What we’re seeing is the kind of pitch that PR men and women make every day in the Big Apple and elsewhere. The only difference is that Stern, by playing on both teams, engaged in a nasty conflict of interest that should get him fired, but not indicted.

To anyone experienced in criminal law, it is all too obvious what was going on here: Burkle was instructed to try to put certain words into the target’s mouth. Just as obviously, the sting failed: Stern resisted the bait and stuck to his proposal rather than adopt Burkle’s suggestion of a “protection” arrangement. The real story here is the collaboration of the businessman, his private henchmen, and their federal prosecutor and FBI allies to try to set up a sleazy but not criminal gossip columnist for a federal bust. They failed to euchre Stern, but they seem to have succeeded with the Times. Whether the feds decide to bring criminal charges will likely depend on whether they feel they can spin the encounters much as Burkle’s team spun the scenario to the Times. It would not be easy to find a jury of 12 ordinary citizens as gullible as the Times’ editors.

Why, then, the leaks from the investigative camp? The likely aim was to put sufficient pressure on a ruined Stern to force him into a plea bargain so that a court would never be asked to rule on whether the tapes show an extortion or simply a sleazy gossip columnist making a fool of himself. For another thing, the ruse would likely scare other columnists away from reporting on Burkle’s activities. I’m betting that if Stern holds firm and makes clear that he would go to trial rather than cop a plea, the feds would back off.

The kindness of strangers
It would be tempting to be less harsh about the Times were it not for a slew of recent stories in which the paper, gulled by government leaks, did more to manipulate readers than to inform them. Consider the Wen Ho Lee fiasco, in which the Times fueled speculation by declaring that the Los Alamos scientist had given the Chinese nuclear secrets and that the Clinton administration could have, but chose not to, stop him. The only problem, as Eric Boehlert noted on Salon, was that the Times “reporters relied on slim evidence, quick conclusions and loyalty to sources with an ax to grind.” Despite the Times’ sensationalized coverage, Lee ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of improperly downloading classified material — a far cry from the original 59 charges.

Or the Times’ coverage of the Enron scandal. After reading it, one would never know there is a genuine debate over whether the techniques used by Enron to enhance its bottom line were criminally fraudulent tactics or legal-accounting gambits that stretched but did not break the law.

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