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.