Where’s Harry Karafin Now That We Need Him?

Jared Paul Stern's alleged attempt to shake down billionaire Ronald Burkle reminds us of nothing so much as the story of former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Harry Karafin.

The sharp pinstripe suits. The perfectly styled hair. The smug, self-satisfied expression. Even the name — Jared Paul Stern — seems designed for a dandy of the most annoying kind. And now, a guy most of us had never even heard of has become the centerpiece of the Media Scandal du Jour.

Stern, as we discovered Friday, is a contract writer for the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, and the target of an FBI sting which involves videotape of him allegedly trying to shake down billionaire Ronald W. Burkle: Cough up $220,000 a year, and end your worries about any negative items about yourself.

Stern told ABC News yesterday that his “main interest” in speaking to Burkle wasn’t to shake him down for a bribe, but to get him to invest in Stern’s clothing line, Skull & Bones — as if that would get him off the hook. That’s an exceedingly lame excuse, and one that indicates that Stern is so deep in the “ethics-free zone” that is gossip writing that he’s lost any compass he once might have had. Anyone who spends any time even near a newsroom should realize that trying to hustle a source or a news subject into investing in a reporter’s outside business venture is wayyyy off-limits - something akin to extortion with a thin cover story.

But, as the New York Times pointed out today, the world of gossip columns is one with murky ethical boundaries (if any), as exemplified by Page Six editor Richard Johnson himself. Johnson, the Times revealed, has “been flown first class and put up free of charge in luxury hotels by companies, all while covering events for the column; he is also a regular columnist for a magazine whose publisher shows up repeatedly in Page Six and whose publishing company is often mentioned. Mr. Johnson’s son has been hired by at least one figure whose name has appeared in the column, and his former wife runs a public relations firm with clients who have also appeared on the page. His new wife, Sessa von Richthofen, was hired as an administrative assistant to Christine Taylor, who has shown up quite a bit this year in Page Six as a spokeswoman explaining and clarifying the actions of her boss, Ronald O. Perelman, the chairman of Revlon …”

The New York Daily News also got in its shots, reporting that “Johnson also got a free trip to the Academy Awards last month, paid for by ABC and Mercedes-Benz. The trip included first-class airfare, a three-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel and a car and driver.” So it seems that while Stern has a lot of explaining to do (and a bundle in legal fees to pay), he was working from a script written by the greased palms of his boss.

Unsurprisingly, the Daily News, which is engaged in a tabloid fight-to-the-death with the Post, has been having a field day with the story, writing this morning that “those familiar” with Page Six “painted a picture of an out-of-control institution where lavish gifts are routinely bestowed on columnist Richard Johnson and his staffers.”

And then there’s the schadenfreude displayed by the Grey Lady herself, who — perhaps happy not to be the New York newspaper in the eye of the storm, for once — has run no less than 10 stories about the scandal since last Friday, including a Week in Review info-graphic and a Sunday page one color display worthy of Star itself.

Is any of this earth-shattering news? Hardly. Is it another black eye for journalistic ethics? Maybe, but only to people who think gossip columnists have a set of ethics to violate in the first place.

But to us, let us confess, it’s almost a breath of fresh air — a welcome change from furrowed-browed pundits tugging on their beards and declaiming on “the death of journalism as we know it,” or “the future of whatever replaces it.”

For this is an episode that is entirely a descendant of journalism’s sordid, romantic, sleazy past, something worthy of the wacky tabloid ways and wars of the 1950s or even the 1920s. In fact, the whole slimy affair reminds us of nothing so much as the story of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s notorious investigative reporter Harry Karafin, who in the late 1950s and early ’60s “found it more profitable to suppress stories than to write them,” according to the history of the Inquirer. Karafin would approach subjects and let them know that he would hate to make public the dirt that he had on them — and that to keep this from happening, he would act as a kind of PR agent, all for a monthly fee. Karafin was considerably slicker at it than the hapless Stern appears to have been, however; he got away with it for nearly eight years before another journalist, a writer for Philadelphia magazine, finally called him on it. He was eventually convicted of extortion in 1968 and sent to prison, where he died in 1973.

It will be interesting to see if a similar fate awaits Stern. Or if, instead, his reward will be more in keeping with the times in which we live — say, a lucrative contract, complete with movie rights, to write a smarmy “tell-all” book, which will purport to lay bare the world of tabloid mud-slinging and the various snipers and bottom-dwellers who thrive within.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.