Friday, July 14, 2006

Columbia Journalism Review


By Robert Love

It was the king daddy media scandal of the year, complete with skulls and bones, shark teeth, and the not unpleasant taste of snake venom. On April 7, Jared Paul Stern, a reporter for the New York Post, was accused of an outlandish act of blackmail — demanding $220,000 from a wealthy entrepreneur for a year of friendly press coverage. The Post’s competition nearly went mad with joy. The Daily News, which has been taking its lumps in a vicious circulation war with the Post, broke the story: the FBI had a tape of Stern shaking down Ronald Burkle, a billionaire Democratic fund-raiser and friend of Bill Clinton, for “protection” from false and malicious items on Page Six, the paper’s premier gossip outlet. The Times jumped in, fanning the flames of what editor Bill Keller called “the bonfire at Page Six,” with an almost shameful level of glee, publishing ten articles in three days, including two front-page treatments, for a grand total of 10,531 words — over the weekend. The Observer and The New Yorker piled on later in the week and the story went national. In the newsrooms, editorial offices, and p.r. parlors of both coasts, schadenfreude latté grandes were passed around as new and terrible details kept erupting. International junkets, $50,000 bachelor parties . . . . What new shame would be revealed about the ethics-free zone now called “Page Fix,” where freelancers drove Mercedes Benzes and the editors reveled in piles of freebies like Scrooge McDuck.

First of all, Stern denies any guilt, and he’s been charged with no crime. He was dismissed from the Post and is attending to his former sideline, a clothing company he calls Skull and Bones. Inexplicably however, he told USA Today that “he did propose a financial relationship with Burkle — an investment in Stern’s clothing line — and suggested that it might get him softer treatment on Page Six. ‘He was going to get a connection — a friend who would give him the benefit of the doubt,’” Stern said. Burkle was clearly a guy who needed a friend. He had been vilified in something like fifteen false, malicious items on Page Six, he claimed, an example of which was one that reported that he — Burkle the billionaire — was about to buy a modeling agency for his pal the ex-president to run. Burkle, unamused, appealed directly to Rupert Murdoch, the conservative owner of the right-wing Post — billionaire to billionaire — to make Page Six cease and desist. Deal or no deal? No deal! At this point, Jared Paul Stern e-mailed Burkle and offered to smooth things over. Burkle set up a meeting and taped Stern asking for $100,000 upfront and $10K a month as a quid pro quo for the goodwill of the Post. “It’s a little like the mafia,” Stern told him on the tape. “A friend of mine is a friend of yours.”

Like the mafia? Page Six is not the only back alley where favors are traded, mudballs are slung, and scores are settled. It is, however, the favored venue at the Post for blind items of . . . how shall we say, dubious veracity? Defenders say it’s gossip, right? It’s fun. Everybody reads it. It’s a quasi-shameful indulgence, like $4 coffees. Well, for those who are getting slimed, it can be rough going, and, as Stern explained to Burkle, once you’re on the hit list, there’s no escape . . . unless . . . . Hard-edge gossip may not be the mafia, but it’s certainly a business based on influence, as Stern and other gossips who speak the truth will tell you. Reporters forgo a degree or two of respectability for a certain amount of juice.

Well, if his own account of the quid pro quo is accurate, Stern’s case is pretty much closed, at least on ethical grounds. You don’t enter into ongoing business arrangements with those you write about. Stern should have known that; he was, after all, a ten-year veteran at the paper. He was the editor of the Post’s new Page Six magazine and the paper’s Sunday books column.

But who is Jared Paul Stern? Like Matt Drudge, he craves fame. And like Drudge, Stern made a decision early on to recreate himself as a character. He dressed up, adopting the fedora-and-pinstripes look of a film noir news hound. (“I decided it was better to be known as ‘that asshole in the hat’ than not known at all,” he said.) He gave out retro-ish calling cards to sources and quotable tough-guy quotes to fellow reporters, his print voice a combination of Christopher Moltisanti and J.J. Hunsecker (Google the names if you don’t know what I mean). The semiotics of Stern’s presentation was designed to make us associate him with the good old days of newspapering, but it led me to wonder about historical precedents. About how often journalists have tried to trade power for cash. And do raffish threads and a penchant for freebies always raise suspicion of an augmented lifestyle?

