- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Did he? Was he? Do we care? A Manhattan newspaper gossip scandal continues to roil among those who cover the caterwaul of celebrity life — leaving one New York Post writer to face a federal investigation on suspected extortion charges.

“Gossip is a substratum of journalism, and sleazy by nature. The problem is defining its limits. When does sleaze turn to crime, and what separates favor-mongering from blackmail?” Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs asked yesterday.

“This has made a gossip column which usually appears on Page 6 into front-page news. Isn’t that what it’s all about?” noted Smokey Fontaine, editor in chief of Giant magazine, a New York entertainment publication.

Such questions may weigh heavily on Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern, who is up to his fedora in troubles. The 11-year Post veteran — who favors the clothes of a vintage dandy — has been accused of trying to extort more than $200,000 from California grocery billionaire Ron Burkle, a close personal friend of former President Bill Clinton and a frequent target in Post rumor pages.

Mr. Burkle said Mr. Stern offered to “protect” him from negative coverage in the Post for a fee — an offer secretly caught on videotape during meetings between the men in March to discuss the journalist’s ideas for his own clothing line. The most incriminating bits of their conversation were distilled down to six minutes, handed over to the New York Daily News and published Friday.

Mr. Stern was suspended from the Post, and the FBI and the Justice Department have asked for the newspaper’s cooperation in their probe.

“Mr. Stern eventually may prove his innocence, but this could still be an object lesson for the journalistic community,” Mr. Lichter said. “Abandoning basic news values can lead down a pretty slippery slope.”

Mr. Fontaine says the edgy relationship between gossip writer and celebrity is a “two-way street” between those who need buzz and those who can supply it.

“These complications expose the industry behind the gossip machine. There is a well-negotiated, well-thought-out system behind gossip. It is not random. It is not fly-by-night. These stories often are pitched and heavily debated,” Mr. Fontaine said.

After excruciating details of Mr. Stern’s “shakedown deal” was broken by the Daily News, other news organizations such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Sun and the Associated Press joined in the fray.

Mr. Stern went to ABC News and the Sun, claiming yesterday he had been “set up” by Mr. Burkel, was a victim of a smear campaign but expected to be cleared of the charges. The gossip writer has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

Mr. Stern also shared his version of the story with the Associated Press, along with a suggestion that the Daily News “needs to be examined,” although he did not elaborate.

A spokeswoman for the newspaper dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”

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