By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Silverglate’s Stern warning

My friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate says that the New York Times is up to its old tricks in the matter of professional gossip Jared Paul Stern. Writing in the Boston Phoenix, Silverglate argues that the Times would rather buy into the prosecution’s salacious spin than to consider the possibility that Stern, until last week a columnist for the New York Post, was actually set up by Ron Burkle, the billionaire he’s been accused of shaking down.

Though one might contend that Burkle v. Stern has already gotten too much coverage, Silverglate relates it to some rather more important matters: the persecution of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, terrible coverage for which the Times later apologized, and Judith Miller’s gullible reports on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda. Silverglate could have added to that list the Times’ years-long obsession with Whitewater, the Clinton scandal that wasn’t. (The Times’ voluminous Stern coverage is online here.)

Stern himself now says he was the victim of a sting operation in which Burkle attempted to make it appear that Stern was offering to ease up on the nasty gossip items in return for a $200,000 (more or less) bribe. What complicates all this is that Stern was quite frankly looking for Burkle to invest in his clothing company; it’s just that he claims there was no quid pro quo. Earlier this week, in an interview with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, Stern explained his side of the story:

“On reflection, it was an error in judgment to continue the business discussion about the clothing company” while also talking about “the coverage that he was getting in the paper,” said Stern, who was captured on tape comparing the arrangement he was proposing to the “Mafia.” “I did absolutely nothing remotely illegal and never intended any kind of extortion.”

Obviously, this doesn’t look good: Stern comes off as a sleaze who got caught, and is now trying to slice the salami as thinly as he possibly can. And even though we’ve seen only snippets of a long conversation between Stern and Burkle, those snippets would appear — as Timothy Noah observes in Slate — to be “extremely damaging to Stern.” Noah adds, “One finds oneself wondering how Stern could possibly explain himself.”

To which Silverglate would reply: People in Stern’s position do manage to explain themselves, all the time. That’s why they have trials. It is impossible to get at the truth until we’ve heard all sides of the story. Silverglate writes:

To anyone experienced in criminal law, it is all too obvious what was going on here: Burkle was instructed to try to put certain words into the target’s mouth. Just as obviously, the sting failed: Stern resisted the bait and stuck to his proposal rather than adopt Burkle’s suggestion of a “protection” arrangement. The real story here is the collaboration of the businessman, his private henchmen, and their federal prosecutor and FBI allies to try to set up a sleazy but not criminal gossip columnist for a federal bust. They failed to euchre Stern, but they seem to have succeeded with the Times.

Stern can’t help but look bad because the standards of the gossip world are so low — especially as practiced by the New York Post. It doesn’t help that Stern is apparently as shallow as they come. This piece in the New York Observer will inspire laughs or nausea, depending on your inclination. But as I argued in my earlier item, it’s hard to see how Stern looks any worse than his goodie-grubbing boss, Page Six editor Richard Johnson.

Silverglate’s overriding point is that, however cosmically unimportant the Stern affair might be, the Times is nevertheless doing it again. It’s hard to do much real journalism when your snout is buried so deeply in the government’s trough.


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3 Comments

  1. Harvey

    Dan: You understand my point completely — the Times has gotten accustomed to relying on the spin put on information, including (especially) when the spin and the information is supplied by the government. Here, one reads “Department of Justice-speak” in the pages of the Times. The Fourth Estate is supposed to act as a check on rather than an adjunct to abusive governmental power, no? Harvey Silverglate

  2. MeTheSheeple

    Interestingly, NYT Editor Bill Keller sort of talked about this in a column today. He was answering a question about any liberal bias among the stories (as opposed to the admitted bias in the editorial pages), but I think his points may reflect on the issue at hand. And to do it, he cites a Boston Globe worker:Not long ago a colleague at the Boston Globe convened an informal committee and tried to list the standards that we aspire to. Here’s what she came up with: 1. We believe in a journalism of verification rather than assertion,­ meaning we put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny. 2. We believe in transparency — that is, we aim to tell you how we know what we know, to attribute our information as much as possible to named sources, to rely on documentary evidence when we can. As your math teacher might have said, we “show our work.” 3. We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with an agenda or a pre-conceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests. We do not work in the service of a party, or an industry,­ or even a country. When there are competing views of a situation, we aim to reflect them as clearly and fairly as we can. 4. We don’t do this as a hobby but as a living. Whether you call it a craft, or a profession, or an occupation, it is something we take seriously, and we demand levels of training and experience that we seek to pass on from one generation to the next.============Immediately underneath follows a disclaimer about the nature of work done by humans. The whole bunch is worth a read in full, and some contemplation. I think the goals are admirable and well-deserved; what remains is the debate about how hard the NYT has been working to achieve them, particularly Nos. 1 and 2.

  3. Left of the Foul Pole

    All navel-contemplating is well and good, but when can we Lefties start taking a page from the right wing wackos and imputing the problems with Page Six to the Murdoch empire and use it to heap scorn on the Faux “News” Network? Can we start now, before the blatant racism in the coverage of the Duke Dancer becomes more virulent than it already is?

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