Pictured: Hero clerk and Helen Mirren’s body. Not pictured: Campaign-making story on bad-apple FDNY hires

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Today's tabloids, August 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?

The New York Post: Yesterday a man entered an AutoZone store on East 149th Street and tried to walk out with an electric drill and a set of Allen wrenches, worth about $80, setting off alarms. Two clerks chased the alleged perpetrator out of the store and tackled him; the wrestling match involved reversals and what the Post refers to as a "full nelson" as well as threats with a dirty syringe. Onlookers were taunting the clerks during the melée, shouting, "It's not your store! Why do you care?" Ultimately the alleged thief got free of his pursuers, leaving the goods behind, but not before one of the clerks, Nelson Loizada, called 911 with one hand while maintaining a headlock on the thief with the other. The cops arrived ten minutes later, and found the alleged thief walking along 138th Street.

Why are we talking about an $80 heist that didn't come off and a hero store-clerk who let the perpetrator go? Only one reason: The photo on the cover of today's paper.

If you didn't know better you'd think it had been posed by actors: How'd this shot work out so well? Looking right into the camera is Loizada, the phone in one hand and his arm around the tattooed, Kojak-scalped thief he pursued; he is also looking into the camera, his face pulled into a fighting grimace. Another guy, his face out of the frame, is leaning on the man's lower half and bracing his arms. The shot is crystal clear, and the color is amazing.

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"TOUGH CALL" is the knockout -white type at the bottom of the page; "Handy hero nails 'perp,' dials cops at same time." It's the whole front page.

Daily News: With a great photo some stories that aren't so big may move to the head of the class, no matter what's happening in the news. For instance, Congress' deadline passage of a raise in the debt ceiling, just in time to keep federal coffers from default.

No, I agree, it's actually not that interesting anymore; since Saturday the real story has been the political fallout. Whither the Republicans? Is Obama damaged? Why do we listen to the Tea Party? But we're not tabloid newspapers; and the tabloid newspapers have tried very hard to find angles to make this story relevant and interesting to the average reader.

Today, not so much: With the putative news event of the story having taken place yesterday, it is absent not just on the cover of the Post but on the News—almost. There is one human-interest angle to take: Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' 11th-hour arrival, in the middle of her recovery from the Jan. 8 assassination attempt that resulted in a near-fatal gunshot wound to her head. That's how the News sells the story on the front today, with a small skybox labeling Giffords "HERO AMONG ZEROS."

Another skybox touts another Yankees win, but we should really get below the flag.

The main news space is divided vertically in half, and it's like a lesson in the highs and lows of tabloid journalism. On the left, Helen Mirren is pictured, in a 2008 photo of her on vacation in Italy with her husband that back then was big news because she was 63 years old and looked really hot in a red retro-looking bikini. On the right is Jennifer Lopez in a rather drab black sheath with midriff cutout on some kind of red carpet.

"SEXIER THAN J. LO!" screams the red text (all-caps, white-outline, drop-cap) at a skewed angle across the bottom. "AND SHE'S 66—SEE PAGE 12." This important information comes to us from a poll of 2,000 men and women conducted by the noted scientific authority L.A. Fitness, a gym chain. Elle McPherson and Kelly Brook are also among those women judged against Mirren to lose the "Body of the Year" title in the poll.

But there is important information on the front of the News today, of the variety that I think actually would get tons of avid reads, hateful or otherwise, from the News' base. In the case presently before Brooklyn federal judge Nicholas Garaufis, black firefighters represented by the Vulcan Society are trying to get the judge to appoint a special monitor to watch the fire department's hiring practices and how it investigates cases of discrimination and bring reform to both systems. The FDNY came under heavy criticism when it hired former policemen Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy, who were acquitted in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo but forced to leave the department because of their role in it. But most important was the reading into the public record of the 2008 deposition from one of the department's former personnel commissioners, Patricia Kavaler, detailing a culture of fraternal help among largely Irish-American firemen to bring in family and family friends, paper over criminal records to get men into the department, cover up for personnel who'd committed acts of domestic violence, and so on.

"'BOYS WILL BE BOYS'" reads the main hed, quoting from the Kavaler deposition. It's big white text on a black field, with no art. (Well, with Helen Mirren in a bikini only an inch or two away, who's looking! Rrrow!) The dek reads, "Testimony: White misfits get pass to join FDNY."

Does that seem to you to convey the drama of the testimony, which includes a passage like this, quoted in full in the article, in which Kavaler describes the types of directives she was given on the job?

"'He beat his wife but his wife took him back so he shouldn't be considered a wife beater. He still could be a good firefighter.'"

"You would have lieutenants and captains, whatever, [reaching out to the] chief of department: 'This is so and so, this is the son of so and so. I lived next door to him for years, he's a good guy, he just had a fight in a disco, he got drunk, someone made a pass at his girlfriend, he socked him' … something like that."

Observations: Well, I think the photo wins it, which is a little heartbreaking. I can't help but wonder whether the News was ambivalent about the "FDNY'S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET," which is very dirty, not little, and not exactly a secret. It's how I think most people assume the fire department operates, whether it's fair or not. And after all isn't that what these inquiries are supposed to determine?

This testimony seems to bring the matter right to the top, which would suggest something systemic in the lower ranks. The News could make a crusade out of this, although it would pit them against Irish-American firefighting families. I wonder if that's a fight they want. It's a great piece of wood, if your heart is in the work.

Winner: The New York Post.