Cathie Black bares the souls of the tabloids

Today's tabloids, Nov. 10, 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?

Daily News: "HUH?" reads the main hed on the News today: they're stumped by the appointment of Hearst Magazines chair Cathie Black as schools chancellor. "No education experience, kids went to private school—she's perfect to run our struggling schools! Right?" they continue. Their shock is perhaps unsurprising, since the News' point of view on these kinds of appointments is often that of the working stiff, and the notion that someone could waltz into the chancellorship tests the proposition of advancement by removing its ultimate attainment.

Educational experience is wanted not so much because it confers the skills necessary to governing the nation's largest and 43rd-best big-city school system but because it is a sign of dues paid. And anyone who is really shocked that the chair of Hearst is getting the job has already forgotten that Joel Klein was the chief counsel at Bertelsmann—a book publisher from Germany—after years in the legal profession. Sure, Black is a more radical proposition: Klein had worked for nonprofits representing the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, so he at least theoretically could have gone to the same sociology and education classes as your average emeritus professor at Teacher's College, if he'd needed to. As for the fact that she did not send her kids to public school in New York City: given the state of the city's schools at the time they were school-aged, that just sounds like good parenting, if you had the money. Perhaps she picked up a thing or two about schools that actually are successful while her kids were there.

The New York Post: On the other hand! The only thing more embarrassing than making yourself a megaphone for back-office political cant is slobbering all over power, which the Post does so well today you half expect Mayor Bloomberg to drop a dollar bill on his newsagent today and tell him to keep the change when he picks up his copy. "CLASS ACT" reads the headline, which aside from the lame school-word pun seems to be a breath of directionless approbation for just about everyone involved in yesterday's leadership change. That Joel Klein leaves the chancellorship to take a board position at News Corp., the corporate parent of the Post, makes it actually pathetic. At the risk of drawing this out, I'll reproduce the lead paragraph of the story, which appears on the wood: "Schools chancellor Joel Klein (left), an innovator who turned the city education system into a national beacon for reform, resigned yesterday after eight years. He will be replaced by Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black (right.)"

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Since Klein and Black went to different colleges, it is not possible that this is a "Class note" in their alumni magazine, but it may as well be. We'll have more to say on this but first: the Post also limps along behind the news cycle on Jorge Posada's move to designated hitter, a story the News bothered to report while it was happening; and they offer us a "first look" a water=treatment facility—sorry!—the beautiful memorial water sculpture at Ground Zero. "Shrine springs to life" reads the text. It is perhaps an unfortunate statement about the memorial itself that the story would sell more effectively on the cover without a picture.

Observations: Today is one bit of proof that the city tabloids have not been qualified to cover the Bloomberg administration: the proposition of this mayorship is something neither paper cares enough about its readership to get a grip on. And that proposition is that intelligence and confidence, the qualities Bloomberg has always looked for in his deputies, trump the News' and Post's respective ideals of hard work and savvy. It's no mistake that Black and Bloomberg are both authors of extremely banal "leadership" memoirs that sell on the notion that one's experience running a magazine publishing house or a financial information machines business might be applicable to the life situation of someone seeking the regional manager position at a supermarket chain; the messages in these books is more useful to the regional-manager applicant than all the coddling he gets from the News or the ogling of his betters fed to him by the Post.

Leadership is naturally antagonistic to its context; is that not obvious? Of course Bloomberg does not always appoint nonexperts to positions of power: it's not a restrictive principle. But just because Janette Sadik-Khan's long experience in planning is part of why she is now a successful commissioner of the Department of Transportation does not mean that a lack of experience disqualified, say, Dan Doctoroff from being deputy mayor for economic development, notwithstanding his rather impressive if wild-eyed bid on behalf of the city to host the 2012 Olympics. The point of a plutocracy is that you don't really know what your leaders are capable of until they get to work. Cathie Black may be a disaster, and she may not be. But both papers reveal their lack of depth today by declaring too early. At least the News isn't polishing any apples in the process. And "HUH?" is a lot better than "CLASS ACT."

Winner: Daily News.