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Post Script

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/19/2006

In the past two weeks, almost every major U.S. daily, including The Sun, has reported on a controversy at The New York Post, where gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern is under FBI investigation for possible extortion charges. The media is notorious for its self-absorption, but the frenzy over Stern and his alleged promise that billionaire Ronald Burkle would be spared the wrath of the Post’s “Page Six” in exchange for cash ($220,000) is bizarre.

The fate of one gossip writer who might have been on the take—the web site Gawker has dubbed the affair “Payola Six”—isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the ramifications for The New York Times, which has printed thousands upon thousands of words by 16 different reporters about the story, are more consequential.

(Disclosure: I haven’t spoken to Stern in at least eight years, but in the mid-’90s he did write sporadically for New York Press, a weekly I owned and edited at that time.)

The Times, one of only three national newspapers, along with USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, is still commonly referred to as “the paper of record” and “the Gray Lady.” The paper is of course no longer “gray,” succumbing to market-driven bursts of color in its pages years ago; that honorific is habitually used by writers who still believe the Times is a sober, nonpartisan source of national and international news. The reality is that the Times, which at one time dictated what stories would lead the television network evening news, is in a downward spiral in influence. This shift has been in evidence for at least a decade, as the paper devoted more space to celebrity and fashion coverage, but until the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller embarrassments, the Times’ slip from journalism’s Mount Olympus was perceptible only to the most devoted observers. An institution that was revered for most of the 20th century doesn’t crumble overnight.

But the media world, thanks to the internet, moves at a lightning pace compared to the Times’ glory days, and its recent assault on the Post, a noisy tabloid once largely ignored by the smug broadsheet, suggests an internal nervous breakdown at the company. The New York Sun, a small-circulation conservative daily, noted in an April 11 editorial that as of April 10 the Times had devoted 10,000 words to the “Page Six” story, but only 4,000 words to the recent Israeli elections; a similar amount of coverage was given to the German elections last fall. Veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill told the Baltimore Sun’s Nick Madigan (April 11), “You get the Times for the news, and the Post for the laughs.”

Maybe, maybe not, but a lot of people are laughing at the Times right now.

Even the left-wing The Nation, a weekly whose editorial position is nearly indecipherable from the hysterically anti-Bush Times, was aghast at the array of stories, graphics, charts, and interviews spent on the Post’s gossip controversy. Richard Kim, in an April 10 post on the Nation’s web site, wrote:

    Could the Times be trying to deflect attention away from the prominent role a certain disgraced, former staff reporter [Miller] had in the scandal that really matters? And why didn’t the Times devote [the resources allotted to the Stern story] to investigating the administration’s case for war instead of relying on said reporter’s tainted sources and canned information?

It could be that the Times is so distracted by the Post (which sells more copies in Manhattan than the Times) that it’s letting less fluffy stories slide. An April 13 correction was a classic: The Times, like other dailies, reported on April 9 that Scooter Libby was authorized by the White House to disclose information to a reporter that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in 2002. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald later clarified that news with a court filing downplaying Libby’s emphasis on the uranium story.

The Times’ explanation:

    Although Mr. Fitzgerald formally filed his corrective yesterday, accounts of it were provided to some news organizations on Tuesday night, and were the basis for news articles yesterday. The Times did not publish one, as other organizations did, because a telephone message and an e-mail message about the court filing went unnoticed at the newspaper.

Even readers who agree with the Times’ relentless editorial attacks on Bush and his administration must’ve been dismayed that the paper left Fitzgerald’s statement “unnoticed.”

And despite media criticism for overkill, the Times isn’t about to drop the “Page Six” story. Just last Monday, David Carr (with the help of five colleagues) wrote a long piece about the “buzz” the Post’s column creates. Not much new, especially Carr’s dated observation that “Page Six” is “the first postmodern gossip column,” but the beat goes on.

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