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

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.