Russian spies: They’re just like us!

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Today's tabloids, June 29, 2010. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

The New York Post: 'RED' HEAD: Get it? In case you didn't get the double entendre intended by the word "Red," the scare quotes around the word should tell you the Post wants to point out both that a woman living under the name Anna Chapman was working for Russia as a spy, and that she has red hair. "Manhattan beauty among 10 busted as feds smash NY Russian 'spy ring,'" reads the deck. She's dubbed a "007-worthy beauty" in the lead sentence of the piece (which, judge for yourself), and is credited with having both a "fancy Financial District apartment and a Victoria's Secret" body. But Anna's secret wasn't her underwear! OK, no, the Post didn't write that next.

It's a little hard to tell today how anyone wants to play the story of the American network of Russian spies busted yesterday when Chapman decided her cover had been blown by an FBI agent posing undercover as a handler; she went to a cell phone store in Brooklyn and was observed obtaining a quickie phone under the name Irine Kutsov and the address "99 Fake Street." (Classic tradecraft!) Though the Post doesn't link this transaction with the U.S. decision to close in on the network, which they've been observing for years—for that you have to see the Daily News.

It seems pretty clear the spies didn't get much of interest. As a friend of a few "former Legislative Counsels for members of the House," some of them even well-connected, I have a hard time believing that such a target—which apparently garnered applause in Moscow—could tell the Russians much that they couldn't have found out by reading The New York Times every day. But does the spy ring have to have been successful for the story of its dissolution to be interesting? Maybe it just has to have a whiff of intrigue! That's really what all the newspapers are selling: a palimpsest world of spies planting hydrangeas in Montclair and meeting up at the LIRR station in Forest Hills, Queens.

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Some of us are old enough to remember a few of these events from the 1970's, when the Cold War was reaching its rangy adolescence. It never seemed to mean much—the stories kind of passed over after a few days. So let's enjoy today. By tomorrow, the Post will have decided to focus on how bad this network really was.

Daily News: "MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON." Of course! Let's make a pun on a 1984 movie starring Robin Williams and Maria Conchita Alonso about Russians who defect to the U.S.! It's a story that has some sex, some suburban hedge-peeping mystique, some tricksy tradecraft, but no reason to play any of that up! On the other hand, the News is fortunate it did not go with the "Pretty bombshell is surprisingly a Russian spy" angle, because their picture of Chapman—much more of a glamor shot than the one that fronts the Post today—makes her look like, well, a Russian spy from a bad movie. Comparing the stories, the News decides to actually tell a story instead of throw up a bunch of fun stuff from yesterday's hearing.

Observations: Today's News gives us a snoozy coverline, but a better story inside: how and why the ring actually finally got busted. On the other hand, one of my favorite details from the papers is glossed over in the News. Code for identifying fellow travelers was a typical question-and-answer cover. In the News the instructions are to say "Excuse me, but did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?" Whereas in the Post it's switched up: "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?" the spy calling himself Richard Murphy was told to ask a contact. If the contact were legitimate the response would be, "Yes, indeed I was in La Valetta, but in 2000." Oh, that all sounds very American: there's no way that could have come from Moscow Center!

Winner: The New York Post.