“You know the average Post reader is a complete cretin,” Jared Paul Stern said.
Mr. Stern, the fallen gossip columnist, has sold a nonfiction book to Touchstone Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster.
“But we’re not writing it for them,” Mr. Stern said, of that majority of his former readers in the New York Post’s Page Six.
The book—working title: Stern Measures—is expected to be published near the end of 2007. Word of the deal broke on Gawker the afternoon of Oct. 17. Mr. Stern’s manuscript is due, by his account, in early 2007. His publisher said he thought it might be expected at the end of this year.
The book will describe what goes on “inside the sausage factory” of gossip journalism, said Mr. Stern.
Mr. Stern, 35, spent 11 years in the trade—grinding meat, gristle and odd bits—before losing his freelance job at the Post on April 21. He was let go because billionaire supermarket magnate and Sean John investor Ron Burkle made video recordings of conversations between himself and Mr. Stern. The New York Daily News and the New York F.B.I. each came into possession of all or part of those recordings. The Daily News printed a partial transcript and indicated it only had six minutes of tape. Those six minutes, according to the transcript, included Mr. Stern saying, “I wouldn’t be asking you for this kind of money if I didn’t think I could help you when it is needed.”
The first act of the story played out in gossip time: a flurry of extortion accusations and entrapment counteraccusations, Mr. Stern’s ouster, some speculation about the future consequences and a quick curtain. Britney had another baby or two. Mel Gibson got boozy and anti-Semitic. Joe Francis slugged a reporter. Jared Paul who?
Within two months of his dismissal, a book proposal by Mr. Stern was circulating. “There will obviously be no shortage of media attention for this project,” the proposal promised. John Brockman served as his agent.
But was there publishing attention? “Yeah, I mean, I considered it briefly,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove Atlantic. “I took a quick look at it.” He passed.
Then Mark Gompertz and Mr. Stern met for the first time at the Simon & Schuster offices, on July 5, at 11 a.m. “He was wearing a perfect hat, as I thought he might,” Mr. Gompertz said. They met again on Aug. 4, at Mexican Radio, in Hudson, N.Y. Mr. Stern had the fish tacos and a few margaritas, and wore a shirt of his own design.
Mr. Gompertz, 52, the publisher of Touchstone Fireside, purchased the book for himself. “I thought I’d shake things up a little bit,” he said. “My life was really dull. I didn’t have anyone sniffing through my garbage, so I thought I’d fix that.” He generally only purchases three or four books a year himself; his imprint and its editors publish 75 books a year. Last year, he bought and handled a memoir by Robert Klein.
The price of the sale would not be disclosed. “I can’t say,” said Mr. Gompertz. Mr. Stern said the money would pay the bills “for a little while.”
The book is not Mr. Stern’s only project. He said he also plans to sue Mr. Burkle, and other parties.
“There’s no reason for me not to sue,” Mr. Stern said.
Mr. Stern has until April 2007 to bring a suit on the grounds of defamation. “If privacy is an issue for him,” Mr. Stern’s lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said of Mr. Burkle, “he doesn’t want to be subjected to a discovery process. And I think that’s something that’s going to be coming his way.”
Unless agreed by both parties or ordered by the court, a depositions is limited to seven hours on one day. “It’s hard to figure out how to get all the material I want to use in a seven-hour deposition period,” Mr. Tacopina said. “That’s going to be my big challenge.”
In the last six months, Mr. Stern has worked little—lending credence to a defamation pro se claim of injury in his trade. Only recently has he found part-time employment as books editor under the new regime at BlackBook, a downtown magazine now under the editorship of an old friend, Steve Garbarino. “Right now, he’s been legally damaged to the point where his revenue has been all but halted,” Mr. Tacopina said.
His circumstances were so reduced that his wife, Ruth (Snoodles) Gutman, began to work. “That’s true,” Mr. Stern said. “She is working at a local company that makes, like, gourmet foods.” The couple lives in Oak Hill, N.Y.
And what did Mr. Gompertz think about the future of the book if Mr. Stern were to be charged, and prosecuted?
“I don’t know!” he said. “That’s a good question. I guess he’ll have more time to write it.”
“As you probably suspect, we can’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Heather Tasker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, this week. “Sorry about that!”
Two sources with knowledge of the investigation said there was reason to believe it was ongoing or, at least, not terminated. Mr. Tacopina said he had several hours of conversation six months ago and, since then, “we’ve heard nothing from them.”
“To my knowledge, no one’s ever confirmed an investigation,” Mr. Tacopina said.
While Mr. Burkle, or the F.B.I., or both, dangle videotapes over his head, or over the New York Post, Mr. Stern now has a potential weapon of his own against the Post. Both, or one, or neither may have any damaging goods at all.
Mr. Tacopina disputed the analogy. “I don’t think Jared’s holding anything over anyone’s head.”
And what would Mr. Stern reveal in the book? Should Page Six honcho Richard Johnson be concerned?
Mr. Stern said, “I never saw any crimes being committed.
“No murders,” he qualified.
“Richard hasn’t done anything that bad,” said Mr. Stern’s friend Ian Spiegelman, himself a former Page Six employee. “Richard has done some stuff that is questionable. But there are extenuating circumstances to every time he’s done it.”
“Through all of my experiences there, he always advised me to do the right thing,” he said. Mr. Spiegelman was terminated in 2004 for writing pugnacious e-mails to a subject.
Employees of the New York Post are forbidden from talking to the press regarding the Stern incident. Ron Burkle has been asked by the F.B.I. not to comment or release information.
Mr. Stern and Mr. Spiegelman both believe that the institution of the New York gossip column has been undone, both by the changing times and by the Post’s cumulative reaction to employee misbehavior.
