‘News’ out-Posts the ‘Post’ with Donald McDonald

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Today's tabloids, April 11, 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?

Daily News:  Love it or hate it, this is the cover that will get the most play today; the News has dipped its toe into the water of Post-style outrageousness.

For me, this cover prompted some of the same irrational rage I get when I look at anything having to do with the hippie clown Wavy Gravy. Picking out some of the most outrageously artificial tones from Donald Trump's skin and hair, the paper creates a hideous, puke-neon background on which to set a silhouette of the presidential experimenter, television star and real-estate mogul; drawing a red line around his mouth, the producers appear to have made the area around his mouth black and white, which is actually a brilliant approximation of the white clown make-up they're painting on him; his nose is painted bright red and looks pretty damn real.

"SIDESHOW DON" reads the text, in what is probably the real overboard moment: It's an acid yellow that you just want to stab with a pen or anything handy. "White House: Trump's got 'zero chance' to be Prez," reads the somewhat more demurely white text next to Trump's face. Inside is an account of Trump's recent birther antics and the reaction they received from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe this weekend on Christiane Ahmanpour's show. At the end there is a superfluous gesture:

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Professional clowns were not offended by the aspersion that Trump was one of them - they say it's only natural.

"The association between clowns and politics goes back a long way, so we don't tend to get bothered by it," said Earl "Orky the Clown" Tempkin, of the World Clown Association.

"Besides, Trump would fit in pretty well - with his hairstyle he wouldn't need a wig," Tempkin said. "It's pretty hard to take a lot of these politicians seriously."

Get it? GET IT?

This is one of those days where, as much emphasis (oof!) as they've put on the main story, there's lots of other stuff on the page. It's actually not too much of a junk-heap: in a way, the two blue boxes with knockout white type along the bottom of the page are a relief.

"SAVAGE SLAYING ON LOWER E. SIDE" is one, and we'll get to it! The second is "TIGER'S CHARGE FALLS SHORT," about Woods' performance in the Masters this weekend.

And of course they're selling all kinds of things up top: Yankee tickets, a free makeover by Stacey London of TLC's "What Not to Wear" TV show. Again, it's a bigger page than the Post's so they get away with more.

The New York Post: So that "savage slaying" gets much more play on the front of the Post:

"BEAUTY SLAY HORROR," reads the main hed in thick black on white. There's a small square photo of Sarah Coit, at whose apartment police arrived only after her live-in boyfriend, Raul Barrera, had turned himself in to police after attacking her with a knife. Coit was still alive when police arrived, though the knife attack was so brutal it resulted in near-decapitation. (Yes, sorry: This is not a nice story.) She was pronounced dead at Beth Israel about two hours later.

Much of the Post's account comes from neighbors who were woken about 2:30 a.m. to the sounds of a big fight in the apartment. Neighbors called 911; it's not clear whether one of those calls or Barrera's decision, after leaving the apartment and calling a relative who advised him to go to the police, prompted the NYPD to arrive at the scene. There are important differences between the two accounts of this crime, and many readers will probably note that the biographical details of Coit's life outnumber greatly the details about her killer's life in both papers. Both are pictured inside the paper; Coit was blond, a graduate of Greenwich High School whose parents live in a $1.4 million house; her attacker is pegged as working for various promoters, and is dark-skinned, likely Latino given the last name and possibly African-American, though his life story is not told.

I'm happy to host another discussion of whether this story would have been on the front if it had taken place in the Bronx or Queens, and if neither the assailant nor the victim were white, in comments here. Personally, I never find it to be a compelling argument when a terrible story like this is on the cover; it's a more important conversation when a sensational murder in a neighborhood less trendy that the Lower East Side is not covered. 

The Post spends a little more space on the Yankees' loss to the Red Sox, with C.C. Sabathia rubbing his brow with his left hand, looking despondent, and pale yellow text (with red outline and a drop shadow?) over the rest of the image reading "Yanks blanked in Boston." (It was a 4-0 loss.) I'll defer on whether this is front-pageworthy; I think it's actually not a voting issue today, as you'll see shortly.

Observations: There's one important detail on which the two papers diverge: According to the News' account of the murder of Sarah Coit, police had never been called to the apartment before; according to the Post they responded to a heated argument between the two at the apartment in January.

There's also plenty of indication that the Post was more interested in finding out about Coit's background than the News was. So, according to the Post, Coit's father is "a Cornell-educated lawyer and senior adviser to the CEO at Plasco Energy Group Inc.," while according to the News he is just "a prominent financial adviser."

Both papers have noted that Barrera was arrested last year in an alleged assault on a man at another location. Both papers carry accounts from neighbors, and it's clear that noise had been heard in the apartment before; also that neighbors called cops when they were woken up by the fight. 

It's hard to imagine this night on Clinton Street, and harder to imagine what possibly could or could not have been done to save Coit's life, either earlier or on the scene the night of her murder. And this, inevitably, is the first question readers are asking themselves as they progress through this story.

Crime scenes are notoriously hard to report from. Neighbors and witnesses can be uncooperative, and it can be hard to break the ties that inevitably arise between conflicting accounts. But one of these papers has an important detail missing or wrong; without reporting it all out myself I don't feel qualified to make a choice between the two. Just the same, any time spent by reporters visiting the Lacoste store where Coit worked should probably have been devoted to making sure the story about whether the police had been involved before in the couple's disputes, and what neighbors did and when the evening of the attack, not just because it really is the most important material, but because it's the material that matters most to readers.

If the Post turns out to have more of the right stuff on these details then the story probably warrants its spot on the cover. But the conflicting and incomplete reports, to my mind, should be a signal that the story isn't there yet. This story belongs on the cover and deserves big play when it answers some questions about whether neighbors know what to do when a potentially explosive situation is developing in their midst, and what police do when they get calls about potential domestic violence calls.

I want to spend a second on that Donald Trump cover. Here's the deal. The Post does this stuff better, usually because they don't try to do it too elegantly. This is the first time I've seen the News do a gag cover that I'm pretty sure will sell.

There's something else interesting in here, too: I don't think (and I could be wrong) that the Post is in a position editorially to so seriously deprecate Donald Trump's seriousness as a character; he's too important, too influential on the city. The baseline fact about Trump is that he's too successful not to be taken seriously, in the editorial point of view I imagine for the Post. And yet, I think it's pretty much an objective fact that Trump's recent "birther antics" are somewhat beneath taking seriously. The News didn't just out-Post the Post today; they did it on a topic the Post is unlikely to be able to do it on; and this is to the News' advantage. I may autopuke when I look at this wood, but I don't think there can be much doubt the gag will sell gangbusters.

Winner: Daily News.