The dish on the dirt

Scandal hits Page Six

Even by gossip’s slippery standards, the latest scandal — the New York Post vs. Ron Burkle — is as nasty as it gets.

Longtime Page Six fixture Jared Paul Stern over the weekend said the charge against him – that he extorted $220,000 for protection against negative coverage – was not what it seemed, claiming the billionaire had set him up.

Even so, the truth is out there: the business of celebrity dish goes places that very few “fans” have ever imagined.

Another Page Six example: During the most recent Academy Awards, Mercedes-Benz and ABC paid for the section’s editor Richard Johnson to fly first-class to L.A. and his three-night stay at the Four Seasons, the New York Times reported. Mercedes also furnished him with a car and driver for Oscar weekend.

But it’s Stern’s supposed breech which has taken on a more serious life of its own. Because of his alleged extortion attempt, the New York Post’s sharp-elbowed gossip column is now the subject of a federal investigation.

Stern was videotaped last month offering billionaire Ron Burkle a year’s worth of protection from the column’s barbs in exchange for $220,000.

Stern, who had written for the Post for over a decade in various capacities, was suspended from his current freelance contract when news of the tape was revealed in the New York Daily News’ Friday editions. Though it’s Stern who is at the center of the current investigation, the affair has put the entire Page Six operation under the spotlight, raising questions of whether other major players have paid off Post staffers to ward off negative press.

Harvey Weinstein, for example, denies a deal with Johnson through a “script deal.” A spokesman for Weinstein said that there were discussions with Johnson about penning a script, but they never resulted in a writing contract. The rep also said that no one from Page Six had ever asked Weinstein for money in exchange for favorable treatment in the column.

“The information is wrong,” the rep said.

In addition, Stern has allegedly said that Ron Perelman’s employment of Johnson’s wife, Sessa von Richthofen, was a way to curry favor.

According to the Daily News, Stern proposed the cash payments during a conversation in which Stern offered ways in which Burkle could prevent further gossip items about his personal life, such as a report that he was dating supermodel Gisele Bundchen or another reporting that he and Tobey Maguire vacationed together in Aspen (Burkle has denied both items), from appearing in the column.

“You find some way to be in business with the paper, more of a colleague,” Stern told Burkle, suggesting ways to curry favor with paper, such as hiring column editor Johnson’s new wife, putting other Page Six staffers and contributors on his payroll or investing in Stern’s own clothing line.

Eventually, Burkle asked, according to the News, “How much do I need to pay you to make this stop?” Stern replied, “Um, $100,000 to get going and then you could get it to me on a month-to-month, maybe like $10,000.”

According to the News, Burkle contacted law enforcement, including the U.S. Attorney in Gotham and the FBI, handing over the videotape and emails from Stern with wire transfer instructions. The Post has said it is cooperating with the investigation.

In an interview with ABC News, Stern claimed he was “set up” by Burkle, adding, “I was the one who was targeted.” To the New York Times, Stern denied attempting to extort Burkle. “I said he was under no obligation to have any arrangement with me,” he said. “If we did not come to an agreement, I was not going to retaliate in any way.” In a statement, Post editor Col Allan said, “Should the allegations prove true, Mr. Stern’s conduct would be morally and journalistically reprehensible, a gross abuse of privilege and in violation of the New York Post’s standards and ethics.”

On Thursday, staffers already had an inkling of the looming controversy — Stern was seen pacing the halls on his cell phone in what staffers would later surmise was the reporter scrambling to head off coverage.

But even if other names don’t materialize, insiders said the scandal threatens to rip off the thin membrane that covers celebrity journalism. The exchange of gifts and favors that characterizes gossip reporting — though accepted within that world — would look unseemly when exposed to the light of traditional journalism standards, said one media insider.

That, in turn, could level a blow at the entire gossip industry — not to mention the many entertainment biz publicists who rely on the tabs to promote their friends and keep tabs on their enemies.

The fate of Johnson, the editor who oversees all items that run in the section, was less clear. Many felt that even if he was unaware of Stern’s alleged machinations, he was still too close to the fire to escape punishment. They compared his situation to that of Howell Raines, the Times editorial topper who lost his job after the Jayson Blair scandal.

Over the weekend Johnson remained out of sight — he was set to wed Saturday — after dismissing the charges when the News reached him Thursday.

Norman Abrams, who teaches federal criminal law at the UCLA School of Law, said of the allegations so far, “It’s interesting because it’s borderline between bribery and extortion.”

Laurie Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School, said that simply offering a journalist a bribe for favorable coverage would not necessarily be illegal, even if it is considered highly unethical within the profession.

To secure a conviction for extortion, prosecutors would have to show that Stern threatened Burkle if he didn’t pay. Based on the reports of the conversations between Stern and Burkle so far, Levinson said, “On its face, I think you could get a criminal charge.”