(New York) The New York Post is cooperating with federal authorities in an investigation of a longtime contributor for its "Page Six" gossip column, who allegedly tried to extort money from a California billionaire.
Jared Paul Stern, who contributed to the Post column, has been accused of demanding $100,000 and a monthly $10,000 stipend from Ron Burkle in exchange for not making Burkle the focus of negative stories.
"It's a little like the mafia: a friend of mine is a friend of yours," Stern allegedly said to Burkle at a March meeting in the businessman's Manhattan loft.
The Post suspended Stern yesterday amid news of the federal investigation into the extortion allegations. Stern has reportedly been recorded - on camera - discussing the financial arrangements necessary to "buy" better coverage.
Stern began writing about Burkle earlier this year, calling him a "party-boy billionaire" who dated a supermodel. Another Stern story claimed that actor Tobey Maguire flew on Burkle's private jet to Aspen for a New Year's weekend.
If true, the alleged extortion scheme is, to me, nauseating. There have been some high-profile cases in the past year of journalists failing to live up to integrity standards, but the brazen, criminal attempt to extort money from the subject of articles is so completely beyond the bounds of accepted behavior as to seem otherworldly.
Maybe I'm just a Midwestern rube who does not understand how things work in the big city (setting aside my years spent in places like Detroit and Dallas). Maybe still I am a moralistic pontificator whose penchant for climbing up to his virtual pulpit will make me destined to be a journalistic minor-leaguer.
But maybe the Stern case is just the tip of the iceberg, and the resultant fallout will have long-term repercussions for an American mainstream media already reeling from credibiltiy problems.