Gossip journos unlikely to change ways

Should the saga of Jared Paul Stern, the New York Post's Page Six contributing writer caught with his hand out for bribes, elicit cries of "Oh, how the mighty have fallen"?

Should the saga of Jared Paul Stern, the New York Post's Page Six contributing writer caught with his hand out for bribes, elicit cries of "Oh, how the mighty have fallen"?

Not really. It's more like the bottom feeders have briefly had to squint as a ray of sunlight passed over them. The more interesting question is whether the public revulsion toward Stern's extortion attempts of billionaire Ron Burkle - assuming that revulsion actually exists and is not just a product of the rival New York Daily News' daily thousand-point headlines - will lead to any real change in the way that celebrity journalism is practiced.

"Credibility" and "transparency" have been dripping from the lips of every media critic in America since the Jayson Blair debacle. Like corporations in the post-Enron era, news organizations have loudly proclaimed their commitment to throwing open the newsroom's operation to public scrutiny to show increasingly cynical readers that there is no improper spinning from cozy government sources or shady quid pro quos from scheming publicists ready to trade access for softball treatment.

None of which is terribly relevant to the staffers of Page Six, whose industry sits far outside that world.

The public appetite for celebrity fluff is voracious. Its limits are far past the horizon of good sense. The people want to hear about unsubstantiated Paris Hilton rumors and see pictures of Brad Pitt's vacation, damn it, and we don't care how you get them.

Stern's actions were egregious and pretty stupid, to boot. But further revelations that Page Six editor Richard Johnson accepted the use of a private jet, private car, and private bachelor party from those he covered highlight the fact that gossip writers play by their own rules.

Post spokesman and PR veteran Howard Rubenstein says the paper is confident that the Page Six staff "has not reported based on anything they may have received," a statement that satisfies no one's objections. He also says the paper is going to review its freebie policy in the wake of the scandal.

More broadly, Rubenstein, who has been representing those on both sides of the gossip game for more than 50 years, feels that even the tabloid hacks should play it straight.

"Celebrity journalism is more freewheeling, more opinion-oriented, less factually based, more gossipy [than standard journalism]," he says. "But... there should be a very high ethical standard, where you don't make up anything, you don't get paid for anything... you don't seek money from anybody."

The rise of blogs is producing a "sea change" in media, notes Rubenstein, putting more pressure on the dailies to compete. "[Mainstream media] all carry gossip columns now," he says, "in one form or another."

The Daily News has been licking Page Six's bones clean since the Stern story broke. But while perhaps occupying a marginally higher ethical plane than the Post, the News' rules are hardly the industry's strictest. Donna Dees, the paper's SVP of communications, says its ethics policy regarding freebies is "liberal because it says, 'within good taste, in the course of doing business.' And to realize that something could be made public."

There's nothing inherently wrong with this standard, but the "course of doing business" for a gossip writer can easily encompass, say, a $50,000 bachelor party thrown by a source, if you argue creatively enough.

Lloyd Grove, who pens his own gossip column for the Daily News, calls Stern's actions "nutty" and adds, "I don't think it has much transcendent significance, except for the New York Post."

Should a New York Times-like ethics code govern the daily operations of gossip hounds?

"If those sorts of practices were put in place overall in celebrity journalism," says Grove, reflecting on the In Touches of the world, "I think it would be the death of celebrity journalism."

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