BOB GARFIELD: What with plagiarism and fabrication and all, America has seen its share of unscrupulous journalism in recent years, but it's another thing to trade the power of the press for cold, hard cash rare, but not unheard of, as we saw this year when New York Post scribe Jared Hall Stern was caught on tape trying to negotiate a financial deal with billionaire Ronald Burkle.
Burkle had been badly treated by The Post's gossip page and Stern hinted that some well-placed cash could improve the billionaire's press. Stern hasn't been charged, but if he committed blackmail, he didn't pioneer the practice.
As Robert Love recalls in the current issue of The Columbia Journalism Review, Stern has some seedy antecedents, including one Colonel William D'Alton Mann, Civil War soldier, railroad car inventor, gossip hound.
ROBERT LOVE: Colonel Mann was the owner and publisher of a weekly newspapers called Town Topics, based in New York City, which he took over in 1891. And Town Topics was a kind of a gossip paper that chronicled the misdeeds of the Gilded Age robber barons and their families.
He quickly turned it into a must-read. Everybody was dying to know what was going to be published in the next edition of Town Topics. So he became the steward of all of this information, much of it libelous or, at least, embarrassing.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-hah. But therein his great innovation, because he came up with what's called the "blind item," which became a staple in gossip journalism. Tell me how a blind item works.
ROBERT LOVE: Well, a blind item works by printing all of the salacious details of somebody's deed but leaving their name out of it.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
ROBERT LOVE: You know, which benefactor was seen winking at which model behind the scenes at a Democratic fundraiser, or something of the sort.
BOB GARFIELD: And the further refinement of his blind items was that while the subject was anonymous in the item itself, elsewhere in the column some names would show up which were a form of code.
ROBERT LOVE: Well, Colonel Mann, who was an inventor before he was a publisher, invented this little fillip at the end of his blind items where he would actually then identify the person who was involved in the misdeed in a neutral way, but those who were in on the code, and it became clear pretty quickly, would know that old Creighton Webb was having his way with Mrs. Astor.
BOB GARFIELD: But then he figured out that as much value as there was in printing these items, there was even more profit to be had by not printing them.
ROBERT LOVE: And so what he did is he went to some of the wealthiest people in the world Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, August Belmont and he pretty much told them what he had, and he then asked them for money. Under the veil of buying stock in his company, he received the equivalent in today's dollars of millions of dollars from these men and from 50 other assorted, quote, "immunes," as they were known, you know, whose reputations were kept sterling because they paid off Colonel Mann.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's sleazy, but enterprising.
ROBERT LOVE: It sure is.
BOB GARFIELD: The enterprise did not end in the 19th century. It popped up again in the '50s in a magazine called Confidential.
ROBERT LOVE: Tom Wolfe called Confidential the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world, and for a while, it really was. It was the brainchild of a guy named Bob Harrison. He used to employ, you know, unemployed actors and down-and-outs and people from the service sector who had tales about Hollywood, and gathered the dirt on them that way.
And his scheme was to turn sources by revealing things that he knew to them. So for instance, Rock Hudson's marriage, which was a white marriage, as they call it, a marriage that was in name only, because he was gay, he learned about this through a private detective, then took it to the head of the studio and basically turned that head of the studio into a source for Confidential magazine in which another actor's past misdeeds, the unfortunate Rory Calhoun, were suddenly brought to attention in Confidential his, quote, "prison past."
BOB GARFIELD: So even if no money was exchanged, it was still extortion, only the payoff was in information.
ROBERT LOVE: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the next guy holds a very special place in my heart because I grew up in Philadelphia -
ROBERT LOVE: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - and read many of his stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer where he was just the absolute ace investigative reporter. His name was Harry Karafin.
ROBERT LOVE: Harry Karafin, I think you have to understand, was a true prince of the city in Philadelphia. He was able to get access to people at the highest level of government. He could go into municipal offices and riffle the files for material that he was looking for.
So what he did, his operation was to identify people who were about to be, or companies that were about to be hit by police or the defense attorney for fraud, and then he would offer his service to them to keep their names out of the paper or to write glowing articles about them.
BOB GARFIELD: It's amazing. [LAUGHS] But what's nearly as staggering [LAUGHS] is how his scheme was uncovered by another pair of investigative reporters who somehow realized that they weren't getting scooped any more by Harry Karafin and they wondered what was up.
ROBERT LOVE: Right. There were two investigative reporters for Philadelphia magazine, which a very low-budget local magazine at the time, and they kept running into Karafin's trails. And sources would tell them, well, you better not publish this because, you know, Karafin's at a daily and he's going to obviously scoop you guys.
But the stories never appeared, and there was their ah-hah moment. And so began the kind of unraveling of Harry Karafin's six-year run of enriching himself, you know, using the power of Walter Annenberg's Philadelphia Inquirer.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the premise of this piece is that these guys are rare birds. How do we really know that there aren't Harry Karafins lurking in every city in America?
ROBERT LOVE: In the research that I've done, it seemed clear to me that although there is a potential in every journalistic transaction for enrichment for the reporters, it just doesn't happen on this level. I think one has to assume that you would hear about it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that seems like a reasonable answer. Now, I just can tell you for 500 bucks we'll run this interview. For 1,000 bucks, we'll kill it.
ROBERT LOVE: [LAUGHS] That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Robert Love is an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His piece, titled "Shakedown," appears in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.