Whitey Bulger AWOL, but L.I. pharmacy massacre hangs on for another day

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Today's tabloids, June 24, 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?

The New York Post: The arrest yesterday of Boston crime kingpin James "Whitey" Bulger is of course not local news. Nor, really, is it "national" news. It is local Boston news, and probably local news in Santa Monica, where he was found and where he's been living for 12 of the 16 years he's been on the lam.

But Bulger's been a national phenomenon for ages. He moved to the top of the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted List when Osama bin Laden was killed, he's the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed, and his suspected involvement in high-profile crimes, including the theft of 13 paintings from a Boston museum and 19 murders has made him one of America's most beloved true-crime stories for decades now. His career has put him at odds with the Massachusetts governor, now presidential candidate, Mitt Romney (Bulger's brother was at one time the president of the state senate, and Romney asked him to refused when he refused to give details about his brother's whereabouts).

That his arrest is a story of straightforward trawling is a fascinating detail: The F.B.I. blasted wanted ads throughout daytime women's television programming, because of the famous vanity of Bulger's girlfriend, who would, wherever they'd settled down, surely become a regular at a salon, a dentist's and a plastic surgeon's. They pretty much immediately got a hit.

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It's a straight sale: An old, dashing picture of the guy who Jack Nicholson was channeling in The Departed, rather than the more recent old-guy arrest photos, takes up some two-thirds of the story space. Text reads "The capture of WHITEY BULGER: Master mobster hid in plain sight."

Meanwhile, probably the most vicious robbery-murder case in Suffolk County history is playing out with the arrest of David Laffer and his wife. Details of the crime aren't so new, though the police give them new significance: Surveillance video captured pretty much the whole crime scene, but police affirmed to reporters yesterday that Laffer shot the Long Island pharmacy's owner and his employee, then two customers, in cold blood, without announcing a robbery or creating an option for them to save their lives by cooperating. He faced down relatives of his alleged victims in court, who shouted at him that he was a "coward." (We've talked about this before, but I think in the case of the grieving families, we can give a pass today.) "PILL-ORIED" reads the main hed in big black type, signifying that this is really the story meant to lead the paper. The reference is to his and his wife's pill addiction, the purpose of his robbery of the pharmacy, where he allegedly stuffed some 10,000 hydrocodone pills into his knapsack after the murders and before getting into the getaway car outside, his wife at the wheel. "Anguisehd kin rip RX killer in court" reads the dek.

It's time for a little Baseball for Dummies, since the Post has put something on the front today about a baseball player that doesn't quite seem to merit the spot in a straightforward way. Trade rumors following him everywhere since he has said he will not negotiate his next contract with the Mets while still in the season, Jose Reyes is nice front-page material today, and gets a little box on the lower left. But today, it's his performance in the Mets series against the Oakland A's that the paper focuses on. The two are related: The risk the Mets face by not convincing him to come to the table now is that Reyes performance in the balance of the season will increase interest from other teams, and spark a bidding war that gives him leverage in his negotiations later. So every time Reyes makes the cover, it means … something. Conversely, if the Mets are being straight with us, Reyes can't lose: They have said they will not base their bid on his or the team's performance for the rest of the season. So what has Reyes got to lose?

Daily News: Substantially the same approach here to the lead story: It's at the bottom in big, heavy black type. "YOU COWARD" reads the main hed; "Victims' kin face L.I. massacre suspect in courtroom."

I didn't mention when talking about the Post cover that Laffer is not looking great. Here, as on the Post, his arrest photo has him looking like he bumped into a few billyclubs and fists on his way to the arraignment. And that's the other aspect of the story that's covered in both papers: Police claim Laffer resisted the arrest violently, and tried for one of the arresting officer's guns. His house was full of firearms—and from the beginning Laffer was on an "armed and dangerous" footing with Suffolk County police, who admit they hit him until he succumbed.

For what it's worth, his wife, who appears not to have put up a fight, doesn't look great either. Fleshier and less wraith-like than her husband, Melinda Brady nevertheless looks like she's got leather handbag material cut out for her upper eyelids, and yellow-brown freckles somehow can't freshen away the sallow, droopy look of a pill addict.

What does surprise me about today's News front is that Whitey Bulger is nowhere to be found. This is especially puzzling since News editor in chief Kevin Convey must have been knee-deep in Whitey Bulger coverage back at the Boston Herald, where he has roots that run deep into Bulger's heyday. No, the top-of-the-page sale is a story about Derek Jeter with a generic referral to the Sports section: "JETER JITTERS" reads the main, all-caps hed, in Yankee-themed white-outlined navy blue (with a hard drop shadow that gives it a slightly unwanted 3-D effect). "Doubts grow over captain's return date."

I could understand if a hard ruling about localness was a reason to keep Bulger off the front, though I don't think it was correct; but if that's so, does Lindsay Lohan, who was found not to have violated her probation by a Los Angeles court yesterday, local news because she was born and raised on the Island? "LILO DUCKS JAIL AGAIN!" reads the yellow text on the red field that also carries a postage-stamp-sized picture of Lohan's head, hair pulled back tight and mirrored Aviator shades over her eyes.

Observations: So there's no question really that this Bulger story deserves the front page, to my mind. And yet it doesn't get the whole thing on the Post, which is easy enough to understand. As much as we don't have any really huge developing star-laden scandal stories right now, there's lots of news of a slightly smaller scope. Both papers hit that stuff: Injuries and negotiations in both the Yankees and Mets bullpens, and a local violent crime with national legs.

The question might really be what localness gets for the tabloid newspaper in New York. I think it might be worth noting here that I've spent some time excoriating both papers in the past year that I've been writing this column for using their fronts to rehash yesterday's news in national stories they have no hope of competing on for scoops, when big news was happening here at home they could profitably have made a meal of. (I'm thinking of you, Governator!)

But this column rarely means to veer into value judgments: Localness is an important part, I think, of the salability of a local tabloid cover, and a predictor of success if the stories are good enough. The New York City Italian mob is the specialty of the Daily News, not the Irish mob over which Bulger presided for decades. Still, the News, more even than the Post, has a reputation for covering that beat, and I might have thought that Bulger would make the grade because the story is everywhere. Plenty of New Yorkers will want to get the story from the News anyway, even if it's second-hand. Today's a day when, I think, a bargain has to be struck between the paper's local mission and New Yorkers' native interest in the biggest and most compelling narratives unfolding elsewhere. Today, one paper got the balance right.

Winner: The New York Post.