The last gasp of the power of the press

“We know how to destroy people,” Mr. Stern said, according to a person reading a transcript of the meeting. “It’s what we do. We do it without creating liability. That’s our specialty.”

That’s the kicker from today’s New York Times summary of the juicy-as-a-peach gossip scandal at the New York Post’s Page Six: Part-time boldfacer Jared Paul Stern was caught on tape allegedly shaking down billionaire investor Ronald W. Burkle for $100,000 down and $10,000 a month in return for snark-protection from The Post. The arch-rival New York Daily News, the duller tabloid, was overjoyed to break the scandal and today reported that the scam started when Burkle wrote to his friend Rupert Murdoch complaining about nasty coverage from Rupert’s paper. All this has caught the Post in an uncharacteristic pose: with tail between legs. And it has created metagossip about gossip for online Page-Six-wannabe Gawker.com.

But I’ve been wondering what, if anything, is the greater meaning of this episode. And I’ll propose that it’s this: We are witnessing the last growl of the unbridled power of the press. Some in the press would like to think — but would not be stupid enough to brag — that they could “destroy people” for a living. And though they certainly can cause headaches for people in the spotlight, the odds of fatality go down by the day as there are more and more means of response. Now the targets can turn the tables on the journalists. I’ve seen reporters go ballistic when their emails to sources or transcripts of their interviews are published on blogs. Well, tough. What’s good for the goose is now grist for the gander. Accidental billionnaire Mark Cuban is the master of using his blog and email to show how the sausage is made and many more are following his example. Transparency works two ways.

At the same time, journalists are not the great gatekeepers they once were. Flacks are. In the old days, reporters had access to the press and that gave them power no subject could match. But when celebrities discovered the value of their faces to market media, they gained the upper hand. Now, you won’t hear a reporter or columnist threatening to ruin a star. Instead, you’ll hear the star’s publicist threatening to cut off a magazine or show if they don’t obey demands to grant a cover, approve a photo, or select a reporter.

And among big brands, new competitors abound across all media, shrinking the audience and thus the influence of any one outlet. So the Post threatens to destroy you. Well, then, there’s always the News… or a half dozen celebrity shows on broadcast TV… or two dozen celebrity shows on cable… or two thousand celebrity blogs online.

The days of the almighty gossip columnist are simply over — except nobody told hapless Jared Paul Stern that. And the same is true of the almighty journalist — just ask Judith Miller, formerly of The Times. Ditto the almighty columnist or editorialist — just ask the former readers who now write blogs instead.

The Times story would also try to lead you to believe that the age of the payola and favors in journalism is also over: “But gossip columns have always occupied a murky corner in the realm of journalistic standards, which traditionally preclude writers and editors from accepting gifts from those they cover.”

Not so quick. Oh, yes, the gossips always had richer Christmases. I remember seeing cases of booze going in and out of the offices of the big names in Chicago and San Francisco when I worked at papers there. When I (unsuccessfully) competed with one of them, hard-to-bear young show-off that I was, I tried to return a gallon of bourbon to the owner of a local restaurant and press hangout because that was my new-fangled policy, and he acted like I was insane and was trying to insult him. Oh, sure, reputable critics stopped taking junkets and journalists are supposed to refuse gifts. Yet there are other favors to be had: lunch or even better, access to a star or a politician or an event or best of all, a leak. But these favors are used now not to buy the journalist but, instead, to remind him who’s boss.

  • http://www.alistreview.com Diane Ensey

    I anticipate the same “gift-giving” will take place (and does take place) in the blogging community and will continue to grow. While some bloggers disclose “gifts” I have a feeling many more don’t. Payola and favoritism, whether in the news media or in society in general, is eternal. For all those bloggers who disclose or refuse gifts, it makes sense to believe many more don’t.

  • http://www.stephaniesexton.com Stephanie

    Sounds like someone got caught with there hand in the cookie jar, sounds like this movie I just saw on Google video called Loose Change 911 another story about soemone getting caught with there hand in the jar.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    respondeat superior [dictionary.law.com]

    (rehs-pond-dee-at superior) n. Latin for “let the master answer,” a key doctrine in the law of agency, which provides that a principal (employer) is responsible for the actions of his/her/its agent (employee) in the “course of employment.” [...]

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  • Mike G

    What I suspect is the meaning of this is that there’s a lot more of this than we know. To recycle a comment I posted somewhere earlier: Back in the 1940s there was a popular publication called “Charley Jones’ Laugh Book.” Jones was an insurance salesman in Wichita, Kansas who started publishing a small collection of risque jokes and cartoons (the kind that feature a man and an impossibly buxom woman on a desert island wondering what to do with all the time) as a giveaway for his male customers. (Imagine wooing your customers with smut today.) It grew into a national success; somewhere along the way, Jones also started publishing a society newsletter in Wichita (which hardly seemed big enough to have society worth chronicling, but never mind).

    Anyway, it quickly became known that if you didn’t want your nightclub dalliance with your secretary to turn up in there, it was an excellent idea to have your insurance with Charlie. This Stern guy simply didn’t know how to play the game that subtly.

  • Tank

    “We are witnessing the last growl of the unbridled power of the press.”

    Uh…Jeff. You do realize you’re talking about PAGE FREAKING SIX right? That’s all the Post is Jeff. Page Six. And somehow you link their current situation to the “…last growl of the unbridled power of the press”? Why would anyone do that? Take it for what it’s worth. Zippo. Just have fun with this stuff. Yikes man.

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  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Tank:
    Yes and I think Page 6 is an anachronism in terms of its self-identity as a powerhouse.

  • Reader

    You quoted from your blog’s archive:

    “[…] The Times tries to explain — and distance itself from — gossip for its readers this morning, in the wake of the Jared Paul Soprano scandal. Except when you think about it, how much really separates celebrity gossip from Washington coverage? Rumors, blind items, schmoozing, tips, paybacks, grudges, parties, lunches, leaks, hidden agendas, corruption, sex. The only real difference is that politicians aren’t as well-dressed. […]”

    –Absolutely. What are all those little puff pieces and getting-to-know-you stories that often run when a reporter starts a beat or some faceless bureaucrat gets hired but a form of favor, an attempt to buy good will from sources so that they’ll be helpful in the future? I found the predictably Olympian tone that the Times took (“Of course you understand, Ladies and Gentlemen, these aren’t *real* journalists; they resemble us in no way.”) misplaced. But what else is new?

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  • http://www.powerwriting.com Susanna K. Hutcheson

    While there may be some changes in the world of journalism, I think journalists will always have a unique power. As to people’s e-mail showing up on Web sites, don’t people know that the writer of an e-mail owns the copyright and to publish or even forward an e-mail without permission is a violation of copyright law? How Drudge gets aways with it is beyond me. But people in the media take a lot of abuse as well as dish it out. Politicians and others use the media daily for their own ends. Each needs the other. Each feeds off the other.

    Susanna’s Online Magazine

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  • Mike

    Check out markcubanrocks.com ,dont think youll it….

  • http://www.marketerslife.com Zelimir Graf

    I absolutely agree, journalist don`t have the power they used to have. This is absolutely good news, since the concentration of power in some press companies has become a threat. Development of other media such as internet really brought home the point that no one can be shushed, and the world is really getting smaller and smaller by the day. It`s getting harder and harder to keep secrets, and journalists have to face that they are no more the sole opinion makers.

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