In the summer of 2005, Richard Johnson, the editor of the New York Post’s feared Page Six column, was having trouble getting a new passport to fly out to a party being hosted by Sean (P. Diddy) Combs in Saint-Tropez.
So he did what any citizen would do: He made a direct appeal to the office of junior New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
“Richard Johnson found the bureaucracy delaying his passport, and he appealed to Clinton’s staff for help, as any constituent would,” said Howard Rubenstein, who is a spokesman for the Post. “And he secured, in a legal and proper way, a passport that he was entitled to.
“There were no favors,” Mr. Rubenstein added.
(“While we’re very proud of our constituent services, we don’t comment on individual cases,” said Philippe Reines, a spokesman for Senator Clinton.)
The question of favors has been a big one lately at Page Six. Last week, the column pre-empted one of its former employees, Jared Paul Stern, in his efforts to make public a series of accusations about ethical lapses among the column’s staff, by printing an item themselves outlining all of the accusations.
They got hold of those accusations—which include the charge that Page Six stories deemed unflattering to Bill and Hillary Clinton were regularly killed at the newspaper—when Mr. Stern’s lawyer sent an unsworn affidavit provided by another former Post staffer, Ian Spiegelman, to their publisher.
Mr. Stern had been threatening to sue the New York Post for wrongful dismissal; last year, the freelance reporter was accused of attempting to extort money from billionaire Ron Burkle in exchange for “protection” in the column. The accusation sparked a criminal investigation, but no charges were filed against Mr. Stern. The affidavit was meant to put some muscle behind the lawsuit threat, and presumably provoke a settlement.
The part of the affidavit that concerns the former President and First Lady—and which Page Six printed in May 18 editions of the Post—is vague.
“Politicians such as Hillary Clinton and others in a position to grant Murdoch and News Corp. valuable concessions and favors were … fellated in print,” the affidavit reads in part. And, later: “Page Six was ordered to kill unflattering stories about Hillary and Bill Clinton on numerous occasions.”
Mr. Spiegelman confessed that he was unable to recall any particular story about Bill or Hillary Clinton that had been killed.
“I’m not a one-man database on what stories got killed when,” he told The Observer.
But speaking to The Observer on May 22 , Jared Paul Stern was less vague.
In the summer of 2005, he said, he was preparing to bust the publication date on Edward Klein’s then-forthcoming Hillary Clinton tell-all book, The Truth About Hillary.
“We had heard that there was some pretty juicy stuff in there; we had heard that he had gone into the lesbian kind of thing and that stuff,” Mr. Stern recalled.
But, he said, after Mr. Johnson emerged from a daily 11 a.m. editorial meeting, he told Mr. Stern that he had been ordered to kill the story.
“So, basically, what we ended up doing is reconfiguring the story and working with Hillary Clinton’s people on this, and the story we ended up printing was that Ed Klein had done a sloppy hatchet job,” Mr. Stern said.
“This book was attacked by critics as reckless and having unsubstantiated claims,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “Richard Johnson did not want to carry something that was unsubstantiated and could very well be considered libelous. He constantly edits and rewrites people’s copy. He did what was appropriate. Johnson wanted to do something that was appropriate.”
If that’s true, said Mr. Stern, it would be a reversal of a common practice at the column.
“That happened frequently on all kinds of topics,” Mr. Stern claimed. “You know, tell-all books are a big Page Six staple, and we try to get them in advance, and we try to run down all the juicy stuff.
And the item did attract a lot of attention, because it appeared in the paper just as Manhattan media circles had started to detect a détente in the relations between the New York Post and Mrs. Clinton’s then-hot 2006 Senate campaign.
“The Page Six trashing of Ed Klein’s wretched little piece of sewage was a very interesting article,” Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton aide and author, told The Observer shortly after that item was published. “We won’t know for a while whether or not it was assigned, but it appears that [Page Six] sought the story.”
It was remarkable to liberal media watchdogs precisely because it seemed to be such a sea change.
The liberal journalist Michael Tomasky had, during Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, tallied 212 “negative” stories about Mrs. Clinton in the Post, against a mere seven “positive” stories and 17 that he judged “neutral.”
But during the first few years of Mrs. Clinton’s Senate career, that seemed to change.
“I don’t exactly know what happened with the Clintons,” said Mr. Spiegelman. “It was way before Rupert ever had a fund-raiser with the Clintons. One day, the Clintons are our friends now.”
“[Bill] Clinton definitely was out and about, and it didn’t get reported in Page Six,” said former Page Six reporter Fernando Gil of the column’s treatment of the Clintons in the years following Mrs. Clinton’s successful Senate campaign. “You can probably draw your own conclusions.”
It was shortly before Mr. Gil arrived at Page Six, in early 2003, that Rupert Murdoch gave Bill Clinton a tour of the New York Post’s newsroom.
Along the way, Mr. Clinton stopped by the Page Sixer’s pod and hammed it up with the staffers, a group that included Richard Johnson, Chris Wilson, Jared Paul Stern and Paula Froehlich, according to two sources who witnessed the visit.
Nearby, a photograph of Monica Lewinsky from a framed cover of the New York Post hung on the wall. Mr. Clinton ignored it. As he was leaving, Richard Johnson tried to hand the President a lad magazine with a scantily clad starlet on the cover as a parting gift. The President declined. Instead, he left with a copy of The Week.
These and other stories about the unlikely friendship between the Clintons and the Post—like the one about Mr. Johnson’s passport—started to interest Mr. Stern’s lawyer, Larry Klayman. And this newest entry in the literature began when Mr. Spiegelman was contacted by Mr. Stern’s lawyer, Larry Klayman, on May 8.
“He asked if I noticed anything with the Clintons,” said Mr. Spiegelman.
Mr. Klayman’s focus on the Clintons isn’t surprising given his work with Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group that became famous when it filed 18 lawsuits against the Clinton administration during the 1990’s.
After Mr. Spiegelman’s hour-long phone interview with Mr. Klayman, he was sent a copy of the affidavit, written by the lawyer. Two days later, Mr. Spiegelman spoke to Mr. Stern about it and faxed in his corrections.
“I was fine with the thing with the Clintons being vague,” said Mr. Spiegelman. “If there is a lawsuit, it better have more than just me. I wouldn’t even show up.”