Quote pipers, fake memoirists, dateline embellishers, plagiarists, and fictionalizers appear with some frequency in our business, but the truly brazen blackmailer is a rare species. Fortunately for your essayist, there are indeed antecedents. Yes, there are extremely useful precedents, with historical lessons to be relearned and big-time scoundrels to be reexposed. From the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the McCarthy era, and the 1960s came the pioneers in the black arts of journalistic persuasion. They have left behind their techniques and ploys, as well as instructions on how to weasel out when your hand gets caught in the goodie bag. As Professor Mark Caldwell of Fordham University wrote in The New York Times, the Payola Six blackmail story is “pallid” compared to journalism’s ratty past.

“Soldier, inventor, editor” — that’s how Colonel William d’Alton Mann summed up his life. And though he was a colonel in the Civil War and the inventor of the Mann Boudoir Railroad Car for the Pullman Company, he was far better known as the editor and the publisher of Town Topics. In 1891, Mann took over this moribund weekly and, with the instincts of a Gilded Age Tina (or Graydon), turned it into a reliable font of gossip about the antics of the superrich. Mann’s business plan worked like a charm. Town Topics became a must read, not only for the wealthy who were politely skewered in its pages, but for the hoi polloi, who considered Vanderbilts, Astors, Harrimans, and Whitneys not just Great American Families, but a fine source of entertainment as well. Mann has been justly praised as the godfather of modern gossip. He is also credited with the invention of the “blind item,” whereby the salacious details of an embarrassing event are printed, but the identity of the subject only hinted at. (“What playboy was seen, at 3 a.m. stealing out of the Newport cottage of which prominent social leader, while her husband was in New York?”) Clever enough by far, but Mann took it a step further. In a nearby paragraph the real name of the erstwhile subject was inserted into an innocent-sounding passage about, say, the recent fête given by Mrs. John Jacob Astor. (“Prominent among the guests was one of the resort’s favorite bachelors, Mr. Creighton Webb.”) So everyone got an evil chuckle, knowing it was old Webb who was sleeping with Mrs. Astor. Mann collected his dirt from a roster of spies to rival that of the National Enquirer in its heyday: maids, butlers, telegraph operators, deliverymen, and society’s down-and-outers whom he then paid as “reporters.” He retained Justice Joseph H. Deuel, a sitting New York City judge, as a libel expert and business partner.

But Mann’s dark genius kicked in the day he realized that the stories that came into his possession were perhaps worth more untold than told. So Town Topics’s revised business plan was born: to the men and women who wished to keep their sins secret, Mann simply asked for money, proffering Town Topics stock at $1,000 a share (the actual value of the stock was $10 a share). When he needed to open a new vein, he brought forth Fads and Fancies, a kind of Who’s Who for the filthy rich, which he sold by subscription only for $1,500 each. (That’s $33,000 in 2005 dollars.) He was charging for inclusion, exclusion, immunity; anything the market would bear.

When Mann published an article impugning President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter (who was apparently listening to dirty jokes while she was tipsy during a visit to Newport), he and Judge Deuel were attacked in an article in Collier’s magazine, accused of “printing scandal about people who are not cowardly enough to pay for silence.” For some reason the colonel and the judge decided to sue for criminal libel. Under biting cross-examination Mann was forced to admit that he had received some $200,000 in unpaid and unsecured “loans” from J.P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, William C. Whitney, and other titans of finance. (That was a lot of money in 1900, the equivalent of $4.4 million today.) Mann showed his gratitude by adding these gentlemen to a list of “immunes” who were granted his highest level of protection. And gentlemen that they were, they never asked to be repaid. Mann admitted all this, but his white whiskers shook in indignation at the notion that he had committed a crime. "Mann, Assassin of Reputations", ran the headline in the Chicago Tribune like an epitaph, as he and Deuel lost the libel suit and the rest of their tattered reputations. The district attorney later indicted the editor for perjury in this case.

