Is Page Six Really All that Different?

The Page Six scandal appears to be journalistic corruption in its rawest form. But what about the smaller temptations reporters face every day?

In his always engaging column yesterday, David Carr of the New York Times presented his take on the Page Six scandal that erupted two weeks ago, arguing that we shouldn’t ignore the real power and influence that the gossip column continues to have.

There is more to Page Six than just making or breaking celebrities. As Carr puts it, “Beneath its gossamer skin of celebrity sightings and innuendo, Page Six occupies a significant coordinate in the business cosmology of New York City. Scores are kept and settled on the page, deals are floated and brands, both personal and corporate, are forged and melted down.”

The column goes on to quote mogul after mogul claiming that one quick mention of a fancy apartment complex, a four-star restaurant or an editor who might be migrating from one magazine to another can create more buzz than “any number of deeply reported articles in more sober newspapers.”

Barbara Corcoran, a former real estate tycoon, tells Carr: “I would say it could do more for a business brand than a lengthy business article anytime, because it’s memorable. I think the power of it is, it’s a tiny sound bite.”

That, and people eat it up hungrily every day — while the business pages still only appeal to a self-selecting bunch of suits.

The bigger point that Carr seems to be making is that what Page Six amounts to is a lot of unbridled power, the ability to move millions with no accountability, no oversight, and no particular scruples.

Because the industries that fall into Page Six’s crosshairs are so dependent on generating buzz — real estate, fashion, publishing — they need the Page more than the Page needs them. This creates an extreme imbalance of power that the right (or wrong) person can easily exploit. This power might be used to get a free dinner or a night at a ritzy hotel, or it might be used to put $200,000 in one’s pocket. Either way, it seems important to confront the fact that this power exists and is extremely corruptible.

But why stop at Page Six? There are plenty of articles in the business sections of the most prominent outlets that seem suspicious to us — that cross that thin line that separates news from promotion and cause us to frantically scan to the bottom of the page in search of the small print that will surely describe the baloney we are reading as an advertorial.

According to Carr, the only component of business apparently immune to Page Six buzz is the stock market. After interviewing more than a dozen Wall Street bankers and PR executives, he comes to the conclusion that “Page Six has little bearing on what a stock is worth or what companies are in play.”

This is, in fact, surprising, given the popularity of the page with the day-trading crowd on Wall Street. We suggest that Carr could have found a more precise answer to his question by checking to see whether companies’ stock prices actually did or did not move after receiving Page Six honors.

As it were, this “ten people said it, therefore it’s true” style of reporting is one reason why it is possible to imagine that there is a genetic predisposition towards corruption lurking not only in Page Six and its ilk, but also in the pages of our most prestigious broadsheets. Reporters face an endless stream of companies and money managers hitting them up for promotional stories about their products, whether it might be a new model of car or a favorite stock. Many business people cling for their life to the business pages, groping and grappling to get a story published about them or their goods and how they are hot, hot, hot.

Is it impossible to believe that even prestigious business reporters might occasionally succumb to temptation? If the idea of big-name journalists accepting cash is beyond imagining, what about the notion of a reporter — even a star reporter — looking to gain favor by, say, interviewing only the ten people likely to say something good about some wealthy or powerful individual?

Any time the ability to either curse or caress a business venture is in the hands of reporters, they are playing with an inestimable amount of power. We wonder: who’s watching these kingmakers? And is it too much to ask them to watch themselves?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.