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Gossip at the New York Times, Above and Below the Fold

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It's been a week since the Page Six scandal broke, wherein longtime contributor Jared Paul Stern was accused by billionaire Ron Burkle of trying to extort over $220,000 out of him, allegedly for "protection" against negative coverage. Burkle -- conveniently -- gave the scoop to the Post's arch-rival, The New York Daily News, which has been delighting in the coverage ever since. That's not surprising, but what has been is the response from the New York Times: first, in its blanket coverage of the story out of the gate, and second, in the sudden and inexplicable axing of the Times' own closest-thing-they-had-to-a-gossip-column, "Boldface" (sometimes known as "Boldface Names").

Page Six, Above The Fold.JPGThe main drama has swirled around Stern, who claims he was set up (and who gives ridiculously good soundbite), but the story has legs that have sprouted in all sorts of places. For New York media watchers, this included the zone-flooding coverage by the NYT, launched with a blitz last week that featured ten stories by twelve writers*, a handy flowchart, and last weekend's front-page above-the-fold photo collage of all the players featuring no less than six photos of Stern (said Stern to the Globe & Mail: "I do take a good photo, but I don't think there's ever been six photos of President Bush above the fold").

Why should this be a surprise? Page Six is a New York institution, after all, and this is a New York story. Why shouldn't the New York Times cover it? Well, no reason, really, except that they typically don't. Tabloid fodder doesn't usually get play in the New York Times: witness last fall's dramatic manhunt for Peter Braunstein, the so-called "fire fiend" who set a fire on Hallowe'en in order to gain access to a woman's apartment dressed as a firefighter. The story kept screamed off the front pages of the New York Post and the New York Daily News for weeks, from the Hallowe'en assault to Braunstein's late-December capture, clocking 80 articles in the Daily News and 77 in the New York Post. Number of mentions in the New York Times: 3. Last month, another media scandal -- the discovery that a juicy Village Voice cover story by a young staffer, Nick Sylvester, had been partially fabricated, and the subsequent firing of Sylvester and editor Doug Simmons -- was relegated to a single AP story.

Going after the story hard was the only way the New York Times could really be involved; it wasn't part of any bloody tabloid turf wars because, well, it wasn't a tab, and this wasn't its battle. It was a battle worth reporting on, true -- the Post and the Daily News love to hate each other, and delight in one's editorial shoe fetish and the other's front-page gaffe (the recent defection of a high-level Daily News exec to the Post was somewhat akin to Johnny Damon going from the Red Sox to the Yankees). But this was a juicy story uncovering a shocking across-the-board lapse in journalistic ethics at a top media target -- a "murder at a good address."

It was a murder at another good address -- no Jayson Blair, no Judy Miller, no eyebrow-raising delays over damning national security stories. For the Times, it meant an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to journalistic ethics in the form of hard reporting and close scrutiny, uncovering the seamy side of the gossip industry. Interestingly, one of the Page Six scandal's lead reporters -- who authored both background articles on the gossip industry -- has been the NYT's own gossip columnist, Campbell Robertson. At least until yesterday, when the column was officially retired.

Now, these two things are not necessarily connected: Robertson's defection from the column was announced back in December (and full dislosure, I not only did that announcing but am on record as being a huge Boldface fan), and no replacement had since been announced. The death of the column itself, though, is a surprise; I called it "inexplicable" above and that's because there has been no expliquing to splique of. All NYT executive editor Bill Keller said was that it had reached "a natural end" (because, you know, there's no audience for stuff about celebrities in this country). He also said elsewhere that the Page Six scandal offered a look into "the wild, lucrative, logrolling world of gossip journalism," which suggests that it's a world with which the Times no longer wants to sully its hands. If that is the case, it's an irony, and a sad one, because Boldface isn't about chasing the story and breaking seamy news, but is rather an arch, witty celebs-about-town column. No one would ever mistake it for Page Six -- which must be a source of either pride or pique to the New York Times right now (probably a bit of both). On the one hand Boldface doesn't threaten journalistic standards in the slightest; on the other hand, it doesn't threaten Page Six in the slightest, either (except insofar as they've got Campbell Robertson writing hard-hitting news articles with titles like "Game of Gossip Is Played With Favors and Tips").

Why did the New York Times kill Boldface? Perhaps because it had reached that natural end, or perhaps because this was a good time to make a symbolic gesture: the New York Times is about more than celebrity fluff, dammit, and is certainly above the tawdry methods used to get it. It's a way of saying yeah, that murder might have happened at a good address, but it's not anywhere we'd want to live. At times like these, though, it sure is a nice place to visit.

*They are, in no particular order: Marc Santora, Campbell Robertson, Julie Bosman, Jennifer 8. Lee, Bill Marsh, Richard Siklos, Allison Hope Weiner, Anthony Ramierez, William K. Rashbaum, David M. Halbfinger, James Barron and Sam Roberts.