Nix on Page Six?

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By: Joe Strupp

Does any newspaper section have more enemies than the New York Post?s Page Six? But the gold standard for gossip, if there can be such a thing, also has many more followers, enough who consider the two pages of dish, dirt and details a daily essential to make it almost certain to survive this latest scandal.

But that hasn?t stopped the tabloid town crier from taking a severe hit as contributor Jared Paul Stern comes under fire for allegedly soliciting bribes from a California billionaire in exchange for keeping his name clean in the Post?s daily mudbath. Stern?s reported demands for more than $200,000 in protection money, apparently caught on tape, show both his apparent arrogance and stupidity.

Arrogance for thinking he could procure such a payoff from one of the country?s most successful businessmen, and stupidity for making the request inside the man?s own apartment. One would think a small red flag would go up if the object of your extortion invites you over for a chat. I am no wiretapping expert, but even regular viewers of The Sopranos know any illegal act needs to be done out of video view, and audio recording earshot.

Such specifics aside, the impact of this scandal, if proven true, has far-reaching repercussions beyond just Stern?s potential criminal liability. Not only for the Post and its prized purloiner of privacy. But also the ever-expanding world of gossip news. Page Six has continued to be a major must-read for the Sex and the City set, even in the face of gossip sources seemingly growing day by day ? on Web, television and glossy print.

Its success, in part, seems to be based on a cabal of dish-diggers who comb the city for tidbits that others seem not to get. Critics would argue that some are exclusive because they are, in fact, not true. Not a surprise with so much insider stories daily, some are bound to be either loosely-based on truth or outright wrong.

Page Six itself, as many of the stories on Stern have noted, has had its fallouts. One was the blind item hinting that famed Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax had agreed to cooperate with a biography on his life if the author kept out the hidden fact that he was gay ? ultimately not true. Ron Burkle, the billionaire whom Stevens allegedly sought for bribes, also says in news reports that he had complained to Post editor in the past about numerous wrong items in the tabloid, but apparently to no avail, before this latest taped incident occurred.

But that alone would likely not kill the Post?s golden gossip guide. For decades, such wrong information has cropped up occasionally with little fallout if corrected or at least properly countered by the subject of such reports. This is at a whole different level. If Stern did seek to extort payment, the entire franchise of Page Six is called in to question, whether fairly or not.

Accusations have already come out that, prior to the Burkle scandal, Page Six had sought and received payoffs or other favors for NOT reporting on certain celebrities. If that is true, the Post will suffer a knockdown from which it may never fully recover.

Ask anyone who regularly reads the Post and their reasons are often twofold ? sports and/or Page Six. Both are known for hard-hitting commentary. And in Page Six?s case, for hard-hitting revelations. Whether true or not, enough of them seem to be factually close as to keep the paper from going broke on libel lawsuits.

The Page Six name – which still seems odd as it is virtually never on the paper?s sixth page anymore ? stands alone. Much as the newspaper names Walter Winchell, Jimmy Breslin, and Dear Abby had in the past. It occupies its own Web site, has been mentioned on shows such as Sex and the City, as well as a well-known Brittany Spears T-shirt, and even spawned its own glossy magazine earlier his year.

And it continues to break news. From the Howard Stern-type personal bites to Donald Trump business deals on the horizon. Sunday?s report, for example, offered items ranging from rocker Joan Jett?s appearance at a lesbian party to a new magazine article about Joan Felt, daughter of unmasked Deep Throat source W. Mark Felt, and her feud with Post Watergate legend Bob Woodward.

But now we see Page Six?s worst nightmare. Stern may be their Jayson Blair, their Barry Bonds. Not since Stephen Glass was proven to have made up more than a dozen stories for The New Republic has a publication?s credibility been tested. True, the Post?s insider take on Lindsey Lohan?s latest beau is hardly on par with TNR?s tracking of a federal lobbyist. But the impact on its credibility may be the same.

And in the Post?s case, the public embarrassment is worse. Since the gossip page has made numerous enemies in the media, its rival Daily News, Newsday and The New York Times ? among others ? are glad to run wild with the story. The Times offered two straight days of front-page coverage on Saturday and Sunday, with three stories on the scandal Sunday alone. The Daily News, meanwhile, has put forth nearly every angle on the saga, with more likely to come, while the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post also are weighing in.

Page Six may have to undergo an overhaul before all is said and done ? similar to that that the Times and New Republic underwent. The Times, of course, eventually ousted its executive editor and managing editor, instituted a public editor, and added numerous new review policies, including those on anonymous sources. Some believe TNR has yet to fully bounce back from its hit.

Still, with the gossip feed ever-growing and unlikely to diminish, Page Six will probably survive, even if it undergoes a leadership change and procedural review. Who knows, it may even prompt the Post to appoint its first-ever public editor. But don?t count on it, unless the public editor follows the latest romance of Beyonce Knowles or considers the most recent Kid Rock ?sighting? to be journalism.

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