8:14 am Oct. 29, 2010
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?
Daily News: I love Joanna Molloy. Not only do I often hear what a nice lady she is, but she's the sort of old-school, dyed-in-the-wool tabloid columnist-reporter that used to give gossip a good name. Of course, trying to get an angle on a big story tied to Charlie Sheen's flip-out at the Plaza Hotel during a—gosh, date?—with "Capri Anderson," she's up against people willing to throw a bunch of crap at the internet to see what sticks. This is sometimes dignified with the name "iterative reporting" but it also results in lots of lawyers' fees and web posts that begin with the word "UPDATED:" followed by some form of "The following item is not true." So whether "Capri Anderson" is a call girl who meant to charge Charlie Sheen $12,000 to sleep with him, resulting in his freakout, or whether initial reports are correct that a Sheen thought he'd lost his watch and wallet and tore the room apart looking for it, Molloy still has to print something today based on her reporting with established madams (including Kristin Davis, gubernatorial candidate!) and anonymous hotel concierges and escort-agency bookers to determine how prevalent high-end hotel paid-sex bookings really are. We don't really get an answer, but we get some nice color.
Escort agencies typically tip out hotel concierges for identifying aspiring customers from the 30-40 percent take they get out of the call girl's fee; that fee can range from the mid-hundreds for a session to $2,500 and up (but, to get those kinds of fees you also have to do porn, which despite what most people say is a notoriously underpaid profession). While it's a neat feat Molloy pulls off here, it's the wrong Sheen story for the cover. Why? Just look at how carefully they have to sell the piece not to drag Molloy down into the back-and-forth of the celebrity blogosphere: "Hooker or no, Sheen case highlights oldest profession." If Molloy had decided to write this piece without a hook, say two months from now, it would look like enterprise reporting. As it is today, her piece has to make apologies for writing a story about hookers when, in fact, "Capri Anderson" cannot be called a hooker definitively in their newspaper.
The main hed, "INSIDE SEX RACKET," is plastered over a rear view of a pair of fishnetted legs, through which, across a glossy white floor that makes it look as though the picture were shot in a hotel's kitchen rather than one of its luxury suites, there is the suggestion of a man in a tuxedo leaning against a doorframe waiting for his paid date. That's part two of why the Molloy piece is a bad sale today: anonymous stock photography, especially without any faces pictured, does not move papers the way the face of a real person does.
But wait, there's also a thin strip, shorter in fact than the Lotto Mega Millions Jackpot strip ad at the bottom of the page, that you won't notice: It refers to a plan by the Parks Department to replace sections of the Coney Island boardwalk with concrete; inside, the story is billed as an exclusive. While I don't doubt that the other big city papers probably did not bother to send someone to the Community Board 13 meeting at which the controversy erupted, I find it hard to believe that some of the community weeklies didn't turn up. (Though I have been to them and would protest that assignment myself, to be honest.)
Nevertheless it's not billed as an exclusive on the front page. I'm not sure what the News thinks it gets out of putting this on the cover: the story should go big or go home, when it's up against Charlie Sheen hooker hotel rampage, no? Seems like a loss of conviction at press time, either to go all the way with Molloy or split the page. If you mistake the Coney Island cover treatment for an advertisement you will probably be joined by most people looking at the paper on the newsstand.
The New York Post: "Capri Anderson" takes up most of the top of the page here today, complete with porn-pout, finger on the lip ("I've been a very naughty girl!"), in a red brassiere and her hair done up in a way that says PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. But since it's essentially ripped from a porn advertisement on one of "Capri Anderson's" several websites, I'm not sure what else you'd expect. The blue background layered underneath her silho pops both her and the white text, sized with unusual sobriety for the Post, that reads "Double life of Charlie's 'Angel.'" They really don't want to let that joke go, do they! There's no more text here, so just what her double life consists of requires a bit of peeking. I'm sure the Post doesn't mind, even if your news agent does. In fact when you get there, you realize that the cover treatment is a colossal undersell. Working shoe-leather in the Norwood section of the Bronx and the phone to talk to West Coast porn-industry types with names like "Flowers," the reporters got a pretty full picture of the life of Christina Walsh. Her Corker father, a doorman with a Yorkie terrier-breeding business on the side, had four daughters of whom Christina is the youngest. Everyone likes her, from the Bronx neighbors who watched her and her three sisters grow up to the producers who talk about her jollity on the set of the mostly lesbian-themed porno movies she makes. (The Post is very good at getting as many great titles into the article as they can; even better at describing some of the movies without writing anything actually obscene into their copy.) The image is of a hardworking porn actress, with some of the problems that accompany that profession, who is close with her family and prolific in her work, and has managed the balance of keeping her work away from her family and her family out of her very public life. That's all over now, thanks to Charlie Sheen. Dad's heartbroken, and what's more, her porn career is probably ruined unless she wants to continue it as a celebrity with no remaining private life. It's not really a profile; it's too shallow for that. But it's the only kind of reporting worth doing on this story, really, isn't it? It's a neat feat to titillate without resorting to dirty tricks, not that the Post has never resorted to those. But perhaps more than anything this story and its undersell on the cover (where are the "EXCLUSIVE!" banners? the bullet pointed details? the "heartbroken" father and "adoring" porn-industry insiders?) actually show how the Post squanders its real value by so frequently fronting rehashed reports from last night's Internet on the front page. Now, we have no reason to suspect that the Post would actually report by itself on Christina Walsh, unless they tell us on the cover.
The undersell is made even more egregious by the fact that the paper forces Walsh to share space with … a story about the midterm election tied to a poll released yesterday. What's worse, it's one that, as our readers know, probably applies very marginally to New York. "RILED UP!" reads the huge black text, stealing the pornstar's thunder. "Most voters want to boot ALL sitting pols." But, not voters here; and, not ones who actually vote. Why is this played so big?
I'd rather have seen more about the "Psycho Ward." In the lower left, the words "JETS VS. PACKERS" and a hedshot of Mark Sanchez, with a SEE SPORTS tag, is all we get to indicate what, probably because I am not a huge sportsman myself and because I have spent time in the Upper Midwest, is a slightly fascinating story about Green Bay's latest gambit, called the Psycho. In which players who look like vikings with streaming blond hair coming out of their helmets wander around the field trying to make the opposing team guess who they are assigned to. I don't know why I love this so much but, I do.
Observations: Pace, Joanna. This one was easy. But before we go: Dear Col Allan, please do this more, and strip-mine Radar Online and TMZ less. I swear, it's good for business.
Winner: The New York Post.