The city tabloids and the fate of Greg Kelly, morning anchor accused of rape

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Greg Kelly on air. (via Jezebel)
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Around breakfast time on Wednesday, Jan. 25, Greg Kelly was on the set of "Good Day New York" in a dark grey suit on a bright yellow couch.

He was discussing the 2012 election with co-host Rosanna Scotto and Newark Star-Ledger columnist Steve Adubato. It seemed like any morning for the 43-year-old TV news anchor.

"Look, this is gonna be a tight race," said Kelly, clutching a coffee cup with his right hand and gesturing with his left. "Anything can happen, and we'll be watching, of course."

But sometime the night before, a woman had walked into her local police precinct and accused him of rape. And by Wedensday evening, it was clear that in the days and weeks ahead, Kelly himself would be worth watching. Not as the gregarious male face of Fox 5's weekday morning newscast (he hasn't been on the air since that Wednesday morning), but as the handsome celebrity suspect in a saga tailor-made for the tabloids.

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And it continues to unfold there each day even as the "story," such as it is, seems to be developing very little in real life. To date, we only know from the newspapers of two interviews conducted by the police with Kelly's accuser, and as of yesterday, there had been no more contact between Kelly himself and the investigators besides correspondence between them and his attorney.

"The Manhattan district attorney's office is investigating an accusation that Greg Kelly, a local television anchor who is a son of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, raped a young woman in Lower Manhattan last October," read the lead of the New York Times story that initially broke the news that Wednesday evening.

"Mr. Kelly is aware that the New York County District Attorney's office is conducting an investigation," his lawyer said in a statement to the Times. "Mr. Kelly strenuously denies any wrongdoing of any kind, and is cooperating fully with the district attorney's investigation. We know the district attorney's investigation will prove Mr. Kelly's innocence."

Of course, it was never a guarantee that news of the allegation would leak out in the first place, but once it did, the critical question was to be his treatment in the tabloids.

Since the news broke they have been all over the story, including a fire-breathing indictment last Thursday of Kelly's accuser in the New York Post by reliably angry columnist Andrea Peyser.

In sensational cases like this, the tabloids have their bread and butter (or is it meat and potatoes?). There is clear conflict, two sides; the trick is not to be forced to play the mealy-mouthed referee, constantly shifting focus from one side or the other and losing focus for your own front page. For a big celebrity scandal like this, it is necessary to take sides as early as possible.

And which side to take often depends largely on what information can be gleaned from sources inside the criminal investigation—almost always anonymous, and almost always definitively breaking one way or the other.

At times, this tendency has led the tabloids astray, as it must just as often as investigations navigate hairpin turns a la "Law & Order": If the story keeps changing at One Police Plaza or in the prosecutor's office, it will keep changing in the tabloids.

It was just a little over eight months ago that then-chief of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested by New York police on charges he sexually assaulted a hotel maid at the Midtown Sofitel. It was a Saturday, so the tabloids had to get their normally sleepy Sunday front pages up to scratch for the titillating international scandal. "LE PERV" read the front page of the Daily News that day, featuring a close-up profile of Strauss-Kahn seemingly caught in a moment of licking his chops; "SLEAZY MONEY" read the front page of the New York Post.

The victim, still unnamed, was only described as an immigrant from Guinea who lived in the Bronx in the early days of the investigation; here and there, interviews with neighbors established her as a quiet and dignified presence. Meanwhile, more and more details of the case were leaking out of Cy Vance's District Attorney's office and making their way onto the front pages.

Three Daily News front pages depicted Strauss-Kahn along with the epithet "LE PERV" before the month of May was over; the more ambitious New York Post stuck with Strauss-Kahn on their front page through many of its May covers, including front-page wood reading "FRENCH WHINE," "HE DID HAVE SEX WITH THE MAID," "HOTEL MAID IN HIV SHOCK," "FROG LEGS IT," "PEPE LE PEW," "BOOTY GAUL," and "CHEZ PERV," before the story seemed to drop from the front; after all, Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child had been found, and Anthony Weiner's text messages started surfacing.

But something else had also happened: The New York Times reported on the evening of June 30 something which the tabloids had surely already started to hear: That the case was on the rocks, that the victim, Nafissatou Diallo, had turned out to be an unreliable witness, and that the prosecution was starting to have serious doubts whether a crime had occurred in that hotel room. Chastened by their adherence to the early police leaks, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his scandal largely disappeared from the tabloid fronts, even as he continued to make the front page all over the world well until the dismissal of his case in late August.

This time around, the District Attorney's office couldn't start out being dubious of the claims publicly: They involve the son of the city's chief of police, after all. This time it has broken the other way: the accuser has been discredited from the outset by both the News and the Post, acting largely on information credited anonymously to law-enforcement sources. 

Strauss-Kahn, whose family is said to have read and been revolted by the tabloid fronts, found himself in good odor again because he'd been dropped by the tabloids. But not so good an odor that the papers used their front pages to walk back their earlier tone and rally behind him.

More recently, tabloid reporters and their anonymous but all-knowing law enforcement sources have been hard at work unraveling the story in which Kelly is accused of getting drunk with a 30-year-old paralegal at a South Street Seaport dive bar last October and then raping the incapacitated woman at her office a few blocks away.

In reports last week, the Post described the "48 hours of marathon sexting" that preceded Kelly's date with his alleged victim, as well as texts exchanged subsequent to their encounter in which they discussed setting up a second one.

