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FROM THIS EPISODE

Jackpot Masquerade

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Gossip writers are the bottom-dwellers of journalism. They cut corners and run rumors, sullying the names of famous people while trying hard to be just like them.

Their ethics, usually, are for sale. If the whispered confidence is rewarded with a favor, or if a columnist accepts a lavish gift to keep some salacious tid-bit out of the paper, no one is the wiser.

But when a gossip writer for the New York Post gets caught in a federal sting for apparently trying to extort a small fortune from a California billionaire, well, that goes far beyond acceptable behavior, even for purveyors of celebrity dirt.

New York's other newspapers, particularly the New York Times and the Daily News, have feasted on last week's news about the columnist, Jared Stern, and have gleefully uncovered additional grime about him and about Richard Johnson, the editor of the Post's notoriously dishy Page Six.

"Gossip Gone Wild!" the Daily News proclaimed in a front-page headline yesterday. Inside, the paper reported that Johnson was flown by private jet to a $50,000 bachelor party in his honor last month at the palatial Mexican estate of soft-porn king Joe Francis, the guy who came up with "Girls Gone Wild." The Daily News said Francis "appears regularly" on Page Six, "almost always in a positive way."

The News reported that Johnson, the Page Six editor, "also got a free trip to the Academy Awards last month, paid for by ABC and Mercedes Benz," a junket that included first-class airfare, a car and driver, and a three-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Stern, a part-time columnist with a bland face and a fancy wardrobe, is said to have demanded about $220,000 from Ron Burkle in exchange for keeping the mogul's name off Page Six. Stern now claims that he simply wanted Burkle to invest in a clothing line that he owns.

Aphrodite Jones, who used to write celebrity profiles and now writes books about notorious crimes, has unhappy memories of a dinner with a Page Six writer, who was careful to make sure the restaurant picked up the tab for her meal.

"The lady I dealt with made it clear that she was more important than anyone," Jones said. She said the writers who work for Page Six "have an attitude that they can 'make or break' people."

Another reporter I spoke with yesterday said a publicist friend of his in New York tried to get a mention of a client's restaurant on Page Six and was told the item would run only if the restaurant gave two Post writers a free dinner.

This low-level corruption is not on a par with outright extortion, of course, but it shows the sense of entitlement that might have led Stern to try to hit a real jackpot.

Peter Shaplen, a former ABC News producer who was the media coordinator at both the Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson trials, said it's not the genre that gets gossip writers into trouble. "It's when they try to masquerade as real reporters," Shaplen said, "because how are we to know, as readers or sources, which hat they're wearing?"

Veteran columnist Pete Hamill said that when was a tabloid editor, he insisted that even gossip columnists make sure their facts were facts. He would ask them, "Did we call the waiter at the restaurant to see if the champagne glass was actually thrown? Does it turn out that Rod Stewart couldn't have been there because he was in Hawaii at the time?"

Lloyd Grove, a gossip writer at the Daily News, said he is held to the same rules as he was when he wrote the Reliable Source gossip column for the Washington Post a few years ago.

But, he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "It's in our stylebook, I think on page 36, that you don't shake down billionaires."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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