The media tree house has been rocking over New York Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern's alleged $220,000 shakedown of supermarket mogul Ron Burkle. The conventional take on the story is that this tells us all we need to know about tabloid ethics and the nastiness of New York's fast lane.
Maybe so. I think this story has more to teach us about ... the Bush White House.
Stay with me here. In the first four days after the gossip scandal broke, The New York Times published 10,000 breathless words about it. News outlets around the world joined in the fun. Here's China's state-owned Xinhua news service: "If there's anything lovelier than reading the dirt in Page Six of New York Post, it's reading the dirt about Page Six itself."
Other than the joy of watching some of our sketchier colleagues plummet, why did the media fall so in love with this scandal?
It's the central-casting details: the scheming dirt-digger; his high-living boss; the fedora; the billionaire obsessed with his own image; the taped sting; the "Skull and Bones" clothing line; and, a few days ago, the de riguer surprise twist: Stern's claim that Burkle initiated the whole thing and thus was the real bad actor.
It's these stock features, the color so familiar you're sure you've seen it before, that make a scandal fly. As every savvy journalist knows, the stories that really get altitude are not the ones that feel truly new, but those that play into the oldest cliches. There's nothing new about gossipmongers on the take, a story line so ancient, it's folkloric. And that's the beauty of it.