"She's the defense's best witness," the paper suggested in a Monday piece. "The accuser, whose name The Post is withholding, has had two extended conversations with officials in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office since filing a rape allegation Tuesday against Greg Kelly, the sources disclosed. But her interviews have suggested to the veteran investigators that she came forward only after pressure from her boyfriend."

The boyfriend reportedly set the whole thing in motion when, after learning that his partner had terminated a pregnancy following the alleged rape, he approached the elder Kelly at a public event and proclaimed: "Your son ruined my girlfriend's life."

As a result, his character has also come under scrutiny in the media. Readers of the Sunday and Monday editions of last week's Daily News, for instance, may not have learned the 48-year-old's name, but they did learn a great deal about the many hats he wears: Bartender, long-distance runner, teacher, photographer, rugby player, world-record-setter, sailor, beekeeper—in other words: "A larger-than-life character who has sailed around the world, won marathons and swam with sharks." Sources described him as "furious" when "he learned that his girlfriend had had an abortion after her encounter with Kelly."

The boyfriend, however, was not so much the peg of the paper's coverage as he was the icing on the cake. Rather than leading with his impressive resume, a Daily News article from Monday began with a hearty dose of speculation from sources suggesting that the D.A.'s then five-day-old probe was "expected to wrap up quickly."

By Saturday, the Post was reporting that the D.A. was "nowhere near convening a grand jury to seek rape charges against Ray Kelly’s newsman son, Greg — and it may never happen."

As one person who's been following the tabloid coverage remarked to Capital: "The whole thing seems sketchy."

"I'd be shocked if charges were filed," said another, "and I think most people would be, too."

Dominique Strauss-Kahn left his job at the I.M.F. the day after his arrest; but Kelly hasn't been arrested, and might not ever be.

In the worst-case career scenario, if the case did drag on or go to trial, Fox 5 might see Kelly as too much of a liability to keep around, regardless of whether he was eventually declared innocent.

But if the tabloids are on target, and the D.A. drops its investigation, Kelly will find himself in the position of assessing how much damage has been done.

And in his case, possibly even getting some help from the tabloids on the way back up.

In the past, scandal-tainted television news personalities have shown it is possible to remain in the public eye after the reputational fallout.

Dan Rather didn't let his termination from CBS News over a contentious report on George W. Bush's military service stop him from landing his own investigative news magazine on a cable channel. Dominick Carter likewise managed to find his way back to the airwaves two years after NY1 parted ways with him in 2009 in the midst of domestic violence proceedings in which the political journalist was eventually exonerated. And Rick Sanchez has been blessed with two second chances during his 30-year stint in TV news, one after being charged with a DUI that left a man paralyzed in 1990 while he was a cub anchorman for Miami's WSVN-TV; the other after CNN fired him in 2010 for making racially charged remarks about Jon Stewart during a satellite radio interview.

The catch is that they were all banished from prominent networks to the hinterlands of broadcast. Rather's second act took him to Mark Cuban's relatively obscure HD-Net; Carter's to a little-known Westchester-based outlet called RNN (Regional News Network); and Sanchez, well, he found a gig doing color commentary for Florida International University football.

In Kelly's case, the question is really whether the tabloids drop him as dead weight once he's no longer a scandal-object, or hoist him up as the noble victim of a vicious lie. This time around, unlike with D.S.K., they can do that without reversing course.

And that's likely to be good news for Kelly, as long as investigators do not once again have to reverse course.

"I think Greg will survive and thrive," said Howard Bragman, a long-time crisis-P.R. svengali and vice chairman of the online reputation management firm Reputation.com, who seems convinced of Kelly's innocence based on what he's read. "I think his career will be fine."

"This is fairly black and white," said a veteran TV news executive. "If they determine he didn't do it and there's no basis to file charges of any kind, it would be kind of hard for the guy's career to be ruined. If anything, it could help it in the short term by generating increased notoriety. People will want to watch his return to the show."

"If there's no basis for a criminal case, I don't think women viewers will hold it against him," said our source. "He doesn't have a history of this type of crime, he's not married. That's really what you'd worry about if you were a news director who has to put him on the air."

Asked whether Fox 5 would welcome Kelly back with open arms if the scandal blows over, a spokesperson for the network rehashed the same brief statement rattled off in previous reports by the network's general manager, Lew Leone: "Greg Kelly has requested some time off."

Nor did Kelly's publicist, Ken Sunshine, care to offer any insight into his client's reputation-management strategy.

"Not commenting at all," Sunshine told Capital in an email.

That, of course, would appear to be the strategy—at least for the time being.

But if and when Kelly's name is cleared?

"I'd encourage him to do the catharsis interview," said Bragman. "Sit down, do one interview with a journalist you respect, tell your side of the story, get a little teary, talk about the shame of being falsely accused."

And, Bragman thinks, the local newspapers are the place for him to do it.

"There's more space to tell the story," said Bragman. And: "I'd do local versus national. I wouldn't go national because that would only make the story bigger. Again, this has gotta play out first, whether it's days or weeks or months. But I think you'd want to get back in the saddle pretty quickly."

But, which paper?

"I'm not gonna choose between the New York papers, because it will depend on his own relationships, which he's obviously gotta have and his father's gotta have," he said. "The Times is a likely and obvious choice. But if, say, the Post were to break the news of who she is and who the boyfriend is, they'd be likely, too."

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