In the end, Mann got off. He blamed his employees and freelancers, professed ignorance of any schemes, and was acquitted of perjury on something close to a technicality. But the legal exposure marked the high-water mark for Town Topics’s popularity. It continued publishing for thirty years but was never taken seriously again. Mann died a millionaire in his eighties, an unrepentant and proud soldier, inventor, and inventive editor.

Tom Wolfe called Confidential “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world,” and for a strange interlude in American history there was no question about it. In the mid-1950s, Confidential captured an anxious nation’s attention. It was the most popular newsstand magazine in the U.S., selling four million copies an issue by offering readers a mix of Hollywood gossip, wacky exposés, and what it called “uncensored stories.” It promised much; it titillated more; it was America’s guilty pleasure. It still is, in a way: as every modern editor and art director knows, Confidential is the wellspring of all that we’ve come to associate with the tabloid-sleazebag sensibility — bold, slashing color bars with screaming cover lines: "The Wife Clark Gable Forgot . . . . Bauer, Mantle and Martin: They Were Playing Night Games — But Not Baseball . . . . Psst! Vic Mature: Remember that Cute Trick You Dated? 'She' Was a He!"

Inside could be found the playfully alliterative text that influenced future editors of gossip pages, including Page Six: guess which “pudgy pianist” was also tagged the “Kandelabra Kid” by Confidential (see below). All of it was the beloved creation of Robert Harrison, owner and publisher, who forged the magazine’s look and sensibility, and who took unvarnished pride in his work, his child. Harrison, wrote Wolfe, was the “original aesthete du schlock.”

Confidential mixed up rabid anticommunist screeds with fifties obsessions about homosexuality and race mixing (marlon brando & his tan tootsie) and even Harrison’s editors’ bizarre idea of service pieces: "Warning: Coffee Can Make You Fat! . . . Cigarettes Do Not Cause Cancer!" But what moved magazines was dirt: movie stars in flagrante delicto. In pursuit of this grail, Harrison, like Colonel Mann, developed a vast network of snoops and spies, the usual service-sector suspects in hair and makeup but also including private investigators like the legendary scumball Fred Otash. (Otash worked both sides of every fence; he placed listening devices in Marilyn Monroe’s house at her request and then went back and did the same thing for Jimmy Hoffa, who was trying to blackmail Robert Kennedy.) When Rock Hudson’s arranged marriage hit the skids, Mrs. Hudson hired Otash to help her arrive at a more amicable divorce settlement. Otash taped Hudson talking openly about his homosexuality, and his wife used the tape as leverage. Otash, working for Harrison, then played the tape for Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios and Hudson’s employer. Harrison had already outed Liberace (see above) with a story headlined: why liberace’s theme song should be, ‘mad about the boy’!” so Cohn knew this was a serious threat to his leading man. Terms were easily negotiated: Cohn would now become a source for the magazine. He promptly turned over documents about the actor Rory Calhoun’s “prison past,” as it then became known in Confidential. Calhoun was a minor star compared to Hudson and thus in Cohn’s view expendable.

By 1957, Hollywood had had enough. Actors and studio heads joined forces with California politicians and sued Confidential for conspiracy to commit criminal libel. A trial was scheduled in L.A. Harrison was delighted with the attendant publicity and sent Otash and his team to subpoena more than one hundred stars to be cross-examined under oath by his attorneys about their private lives. According to Dish, Jeannette Walls’s history of gossip, things turned out badly for all involved. The sensational trial further tarnished Hollywood’s image, the state’s case ended in a mistrial (hung jury), and Harrison went virtually bankrupt defending Confidential. When the government threatened a new trial, Harrison took a plea and vowed to stop investigating “the private lives of celebrities.” You can fill in the rest. The magazine’s sales went on life support and Harrison was forced to sell his baby. The most important legacy of Confidential (aside from its editorial innovations) was that the scandal mongers cleaned up their act and blackmail again went underground — until the 1960s.

