Stop Press: Gossip columnist scandalises New York

When a supermarket mogul accused a diary hack of trying to extort money in return for keeping his name out of the paper, the journalist suddenly became the story. David Usborne reports
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Here is a tease you might have expected to read on Page Six, the inimitable gossip spread that appears daily in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Except, as events of the last several days have rendered obvious, you will never read it there, because it refers to a major egg-in-face debacle for said newspaper.

"Which famously foppish, fedora-wearing gossip writer has been caught on videotape trying to extort ocean-loads of dollars from a California supermarket mogul in exchange for promising to keep his name out of Manhattan's most powerful gossip sheet?"

It would have been the kind of so-called "blind item" that Page Six specialises in. As in: "Which Botoxed actress was seen canoodling [a favourite Page Six euphemism] with a married baseball star at Bungalow 8?" Or - and this one appeared for real on Monday - "Which rocker is back on drugs?".

We don't know which rocker. However, there can be barely be a literate soul left in New York who does not by now know exactly who the fedora fellow is. He is called Jared Paul Stern and for many years he has cast himself as one of Manhattan's most ubiquitous and diligent gossip hounds. And, although he operates as a freelance, his mainstay has long been as a contributor to the Post's Page Six.

But the world of late-night clubbing and of schmoozing with the famous, rich and (hopefully) morally dissolute, abruptly collapsed around Stern, 36, when the Post's arch rival in New York, the Daily News, ran a front-page story concerning him and the supermarket man. Not only has Stern been suspended, he is also now the subject of a full-blown federal investigation.

The allegation, which Stern denies with ever greater force with each passing day, does indeed seem shocking, even for the most jaded in the celebrity-chronicling community. And while it threatens disaster for the writer, who has taken shelter for now in his home in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, it is hardly less mortifying for his bosses at the Page Six and indeed for Murdoch.

The other man is Ron Burkle, a normally intensely private business baron, famous not just for his chain of California supermarkets but also for his closeness to the former president Bill Clinton. (And, thanks largely to Page Six, also for the sometimes messy circumstances of a recent divorce.)

New chapters of the relationship between Stern and Burkle emerge almost daily. At the crux of the story is a meeting we know took place between them in Burkle's Manhattan loft on 22 March. The encounter was videotaped by Burkle's party and that is the tape now in the hands of the FBI.

The issue at hand was Burkle's long-standing anger with what he said had been consistently inaccurate reporting about him by Page Six. Several items had appeared over the preceding months, including a blind one that asked which "babe-loving billionaire" had been checking the ages of "young models he invites on his private jet". Burkle had been convinced that he was the billionaire.

Stern came to the meeting having already advertised to Burkle, both in an earlier encounter last summer and in several e-mails exchanged with a member of his entourage, his willingness to police what went into Page Six about him in future. One of the e-mails, sent on 14 March, said: "I understand Ron is upset about the press he's been getting. I think I can help him get the situation under control."

On the tape, Stern is purported to spell out his offer to guarantee various "levels of protection" to the billionaire. Burkle is seen and heard asking how much Stern wants in return. And Stern conjures a sum in excess of $200,000 (£114,000) - $100,000 up front and $10,000 in additional monthly payments.

At least portions of the videotape have been acquired by other news organisations such as The New York Times. Yesterday, Burkle himself spelt out the charges in a signed article in The Wall Street Journal. "Two weeks ago," the article began, "a New York Post writer made me an astonishing offer. 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."

War has broken out between the two men. Stern has acknowledged what he calls "a lack of judgement" in his dealings with Burkle. He claims also, however, that he has been set up. If the comments on the tape were seen in their context, he says, it would become clear that he was in fact seeking an investment from Burkle in a fledging clothing label he owns called Skull and Bones.

"It was a total set up, a total smear, a trap and a plot by this guy from last summer," he insisted to The New York Observer yesterday. "I mean, he set up a meeting with me last summer to talk about investing in the clothing company. I was kind of giving him advice and telling him how things work."

The saga has meanwhile led to a sharp escalation in another war that has been under way for years - that between the Post and the Daily News. The latter has barely been able to contain its glee at the grief being visited upon its rival and on Page Six in particular and the page's longtime editor, Richard Johnson. The Daily News, owned by New York property tycoon Mort Zuckerman, has been relentless in his trumpeting of the Stern-Burkle conflagration.