“A long time ago, there was a gentlemen’s agreement between Page Six and Rush and Molloy,” Mr. Stern said. When the Daily News gossips would refer to Richard Johnson, he was called Mr. X. The gossip rules have changed.
Gentlemanly behavior—as in “boys will be boys”—is now no longer the rule. When Mr. Stern ended up in trouble, Page Six “abandoned ship and left him to die,” Mr. Spiegelman said. “He’s been vilified; he’s been made poor. Ruth is working at a fucking factory.”
In the old days—just a few years ago—freebies were common. Mr. Stern described one colleague as “notorious for never paying for a meal.”
“You could have gone through life like that and have eaten a lot of crappy meals,” Mr. Stern said.
Mr. Stern said that “my linen closet is full of towels that say Evian and Nautica and fuck knows. I’ve got enough Kiehl’s to last 10 years. But big deal.” The first time he took a junket for the Post, he wrote a column about it for the paper, published in 2001, saying that freebies were worth about what one paid for them.
Page Six has been heavily remade since Mr. Stern departed. Two other Page Six freelancers were let go shortly after he was terminated; another left at the same time. Mr. Johnson courted more than a dozen prospective replacements before hiring Bill Hofmann from within the Post. Longtime Page Sixer Chris Wilson recently departed for Maxim.
Mr. Stern and Mr. Spiegelman both believe there’s little reason a young reporter would be attracted to work for Page Six. “The fact that they fired that poor bitch who hadn’t even started yet?” Mr. Spiegelman said. “And the bitch who got sanctioned? That’s bullshit. That’s how Page Six works.” The former was Sarah Polonsky, a former National Enquirer reporter, who Radar reported on Sept. 28 had received a free massage and had attempted to receive a free dinner. She was terminated promptly.
The latter was new Page Six hire Corynne Steindler, who was to have a sponsored party at Thom Bar.
It was both astonishing that the paper would reprimand Ms. Steindler for throwing a sponsored party and that Ms. Steindler was so out of touch with the paper’s emotional temperature that she had such an arrangement.
“It makes me sick,” said Mr. Spiegelman of the Post’s new uptightness.
“It was never really easy to find good people,” Mr. Stern said. “But for every Paula Froelich, there were a lot of people who were there for a short time. They couldn’t hack it. Art Buchwald’s daughter!”
Meanwhile, Mr. Stern is spending money to—possibly—make money. “I’m not aiding his financial predicament. But I’m certainly not bankrupting him,” Mr. Tacopina said. “I won’t get into who’s bankrolling his legal fees.”
“It’s not cheap,” said Mr. Stern. “But I’m not going to be poor forever.”
“I’m really, really hoping it’ll open up a great discussion about this whole idea of what are we doing in this society,” Mr. Gompertz said of the forthcoming book, “this feeding frenzy around scandal and celebrity that does dominate print and electronic media.”
“Jared knows everything,” Mr. Spiegelman said.
At the New York Post, “the only thing the writers and editors care about is the 2 percent who are in the Manhattan media,” Mr. Stern said. “Who are writing about us—and they’re reading it at a different level, and they’re under no illusion about people getting free massages and what goes in the column.”
“You have to step back from that world to realize how small it is,” he said.
At quarter past midnight, in the early hours of Oct. 17, Mr. Burkle was at Crobar, where his friend Sean (Diddy) Combs was throwing his first-ever Black Party.
Mr. Burkle was in the V.I.P. section, standing—and occasionally bopping his head to the beats—at a table of several young-model types. Abiding by the dress code, he wore a black polo shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. When asked if he preferred the Black Party to Mr. Combs’ earlier White Party, Mr. Burkle replied, “Oh, this is a totally different thing, but he throws great parties.” He declined to answer any other questions.
—with additional reporting by Spencer Morgan
Judge to Rule on Secret Sources Times Suit: Here We Go Again Whoever We Might Be
The New York Times’ ability to shield confidential sources is under yet another legal challenge. On Oct. 13, attorneys representing Dr. Steven Hatfill filed a motion in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., seeking to compel The Times to identify five sources used by op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.
The motion is part a defamation lawsuit against The Times resulting from Mr. Kristof’s coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Dr. Hatfill was identified as a “person of interest” in the anthrax case by then–Attorney General John Ashcroft in August of 2002.
Earlier in 2002, Mr. Kristof had written a series of columns criticizing the pace of the anthrax investigation and describing—but not naming—a suspect, “Mr. Z.” After Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement, Mr. Kristof wrote that Mr. Z was Dr. Hatfill.
Mr. Kristof “essentially made the accusation that Dr. Hatfill was the anthrax murderer,” said Thomas Connolly, an attorney for Dr. Hatfill.
In a July 2006 deposition, Mr. Kristof declined to identify his sources by name, according to the plaintiff’s memorandum in the case. He provided only basic descriptions: an “anthrax expert,” two F.B.I. employees, a friend of Dr. Hatfill’s and a “scientist.”
“Dr. Hatfill’s ability to question Mr. Kristof’s sources directly is central to establishing the degree of fault The Times bears for publishing the false and defamatory columns about Dr. Hatfill,” reads the plaintiff’s memorandum.
Magistrate Judge Liam O’Grady presided over the 40-minute hearing and is expected to make a ruling this week, according to Mr. Connolly. Mr. O’Grady declined to comment.
The losing side will have 10 days to appeal. The lawsuit itself was dismissed after being filed in 2004, only to be reinstated by a federal appeals court. In March of 2006, the Supreme Court declined to hear The Times’ final appeal of that decision.
The Times is represented by the firm of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz. Attorney David Schultz argued on The Times’ behalf during the hearing, but did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Kristof, who is not personally liable in the case, didn’t return calls for comment.
Follow Choire Sicha via RSS.