“For years, criminals cringed, city officials winced, and politicians prayed when Harry Karafin walked into their offices. He broke more exclusives, triggered more 72-point streamers, and spearheaded more journalistic crusades than any other newsman in the long history of The Philadelphia Inquirer.” Fulsome praise for any reporter, even more remarkable that it came from a rival paper, the weekly Philadelphia Dispatch.
Karafin was an ace newsman, the best-known and most-feared investigative reporter in 1960s Philadelphia. He built his reputation as the classic muckraker, using the power of Walter Annenberg’s big-city daily to expose corruption, greed, and vice. Karafin went after bad judges, gangsters, corrupt ward leaders, racketeers of every shoe size. His scoops permanently unhinged the lower jawbones of fellow reporters. One example: While the FBI scoured the country for the missing Philly mobster Angelo Bruno in 1963, who met the don at a Boston airport when he stepped off a flight from Rome? That’s right. Karafin won his share of press association awards but kept to himself and played tough, says Gaeton Fonzi, a reporter for Philadelphia magazine, whose piece about Karafin’s downfall (co-bylined with Greg Walter), is one of the finest moments in the last forty years of magazine journalism.

“Walter Annenberg’s hatchet man, he called himself,” Fonzi says, with a chuckle.

Karafin started at the Inquirer as a copy boy in 1939 and by the 1950s was collecting bylines. “A cocky little guy with a flip way about him, he could con his way into places his more conservative colleagues wouldn’t think of going,” wrote Fonzi and Walter. Karafin hung with cops and criminals and bullied his way deep into city hall, swapping juice for tips until he had developed Philadelphia’s best network of informants and spies. Karafin could walk into any municipal office and rifle any file at any time with impunity. And so there came a day (as the lawyers like to say) that Karafin — accustomed as he was deploying the irrefutable logic of the strong arm — arrived at Colonel Mann’s conclusion: Some of this information may well be more valuable untold. His next step was to figure out a method to cover his tracks. Where Mann sold hyperinflated stock, Karafin peddled the services of his public relations firms to business owners who were in trouble. Using his contacts in the judicial system, he never had to look very far for new clients.

Karafin worked hard for his money, planting positive stories and keeping bad news out of the paper. Under the unspoken arrangement governing Philadelphia newsgathering in the sixties, if Karafin didn’t touch it, neither did his fellow reporters at the Inquirer or the News or the Bulletin or the TV or the radio, says Fonzi. So, if you paid Harry what he asked for, you received an effective citywide news blackout. If you didn’t pony up, you ran the risk that he would plant a false and embarrassing piece about you or your dance studio or your chain of wig shops. Karafin expanded his influence over at least five frenetic years of blackmail, creating trade groups (for loan associations and home-repair firms, for example) to make collecting graft even easier. With the loot coming in, he fixed his teeth, spruced up his wardrobe, bought his wife jewelry, and began dining out with representatives of the city’s leading institutions (though he was known to be partners with 640-pound Sylvan Scolnick, described by the Inquirer as “the closest thing to a criminal mastermind ever produced in the city of Philadelphia”).

It was weird. At Philadelphia magazine, Fonzi and Walter kept running into Karafin’s trail on hot stories. Their sources warned them off, saying Karafin would surely scoop the pants off a monthly. “But somehow I always beat Karafin to the punch for some reason,” says Fonzi. Groundbreaking pieces began appearing in Philadelphia but never got traction in the dailies. What was Karafin doing with his information? That was the a-ha moment when the magazine guys began their investigation into the methods of the city’s top reporter. Their article, titled “The Reporter,” appeared in the April 1967 issue of the monthly.

Before the issue hit the newsstands, Karafin was placed on leave by the Inquirer (with severance). He filed suit to stop the distribution of the magazine and threatened everyone, but it was all too late. After an investigation, the Inquirer ran an eleven-column mea culpa in a Sunday edition, branding its ex-reporter a “shakedown artist” who had “bludgeoned” people into paying “substantial sums of money to avoid publicity.” Karafin denied the charges and threatened to “bring down” prominent Philadelphians and all those who maligned him in print.

