8:11 am Jul. 19, 2011
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: An artillery-burst of short words matched up by alliteration and rhyming is the hallmark of the great tabloid headlines of all time. And even when they're just funny and only some of the rules apply, some of the most famous headlines of tabloid news stories have come from stories nobody remembers because they weren't such big news. "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" continues to be the standard for those.
Just the same, today's Post cover treatment doesn't seem to fit the story it sells. The massive "CAR CAMS SLAM JAMS" promises something massively titillating; what it actually leads to is a story about a new technology being employed by the Department of Transportation to ease Midtown traffic. "Finally! Hi-tech traffic relief" reads the dek.
This is all presented without art, just big knockout-white type on a black field. (Not even a cheesy picture of an angry cabby?) It's a prefectly interesting story, actually! But it is not even a little bit sensational in the way the cover treatment seems to suggest. (From a distance you might think that Michael Jackson and Liz Taylor had come back to life for a zombie version of "LIZ'S SECRET JACKO AIRLIFT.")
Perhaps this is why the paper goes for uncharacteristically large left-margin boxes that can plausibly have celebrities in them—namely Rachel Uchitel, the woman whose sexy-text relationship with Tiger Woods was the seed of his undoing, and Charlie Sheen.
The headlines, respectively, both in pale-yellow, black-outlined, drop-shadowed text over their headshots: "Tiger hush $$$ payback" and "Charlie wins new TV gig."
Charlie Sheen is attached to a television-series version of the movie Anger Management which starred Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson; unfortunately the series is attached to nothing and nobody at the moment. Possibilities, according to the Post, include a network-television series, a cable-television series and a "syndicated" television series. Charlie Sheen would "own a chunk of his new show," for which, read: Charlie Sheen is funding it. "That could net him megabucks if it's successful," the Post observes, pleonastically. On the plus-side of this being an actual story: Lionsgate Television ("Mad Men") is attached as production company, Joe Roth (Major League, Young Guns) as producer and Debmar-Mercury as distributor. Now all we have to do is remember that it was the network that had so much trouble with Sheen last time around.
More interesting is the Rachel Uchitel story, because it is one of those self-immolating stories. Here's what I mean: "CLAUSE OF THE TIGER" is the inside hed; "Ex-mistress loses millions for blabbing." This is pretty declarative!
Let's look at the text:
[Tiger Woods'] former mistress Rachel Uchitel refunded most of the reported $10 million in hush money the golf king paid her to keep her yap shut after she allegedly broke their confidentiality agreement, according to an online report.
Important to know: The original $10 million figure has never yet been confirmed, so all these "most of" and other assessments are guesses predicated on guesses; also the "online report" comes to us from TMZ.com.
It's one thing when a paper takes a news lead from an "online source" and then adds reporting to find something new, or get more detail. It's kind of another when the paper attempts to interview the principals, who instead release statements that contradict the "online report" and otherwise refuse to speak to the Post. Uchitel's lawyer did precisely that, releasing a statement that said "I was not involved in any way in the allegations set forth in the TMZ story which appears today and which references me."
So what are we to make of the Post's assertion that Uchitel "was forced to fork over the funds after her lawyer, uber-feminist Gloria Allred, allegedly convinced her she'd lose in court," or that "Uchitel went along with the refund—until she learned that Allred still got to eel every penny of the legal fees … according to the story," or that Uchitel "feels she's been duped," or "is threatening to sue for malpractice." Also, in respect to the dek on the inside that reads "Ex-mistress loses millions for blabbing," it's important to note that even the article claims the "blabbing" in question was appearing in the Dr. Drew reality show "Celebrity Rehab" for her "love addiction." (She never makes reference to Tiger Woods or the episode with him in the show.)
Daily News: Curiously, one sentence from Allred's statement didn't make it into the Post article: "I have not had a conversation with or communicated with [Woods' lawyer] Jay Lavely about any client in more than a year."
That would seem a pretty positive rebuttal of the TMZ story. The News leads the story thusly: "Celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is swinging back a ta report she gave Tiger Woods' alpha-mistress Rachel Uchitel the shaft."
OK, it's a lame story: A famous lawyer releases a statement panning a gossip site. But at least, technically, it's news—and news enough to land Uchitel on the News cover—in a head-to-toe, her bikini-clad, suntan-oiled body glistening as she walks along a beach.
"TMZ: Tiger's girl gave back hush money" reads the headline, much more reserved than the Post in its claims—and much less reserved in using Rachel Uchitel's looks to sell papers.
Unfortunately, whatever pleasure might be had by seeing this display is somewhat vitiated by the hunk of meat peeking out of the lower right-hand corner of the main story space, with a fly on it. (Two more flies, slightly larger than the real-life versions, have infested the headline, "MEAT HEADS.") Get ready for a long dek: "Bumbling jailers let 65,000 pounds of meat rot—and one even talked of serving it to Rikers inmates!" All of which is just gross and lowbrow.
"Yankees rally past Rays" reads a red-and-yellow box, pointlessly, at the bottom of the page.
Observations: So why spend so much time on the inside of the Rachel Uchitel story today? Because to me it's an interesting psychological study of the front-page practices of the two newspapers.
The News reports the story responsibly, which means admitting it's not much of a story. But they still put Uchitel on the cover—in a white bikini.
The Post makes a meal of it—even suppressing information it had in hand to make the story "work," and puts Uchitel on the cover—with a hedshot.
I also spent the time because it raises a great question for us: Sexy bikini girl or big Tiger Woods newsflash? Treat them as two entirely different stories on the front and you can see who makes what for the front out of thin air from the inside and how.
I've argued before that over time, the Post runs a risk of losing credibility on the cover, of readers saying "For my 75 cents I'd prefer not to meet the inevitable disappointment when I flip the paper open." The Post actually delivers what it promises, broadly speaking, despite the bizarrely screamy cover treatment of the car-cam story and the fact that they've contorted the Uchitel story into a lie in order to avoid that disappointment.
The real newsdesk competition today is between rotting meat at Riker's Island and the zippy new traffic technology being employed in Midtown. The former is a harder-to-get story—and harder to sell. To me rotting meat and flies are like an invitation to please not touch our newspaper. "MEAT HEADS" is a good headline, but the traffic story is also likely to have wider appeal.
Winner: The New York Post.