Dueling indictments of Lara Logan’s attackers: ‘Egypt’ vs. ‘Animals’

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Today's tabloids, Feb. 16, 2011. ()
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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?

Observations: One of the beauties of following a long story in tabloid format is that each day can bring an entirely new point of view on the situation without the necessity of reconciling yesterday's cover with today's. Each day is its own frame of reference. Sure, you can pick a storyline and stick to it like glue, gather your readers 'round a certain point of view on something, and create a narrative that readers need to return to day after day on a major news story that's being covered everywhere, because it's the plot as it was rendered in your newspaper that the reader wants to pick up on again today.

But just as easily, the tabloids can make the more cynical decision to tell the story each day in the way that is likely to get the most readers that day, even if it breaks the plot they've been weaving for days.

It's probably unfair to bring this up in the context of today's covers, which concern the protracted sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan by a group of Egyptian protesters. It's been important for some number of days, and largely correct, to portray the protests as a noble Jeffersonian project in action. Media wonks have also argued about whether or not this is a "Twitter revolution," as though in the greater scheme of things this is the matter that will emerge from this revolution as important.

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Now they are forced to grapple with the more troubling, and more important, question of what can happen when "nonviolent" passions spill out into the public square. Journalists in Egypt had reported (via Twitter!) that there were anti-Western sentiments in the crowd that made them uncomfortable. Some who left the country on the advice of our government have been roundly chastised for their lack of bravery by people who get to bed at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time each night with full bellies. Logan was one of the few who both broadcasted her fears and stayed.

It is of course too much to expect the tabloids to make sense of all this. We don't ask it of the Times, for example. And in fact, in the greater scheme of things, there is nothing to reconcile. Simply: A group of evil people, under the cover of the overall chaos, attacked Lara Logan after chanting "Jew! Jew!" at her.

The great novelists of the great wars of the 20th century have struggled in 500 pages and more to make sense of this kind of thing and ultimately thrown up their hands, with the exception perhaps of Heinrich Böll, whose answers in retrospect seem facile given the revelations about his sympathies during World War II. So how should the front pages of the tabloids manage to make sense of this heavily supported popular revolution resulting in rapine and violence upon one of our severely reduced corps of foreign war correspondents, one of the most prominent public faces of this revolution in America (after Matt Engel, but certainly before Barack Obama)?

Giving the papers an excuse-note on the bigger picture, however, only increases the severity with which we ought to assess any serious attempt to reconcile the behavior of this group among the protestors with our overall approval or disapproval of this revolution. That is, allowing for a complicated point of view on this or any popular, largely nonviolent revolt would also allow the tabloids simply to present the most important news from that revolt each day in its own frame, and to synthesize the bigger picture later, or if I could dictate the matter, never.

The tabloids are often taken to be ideological. More than that, though, they mirror popular sympathies and speak to the large common denominator. That denominator, like a scolding aunt, praises popular revolution against dictators and deprecates gang rape, taking few risks. So we will judge them harshly if they attempt a synthesis that is simple. And, I think we'll find that the papers have very different side constraints on their behavior.

Daily News: Trading on Lara Logan's beauty, and perhaps respectfully, the News chooses a glamor shot of the war correspondent for its cover. The headline, "EGYPT SEX HORROR," is rendered in knockout type over the glamor shot. "CBS war reporter brutalized by ugly mob." The problem here, with the hed and dek both, is the imprecision of the language. There's perhaps not much that can be done about that, given the lack of detail emerging from primary sources about precisely what happened. But that is just one of the reasons that so much care is needed in the language. The "ugly mob" in the dek does not feel careful.

The New York Post: Also, to picture Lara Logan "moments before" the crime among a group of Egyptian protesters under the headline "ANIMALS" seems to indict the entire revolution—for today. Tomorrow "they" will be brave heroes again, depending on the rising and falling fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and given the Post's wont to keep itself in careful alignment with Benjamin Netanyahu. The photo shows generic faces of protestors, leaving open the question of whether any of these men were in the group that assaulted Logan. (And the inevitable question: Would the word "ANIMALS" have sprung to the minds of the Post's headline-writers if this had happened during the protests in Moldova, in which all of the participants were white?)

But in the rest of its display the Post uses a tactic that often works well for them: Laying out the details in many more words than usual for a front-page dek gives them distance from the point of view from which they are reporting, and gives us a reprieve from editorialization.

The tabloids are often mistaken as ideological. It's not that. It's more like a serious journalism outlet gives you a recipe to make a cake, and the tabloids are like instant cake mix: The first few steps, however simple, are done for you. Appropriate for children and large crowds, but not for good company. So stuff's baked in to the final product that you didn't put there yourself, and don't know the origin of.

A long dek like this one is broadsheet behavior in a way: Here are the ingredients of this story; bake it yourself.

"Moments after this photo," the dek reads, "CBS NEWS star was surrounded, beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob of men in Cairo."

It's a somewhat rare moment of responsibility, even if it's defeated by the main headline. Finally, it's more compelling. But of course one wonders if the Post, too coarse-grained to trot out the sophisticated political carefulness of sister paper The Wall Street Journal (which likely thinks this is the greatest thing ever if it results in a stable democracy, but worse than Mubarak if it results in a powerful political antipode to Israel in the Middle East), isn't just hedging its bets for now, awaiting the consensus of right-thinking Manhattanites on the result of all of this.

Winner: The New York Post.