It’s one of the oldest tricks in the media playbook. If you want favorable coverage from a certain newspaper, then you must play ball. That means you provide the paper with information or stories, usually on a confidential basis. If you do not play ball, you can be savaged-or ignored. This method of operation has been exposed for all to see in the scandal over coverage allegedly being bought and sold by a writer for Page Six, the gossip column in the New York Post.
Four writers for the column have been fired. One of them, Jared Paul Stern, is accused of trying to extort $220,000 from Ron Burkle, a billionaire, in return for “protection” from false items in the column. Stern was reportedly caught on tape, saying, “We know how to destroy people. That’s our specialty.”
This is another terrible scandal for the media. But we are amused at how one Post competitor, the New York Times, has covered it. We suspect that part of what is driving this story is that it is a good opportunity for the liberal Times to attack the conservative Post, Rupert Murdoch’s paper that is losing an estimated $40 million a year. It is a small cog in Murdoch’s $54 billion media empire.
The real battle is between the Post and the New York Daily News, which are long time adversaries. The Daily News reported that Page Six staffers, including editor Richard Johnson, have accepted gifts from people or businesses favorably mentioned in the column.
Ironically, Stern, the fired writer, has written two articles for the Times, including a 1400-word story for the Style Desk about how well supermodels have made the transition from the runway to the big screen. He also wrote some articles for the Wall Street Journal, was executive editor for the supermarket tabloid, Star, and edited one issue of a magazine version of Page Six.
And who is Ron Burkle? The Times tells us that he made his fortune in supermarkets and is a Democratic fundraiser. But there is so much more, as reported in the New York Observer, including a hundred-thousand-dollar- a-couple fundraiser for the Clintons at his home in Los Angeles. He was a business partner of former president Bill Clinton, and one of his closest friends. Clinton was a frequent guest on Burkle’s private Boeing 757, so often that “the former President jokingly referred to it as ‘Air Force Two.'” Burkle is also bidding on 12 newspapers being sold from the Knight Ridder chain of newspapers, so he apparently has his sights set on personally becoming a media mogul.
Part of the appeal of this story is exposing a seamy side of journalism, in which celebrities, whether they are jocks, actors, singers, business people and even journalists, are treated as commodities to gain currency for the day’s gossip headlines. One question is whether or not gossip columns should be held to the same standards as the news pages. Another question, as we previously indicated, is whether favorable coverage in other areas of the paper is extended or withheld to certain people because of what these people provide to the paper or say about it.
In an April 12 column in the Wall Street Journal, Burkle said that he was told that one way that he could be protected from negative publicity in the Page Six column was if he would pass on secrets about his friends.
To provide another example of this journalistic trend, Accuracy in Media can be the target of negative or distorted comments in the media because we are critical of what news organizations have reported about current events. People in the media do not take kindly to criticism. One columnist for a major paper was told not to cover anything we say or do because we had been critical of one of the paper’s reporters. That’s the price of being critical of the media. We do not alter our coverage because of the perceived need to cultivate certain news organizations and curry favor with media top brass. We also do not change our coverage because of the occasional story that accurately reports what we have to say.
Trying to make the case that Page Six is unique, the Times insisted that “gossip columns have always occupied a murky corner in the realm of journalistic standards, which traditionally preclude writers and editors from accepting gifts from those they cover.”
The Times has a short memory. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a Times reporter was fired for unethical journalism, Blair came forward to say that “public relations executives would provide The Times reporters free theater tickets, free meals and drinks, and sometimes even sex for mentions in the newspaper.”
Blair’s book went into some detail about special interests providing favors to Times reporters in exchange for stories. He wrote that “Journalists at the Times were considered to have a weak spot for sex?” Blair wrote about an executive from an Internet company providing a young blonde woman for his sexual enjoyment. They went to bed and the relationship produced “several mentions” of the Internet company in his stories for the paper.
Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. dismissed these charges as lies and refused to investigate them.