In 1968, Harry Karafin was convicted of forty counts of blackmail and extortion and in the next year sentenced to four to nine years in prison. Two years after that, he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to an additional two to seven years. Karafin’s downward spiral now accelerated. In 1972, he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to five years of probation, which he never had the opportunity to use. He died in prison on October 23, 1973, of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two children.

Karafin, Harrison, and Mann are not the only ink-stained blackmailers who ever plied the trade, just the best known. To be geographically fair I should probably include the Chicago Tribune’s Alfred J. Lingle, better known as Jake Lingle, a crime reporter at the Trib for eighteen years. Lingle, who seems to have gone certifiably insane with his abuse of power, had been peddling his friendship with Police Commissioner William Russell in the 1920s. He sold journalistic favors to cops and gangsters alike, including Al Capone. But Lingle gambled away his earnings and by the summer of 1930 was $100,000 in the hole. He began attempting to extort money from Capone’s own gang members. A killer in priest’s clothes was dispatched and Lingle was shot dead in the subway underpass at East Randolph Street, his cigar clenched in his teeth. Lingle had been living large, though the higher-ups at the Trib appeared to be clueless about his activities. Jake Lingle vacationed with gangsters, owned several homes, and dressed a little too well for a reporter. In the end, he was perhaps a bit too proud of a favorite gift from his friend Scarface — a diamond studded belt, the ultimate freebie.

How do these terrible things happen, who’s to blame and where do we go from here? Colonel Mann and Bob Harrison were proprietors, captains of their tawdry ships who flew the Jolly Roger for all to see. They prospered for a time, were busted, hauled into court, lost their mojo — a simple enough moral trajectory. With the evil Harry Karafin and Jake Lingle, a case can be made that the management of their newspapers had an incentive to look the other way when the star reporters stepped over the line. Karafin was a former strikebreaker who claimed to be on familiar terms with the Inquirer’s owner, Annenberg. Lingle, his editors knew, was the acknowledged master of the gangster story.

That leaves Jared Paul Stern, Page Six, and the allegations that started our journey. Deborah Schoeneman, a former gossip for the Post, the New York Observer, and New York magazine, said recently that “a blind eye is often turned to Page Six because it is so powerful and helpful to the Post. It brings in so much ad revenue, and it brings in a high-profile reader who might not otherwise be reading the Post.”

In gossip, the bright lines of journalistic ethics begin to fuzz at the edges, but everyone seems to accept that. Where else do you regularly find bare-faced, single-source, anonymous items alleging wrongdoing, sexual mischief, or other actionable activities leaked by ax-grinding sources and put into print without a pretense of fair comment? (How many rules of good practice does that violate?) And yes, everyone accepts that favors are dispensed for ink; it’s part of the p.r. industrial complex. A few free tickets to Dubai or “media discounts” for designer fashions are bestowed on reporters, but so what? That is not far from standard operating procedure in many fashion and entertainment magazines.

If it’s true that all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously said, then I say that all journalism is personal — at least in this fundamental way: The power of the press is shared by every journalist and editor. In the end it’s only a reporter’s sense of personal responsibility that keeps him or her from trading that power for personal gain. Isn’t that the recent lesson of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, who showed how enterprising fabricators can fool diligent editors for years? What other lessons there are to be learned by the bonfire at Page Six elude me, though. There’s been no mea culpa from the Post, just a silent circling of the wagons and the firing of freelancers. The New York Times’s executive editor, Bill Keller, used the occasion to (coincidentally, he said) close down his paper’s silly Boldface column, which was the closest the Gray Lady ever came to trying on the short skirts of gossip. The FBI has reportedly sent the results of its investigation of Stern to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who will decide whether the government will prosecute the journalist on extortion, wire fraud, and other charges. The public continues to withhold its sense of outrage, as if this were a story for trade magazines. Jared Paul Stern, like Glass and Blair, is writing his memoir.

Robert Love is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and working on a book about the history of yoga in America.