Scandal puts Page Six dirt on Page 1

N.Y. papers sling mud over columnist, claim of extortion


If the scandal was, as gossip writers themselves might say, delicious, then the fallout was to die for.

As soon as the news broke last week that Jared Paul Stern, a gossip columnist for the New York Post, was being investigated by federal authorities for allegedly trying to extort a small fortune from a California billionaire, the mud slinging began.

New York's other newspapers, particularly The New York Times and the Daily News, have feasted on the revelations about Stern and have gleefully uncovered additional dirt about him, his boss, Richard Johnson, and the Post.

"Gossip Gone Wild!" the Post's main rival, the Daily News, proclaimed in a front-page headline yesterday. Inside, the paper reported that Johnson was "feted at a bachelor party last month that cost in excess of $50,000 hosted by soft-porn king Joe Francis at his palatial estate in Punta Mita, on Mexico's glorious Pacific coast."

The typically sober Times also dedicated copious amounts of ink to the scandal over the past four days. On Saturday, it weighed in with a front-page, above-the-fold story that was accompanied by no fewer than six photos of Stern. Yesterday, its headline said: "Post to Daily News: Drop Dead (& Back Atcha)."

Great story aside, the details, as juicy as ripe apples, focused attention on the Post's notoriously dishy Page Six, which for years has been the standard by which other gossip columns measure themselves. And they triggered a deeper look at the ways of gossip writers and the propriety - or lack of it - of their methods.

While committing extortion, if such it was, seems to be an extraordinary exception, few in journalism would quibble with the notion that purveyors of rumor, scandal and innuendo are not held to the same standards as reporters covering more serious subjects.

"The phrase `gossip journalist' is an oxymoron," said Diane Dimond, a former correspondent for television's Hard Copy and Extra who covered the Michael Jackson trial for Court TV.

"That's not to denigrate what the Cindy Adamses and the Liz Smiths of the world do. I would just put them in a different category. Readers aren't expecting a level of Woodward-and-Bernstein reliability when they flip the pages to read about the latest Paris Hilton escapade."

Veteran columnist Pete Hamill, who began his career at the New York Post in 1960 and who at different times was editor of both New York tabloids, said that gossip columnists have been a breed apart back to Walter Winchell, who is credited with inventing the concept of celebrity reporting in the New York Evening Graphic decades ago.

"They could print a rumor," Hamill said. "They could run a `blind item,' the kind that says, `Who's been seen around town with so-and-so?' or `What well-known director was seen with a hot-dog vendor?' They could get away with that."

Hamill, speaking by telephone from Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he is writing a novel, said that he objected to gossip writers' standards "slopping over into the news pages." When he was an editor, Hamill said, he insisted that even gossip columnists make sure their facts were facts.

"I'd ask them, `Did we call the waiter at the restaurant to see if the champagne glass was actually thrown? Does it turn out that Rod Stewart couldn't have been there because he was in Hawaii at the time?'"

Hamill, who knows Johnson, the Page Six editor, personally, said he is "very good at what he does, but the stuff I'm hearing about him makes me a little uneasy."

The case involving Stern, who has said he is innocent, is highly unusual, Hamill said.

"Most people pay to get their name into the paper," Hamill said, laughing. "I've never heard of anyone paying to stay out of the paper."

In any event, he said, few people take the Post seriously.

"You get the Times for the news," he said, "and the Post for the laughs."

Beyond the question of reliability, however, is that of whether gossip reporters, in their endless quest for the perfect morsel, taint the reputation of their publications and journalism in general by accepting gratuities to publicize a celebrity wannabe or, conversely, cover up some embarrassing foible.

Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Post, did not quibble yesterday with the assertion that, in its gossip columns, the newspaper traffics in "rumor and innuendo," the kind of material, he said, that "normally wouldn't find its way into the news columns."

However, the Stern episode - in which the part-time columnist is said to have asked billionaire Ronald W. Burkle for more than $200,000 to keep his name off Page Six - was "very different," he said.

"We're holding everyone to a higher ethical standard," said Rubenstein. "Jared Stern slipped badly, and he was suspended immediately. The Post has no indication that its columnists were influenced, either for good or bad reporting, by any entertainment or meals they may have received."

Rubenstein said he would be the only person commenting on behalf of the Post.

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