On April 9, the Daily News endeared itself to this column by publishing a transcript.
The transcript related to a scandal concerning the News’main competitor, the New York Post. Actually, it was better than that. The scandal concerned the crown jewel of the Post, its Page Six gossip column. According to the News, Jared Paul Stern, a regular contributor to Page Six, “solicited $220,000 from a high-profile billionaire in return for a year’s ‘protection’ against inaccurate and unflattering items about him in the gossip page.” Stern called the accusation “completely outrageous,” but almost immediately the Post suspended Stern until the U.S. attorney completed an investigation. The News labeled it the “Page Fix” scandal and ascended to tabloid-war heaven.
The billionaire in question, Ron Burkle—a supermarket tycoon—had received e-mails from Stern after Burkle complained repeatedly about hostile coverage from Page Six. In one e-mail, the News reported, Stern told Kevin Marchetti, one of Burkle’s lieutenants,
I understand Ron is upset about the press he is getting. If he’s really concerned he needs a strategy for dealing with it and regulating it. It’s not easy to accomplish, but he certainly has the means to do so.
To Burkle, this sounded like a shakedown. He responded by arranging a meeting that confirmed his suspicions. He then invited the FBI and the U.S. attorney to monitor a second meeting with a hidden videocamera. According to Burkle, Stern asked Burkle for $100,000 plus $10,000 a month and suggested payoffs to other Page Six staffers as well. There followed several e-mail communications between Stern and Marchetti in which Stern urged Burkle to forward the money to him. According to Stern, it was Burkle who first suggested a payment, in the form of an investment in a clothing company owned by Stern named Skull & Bones, after the Yale secret society. (According to its Web site, Skull & Bones makes “high-quality clothing with an edgy, prep sensibility.”)
At this point in a story, Hot Documents is wont to say, “Let’s go to the transcript.” The DailyNews transcript, alas, consists only of snippets from the conversations. Nonetheless, these snippets, and particularly the passages I focus on below and on the next two pages—snippets, as it were, of snippets—would appear to be extremely damaging to Stern. (To read annotations of these passages, roll your mouse over the words highlighted in yellow.) One finds oneself wondering how Stern could possibly explain himself.
I decided not to wonder. I phoned Stern and suggested that instead of my annotating the document, he should annotate it. In effect, I was offering to turn my column over to Stern (though I would maintain control over which passages he would comment on). Stern thought about it for 15 minutes, then said no. “This transcript is a piece of shit,” he said, “and I don’t even want to talk about it.” So, it was back to me. Since I have little light to shed on the contents, I will instead approach my annotations mainly in the spirit of a sportcaster assessing the apparent difficulty each highlighted portion creates for anyone attempting an innocent explanation. I will use a 10-point scale. Let the games begin.