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Want Good Press? Here’s the Tab

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

Seen schmoozing in a pricey Tribeca loft: supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, whom the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six has called a “party-boy billionaire,” and Page Six contributor Jared Paul Stern. Also present, but unknown to Stern: an FBI agent and a video camera. They were there to record what Burkle–who had chafed at uncomplimentary and, he thought, untrue items about him in the column–believed was a $220,000 shakedown for kid-glove coverage. The FBI believed it too: the agency has launched a probe into extortion allegations.

Already this is fun. But it gets better. The story was broken by the Daily News, locked for decades in a fratricidal tabloid war with the Post. The scoop gave News owner Mort Zuckerman delicious revenge against Post owner Rupert Murdoch. The Post, which is cooperating with the FBI, has suspended Stern, meanwhile noting that he was only a part-time underling of Page Six editor Richard Johnson.

Page Six, a column so attentive to veracity that it usually runs on page 12, is the Brangelina of the tattle trade. For gossipists, journalistic ethics can be an oxymoron. Many have accepted meals, jewelry and plane trips from folks hoping for a kind word. And the items they run are not always the truth, not even truthiness. More like speculative fiction–Proust for the prurient.

But six figures for a power figure to buy a gossipist’s favor? That would be a new wrinkle that, if made public, would be hard to Botox. Stern, who has not seen the tape, avers that the incriminating quotes are “snippets taken out of context.” He does admit to meeting with Burkle twice and to asking for money. (“Um, $100,000 to get going and month to month, $10,000.”) But he denies it was extortion. “The money that was talked about was as an investment in my clothing company,” Stern told TIME, “and as a fee for consulting on a media strategy, not specifically just the Post.”

That is superficially plausible. Burkle had invested $100 million in the Sean John clothing line fronted by Sean (Puffy [P. Diddy (Diddy)]) Combs and might–just might–have been interested in Stern’s fledgling Skull & Bones brand. Stern also claims that Burkle, a jet-setter (he owns a Boeing 757, which pal Bill Clinton dubbed Ron Air), has no media “structure” to run interference. Stern would fill that role–and part of his job would be to keep Burkle’s name out of the column he wrote for. A simple business proposition: You scratch my back, I won’t scratch your eyes out.

Burkle spokesman Michael Sitrick insists that “the tapes show that Mr. Burkle made it very clear he had no interest” in any business deal with Stern. Stern’s lawyer, Edward Hayes, says Burkle has “gotten some pretty good revenge on Page Six. Hopefully it will just be dropped there.”

But the two men are certainly, from now on, an item, twinned in tabloid scandal. If there’s anything lovelier than reading the dirt in Page Six, it’s reading the dirt about Page Six.

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