing it. Otherwise, the Times would be no better than a blog.
Seen in this light, Stern’s claim that he was not soliciting cash but, rather, an investment by Burkle in his clothing line strikes me not as sleazy behavior that makes him different from Johnson but, rather, sleazy behavior that makes him very much like Johnson.
If Stern is telling the truth, then I see no particular reason why he ought to be singled out. I say the gods at the bottom of the volcano ought to demand the whole lot of them.
Journalists and math: Not a good mix. An earlier error has now been fixed. Thank you, Mike.