Jared Paul Stern, a former contributor to the New York Post gossip column Page Six, is baring his teeth at his enemies.
Or his lawyer, Joe Tacopina, is.
On Jan. 23, Mr. Tacopina issued a statement saying that he’d gotten a call about his client from the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Mr. Stern was widely rumored to be under investigation for extortion after an April 7, 2006, article in the Daily News reported that he had asked billionaire Ron Burkle for nearly a quarter of a million dollars in return for favorable coverage in the Post.
Last week, Jared Paul Stern quietly, anticlimactically got word that he was not going to be charged with a crime by the Department of Justice.
“That’s news to me,” said a spokesman for Ron Burkle on the afternoon of Jan. 23, before an item on the Associated Press newswire reported that the investigation had been dropped, citing “an individual familiar with the federal investigation.”
Well, then. Was Mr. Stern relieved?
“I’m still unemployed and all that,” Mr. Stern told The Observer. “Obviously, it’s a weight off. Ding-dong, the witch is dead.”
Would there be celebrations?
“I haven’t planned a party,” Mr. Stern said on Jan. 23. “I planned a lawsuit.”
“I have been informed by the U.S. Attorney’s office that they are not proceeding with any case against Mr. Stern,” Mr. Tacopina’s statement read in part. “Mr. Stern will shortly be filing major civil suits against Burkle and others who have defamed, libeled and slandered him, and who continue to do so.”
Of course, the only place anyone had ever directly accused Mr. Stern of a shakedown was in the pages of the Daily News. And despite several reports, it’s not clear that any criminal investigation into Mr. Stern’s behavior ever got off the ground.
“We have to stick to our office policy, in which we do not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Rebekah Carmichael, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office public-information desk.
But if there were no investigation, could the office then not deny it did not exist?
“We can’t comment on this at all,” she said.
But, but ….
“The thing really to say is that—if you want a statement from us—is that we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,” she said.
Why does it matter whether there was an investigation or not?
The New York Post decided not to continue working with Mr. Stern, a long-time freelancer and Page Six contributor, on April 21, 2006. The Post’s editor, Col Allan, said at the time that Mr. Stern “has been suspended pending the outcome of the federal investigation.”
But if there’s no investigation, then pending what outcome?
Does Mr. Stern get his job back?
“We are not commenting on employment matters,” Steven Rubenstein, who represents the Post, told The Observer.
Representatives for Mr. Burkle e-mailed a statement to The Observer which didn’t seem to clear something up: There has been an investigation, at least, wrote Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Mr. Burkle.
“The facts speak very clearly for themselves, as media reports on the contents of the tapes have demonstrated,” he wrote.
“Mr. Burkle followed the government’s instructions from the onset: From their directive that he record and they monitor the second meeting Mr. Stern had with him—where Mr. Stern repeated his request that Mr. Burkle pay him $100,000 up front and thereafter $10,000 monthly in exchange for Mr. Stern’s ‘efforts’ to stop the publication of false reports about Mr. Burkle on Page Six of the New York Post—to the government’s subsequent monitoring of a series of e-mails with Mr. Stern, in which Mr. Burkle was given bank account information for wiring money to Mr. Stern—to now,” the e-mail further read.
“Mr. Burkle didn’t question their decisions previously and he isn’t going to start doing so now.”
That’s complicated enough. But it seems the difference between a federal investigation and an arrest or a conviction has flummoxed reporters before.
On Dec. 29, the Los Angeles Times reported: “In March, Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle helped the FBI in a sting that resulted in the arrest of writer Jared Paul Stern.”
A correction ran on Jan. 10; Mr. Stern, it read, “has not been charged or arrested.”
On Dec. 31 in The New York Times, Alan Feuer wrote in a flowery the-year-that-was piece: “A much more common ailment—avarice—was in the news in April when federal authorities announced they were investigating Jared Paul Stern.”
“No charges have been filed in the case,” the report continued, “in which investigators say that Mr. Stern tried to blackmail Ronald W. Burkle, the supermarket magnate.”
On Jan. 5, The New York Times ran a long correction, noting that investigation was reported by the New York Post—oh?—and never announced by any federal investigator.
They noted as well that the allegations that Mr. Stern demanded payment from Mr. Burkle were made by Mr. Burkle, not the “federal authorities.”
“If you did read all that, you’d think I was charged with extortion,” Mr. Stern said. “The cumulative effect of all that biased reporting! Even their own reporters came away with that impression. It just wasn’t true. I know as well as anyone that a little correction does not offset the effect of stories like that. In my book”—Mr. Stern has finished the first draft of his book, to be published later this year, and is currently in revisions—“I use the example of: someone slits your throat and offers you a styptic pencil. That’s what it was.”
Well, all newspapers make mistakes—tabloid, broadsheet, tabloid, whatever.
“You know, I have to say, though—that last Times correction? We don’t ever make a mistake like that,” Mr. Stern said, speaking about Page Six. “They might say someone was at Spa or Marquee when they weren’t—but legal situations? That is handled by editors who actually either know what’s accurate or check.”
But Mr. Stern seems less steamed at The New York Times than at Mr. Burkle. Certainly Mr. Tacopina’s recent press tour is the opening salvo in a courtroom dance with the Friend of Bill.
If so, prepare for a mess.
“There’s two things that make them difficult,” said David Schulz of defamation cases. He is a partner at Levine, Sullivan, Koch $ Schulz with a great deal of experience in libel and newsgathering-related law. “One is that the claim of damage is a loss of reputation, which means the plaintiff’s reputation is the issue in the case. So you open a can of worms, or open yourself to inquiry about your reputation.”
For instance, one of the first items requested in the discovery period will surely be the videos of the encounters between Mr. Burkle and Mr. Stern. After that come the e-mails, the letters, the phone-message pads, the voicemails, and on and on.
The other difficulty is Mr. Stern’s burden as the plaintiff. “You have to show that the author, the defendant, published something false with knowledge that it was false, or was so reckless that it was tantamount to false,” Mr. Schulz said.
Don’t defamation cases drag endlessly—and then drag on further in endless appeal? Not always. “There are often cases that are won quickly—by the defendant,” he said.
Be that as it may.
“So, obviously,” Mr. Stern said, “whatever legal action we can take will hopefully make some kind of repairs. It wasn’t like a minor thing. It’s not that easy to erase. It was a long 10 months. And it’s not over till the fat billionaire sings.”
Perhaps he will! Mr. Burkle, in cooperation with Eli Broad, currently has an outstanding bid for what the Los Angeles Times called a “large and potentially controlling stake” in the Tribune Company—which owns the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and media outlets.
Unless Mr. Stern’s former boss, Rupert Murdoch—said to be in cahoots with the Chandler family—gets it first.