Murdoch first purchased the Post back in 1976 but sold it in 1988 when he fell foul of media ownership regulations that barred cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations. But in 1993, when the Post was on its last legs, Murdoch won a waiver and bought the newspaper back.

It remains a minor planet in Murdoch's $45bn media constellation and loses money for him. But the Post is his only American newspaper and he is furiously supportive of it. While it has long trailed the News in circulation numbers, the Post has shown signs of closing the gap.

But it is Page Six that has long been the newspaper's most vaunted asset. One media analyst suggests that if Page Six was dropped, more than a quarter of its readers would flee. Page Six - which ceased appearing on the actual sixth page of the paper years ago and has since just become a brand name - is a must-read for American celebrities, for their armies of publicity handlers and anyone else who likes to devour A-list gossip, which explains the joy over at the News at this recent turn of events.

Its writers have sought to exploit the story further, highlighting some other dubious practices at Page Six. They have reported, for instance, that Johnson - who was married for the third time last weekend - accepted a $50,000 all-expenses-paid bachelor jaunt to Mexico from the founder of the Girls Gone Wild series of soft-porn videos, Joe Francis. The News also pointed out that Francis has received nothing but praise on Page Six.

Similarly, we have learnt that Johnson, 51, attended the recent Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles enjoying a first-class plane ride, a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and a limousine at his disposal, courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.

How this story progresses is still anyone's guess. No charges have been filed against Stern. If he escapes prosecution, Stern may even come out of the whole fracas twirling his fedora in delight. (He reports that internet orders for his fashion line have spiked handily over recent days.)

Yesterday, however, we did learn of one collateral victim in the whole affair. According to Daily Variety, The New York Times is preparing to terminate its own attempts at a daily gossip column, which began only three years ago under the name Boldface. Truth is, Boldface always seemed tepid and lame alongside the juicy tittle-tattle of Page Six. But then the Times could never justify Page Six's tactics.

It is those tactics that are also coming under scrutiny. If the allegations concerning Stern are ever proved, few would disagree that he crossed some invisible, ethical line by a fairly drastic degree. Reporters should not be in the business of extorting cash from anyone. But the Stern affair has shed an unflattering light on what is the accepted modus operandi for gossip-gatherers in New York and beyond.

Sometimes the bargains are as crass as a five-star hotel suite. (Or the use of the latest model of a very sought-after foreign car over a weekend, as was dangled a few months ago before this writer.) But more subtle agreements are inevitably struck all the time, both to protect against bad press and, just as often, to try to generate good press, better known as "buzz".

Potential targets of gossip can try to mitigate potential damage by becoming "close friends" of the most important writers. Close friendship can be bought in many ways. Paying for a champagne bottle service in Manhattan's hottest late-night clubs for an important gossip hack is a good start. It can also be bought by dishing dirt to the writers on other celebrities. It's called "scratch my back ..."

Stern purportedly supplies his own intriguing example on the videotape. Apparently trying to explain to Burkle that there are indeed ways for people like himself to play the gossip game to his advantage, he points to Harvey Weinstein, the head of the Weinstein Company and former head of Miramax and Miramax books. Stern told Burkle that an accord had been reached whereby Weinstein agreed to give book publishing deals to the writers on Page Six in exchange for kind coverage. The notion of an under-the-table compact with Page Six has been dismissed by a Weinstein spokesperson.

Anyone who has ever been impugned by Page Six will surely be revelling that so much muck has been kicked up by Stern. Serves them right, they will say. But if they think Page Six and all the other gossip sheets, whether in print or on the internet, will tuck their tails between their legs and re-embrace the old ethical guidelines of decent journalism, they may be fooling themselves. Because gossip is just too valuable. Page Six, to Murdoch, is surely too valuable. The New York Times can walk away from gossip. The Post most surely cannot.

"Will this affect things? Temporarily," the leading Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley suggested to Variety. "Remember when Princess Di was killed and they said this is the end of paparazzi? How long did that last?"

At the very least, the ethical demarcations normally associated with honest reporting are being blurred, if not erased, in the world of tabloid gossip writing. And what of the line between the gossip hounds and the rest of us in journalism? Burkle implied over a weekend that that has gone ragged too. "Newspapers that continue to go down the road of tabloidism, that adopt the shoddy standards of gossip reporting, and that arrogantly resist correcting their mistakes, risk losing their special role in our democracy," he said.