Osama Bin Laden is dead, and we know how we feel

osama-bin-laden-dead-and-we-know-how-we-feel
Today's tabloids, May 2, 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?

I'm going to break with the traditional format since there's only really one thing to talk about.

The portrait of Osama bin Laden on the cover of both tabloids this morning isn't really a portrait. It's a straight-up news photograph from the Associated Press, which I believe (tell me if you know!) was actually taken from a high-quality film of the Al Qaeda leader in one of the early taped messages after Sept. 11. It's easily the most common image of him, and comes with pretty much any generic coverage for nearly 10 years now; it's become so iconic that it's clearly, down to the pale-yellow painted stone wall behind him, the reference for many caricatures and drawings of him.

What makes this photo so compelling, I think, is that he doesn't look, as he often does in other photos, as though he's in the middle of a boring lecture, or an anti-Western harangue; he's not all grainy and there isn't a ticker of Arabic script beneath or around him. He's looking just off to your left, and in fact, some of his charisma transmits here. I mean, he has to have been charismatic, right?

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So it's a little distracting that the Post chose, despite the blank wall behind him that could perfectly well serve as a backdrop for text, to silhouette bin Laden against a black background. It gets them much higher contrast on the text, but even to the untrained eye I think the clipping path around his sideburns and beard will look off, like he's been cut out of a magazine and pasted somewhere else by a kid. But the headline does pop a lot better against the black backdrop, and the Post is uncharacteristically sober.

"GOT HIM!" reads the big white text. A red box across the top gives the dead-on news: "OFFICIAL: Bin Laden dead." Only the dek beneath breaks from the straight story: "Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard."

A red box advertises eight pages of coverage in the Post's favored way: a comma-separated list of all of the pages, even though they're adjacent. "PAGES 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 & 9."

Whereas the News leaves the portrait as it is, laying black-outlined knockout-white text reading "ROT IN HELL!" Here you can see what I mean about what's lost with the silhouetting of this picture: The area where the clipping looks awkward is right where the photo matters, at his right eye. I think the News has made the right tradeoff. And of course the main hed has the feeling in it, not just the other display copy. Advertising "NINE PAGES OF COVERAGE INSIDE" in a red box, the display copy finishes with a small-text dek that reads "Obama: U.S. team kills Bin Laden in firefight."

So we've also got the president delivering the news.

Back on the Post I think by "OFFICIAL" they meant it is official that Bin Laden's dead; not that a nameless official delivered the news. Still, Barack Obama's persona is an important element here.

It's interesting to me that when truly big news happens, the Post actually has some history of sudden subtlety. The Post reserves its most ambitious tongue-lashings for occasions when the Post's voice needs to be heard above a fray; they seem to almost have a sense of the importance of a front page to deliver the news straightforwardly when the news is of historical significance. Whereas the News, often less ambitious and less loud with its display copy, likes to lead the cheer.

Consider the capture of Saddam Hussein, documented on the front of the News with the headline "WE BAG THE BUM!" The same day, the Post did not even employ big black text; just a large close-up photo of the haggard former leader of Iraq, a red box across the top advertising a "SPECIAL EDITION" and another red box across the bottom with small text reading "The capture of Saddam."

It's not a day, really, in which people will choose one paper or the other based on the front. Whatever your general inclination is between the two, if you've got one, you'll want to return there, to your more familiar environment, to see how it's treated. It's a bit like the way that, as significant as various news sources are and as unlikely as it may be that your wife or husband or girlfriend or roommate knows more than, say, Brian Williams or the team of reporters working the story for The New York Times, you will still go ahead and work through the news with them. I think the Post recognizes this fact on the big days, and in a certain way there's a hectoring quality to the News on those same days.

It's hard to declare a winner here. "ROT IN HELL!" is obviously more in the spirit of the day. But is it the work of the newspaper to rally like that? The Post thinks not, and I tend to agree.

Winner: The New York Post.