Speculating about Whitney Houston’s cause of death, just like everyone else

Today's tabloids, Feb. 13, 2012. ()
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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?

New York Post: Really everybody had the same question Saturday night after learning of the death of pop star Whitney Houston: How did she die? Much of Saturday evening and Sunday were spent speculating on that; since she died alone in her hotel bathroom, a coroner's report, not likely available til later this week, is the only confirmation we'll get. But that hasn't stopped the speculation, nor has it stopped the leaks, if the anonymous sources with "knowledge" being quoted on the web and in the papers this morning know enough to be leakers. But it's safe to say where the speculation was last night, as the papers went to bed: She died in her bathtub, either from slipping under the surface of the water and drowning after taking prescription medication, or from an overdose.

The Post has a clear vote this morning: "DIVA'S LAST HOURS: Whitney 'drowned' with help steps away." There's some lede text too:

Tragic pop icon Whitney Houston may have drowned after taking powerful sedatives to calm her nerves before a pre-Grammy Awards appearance and then falling asleep in her hotel bathtub. And, in a heartbreaking twist, there were at least four aides outside the bathroom door, all unaware anything was wrong until her worried hairdresser went in and found her. A coroner's autopsy found that there was water in her lungs.

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But the paper stops short of saying that drowning is the cause of death: The coroner's report is not yet out, and in fact as of this morning, some reports (of varying levels of credibility) are claiming inside knowledge that the coroner found there was not enough water in her lungs to have drowned her (or more likely that the water entered her lungs after death). So it was taking a chance. Reading between the lines inside the piece it's hard to tell when the Post is repeating anonymous reports from TMZ.com, which is cited as the source in several places, and when the paper is acting on its own.

Importantly, the picture is a recent one of Houston looking fantastic, in a fur jacket and wearing her hair in short curls. Near the text is a small picture of the coroner's van outside Houston's hotel.

Daily News: The News takes a different tack with the picture: It shows Whitney looking a little dazed and very bedraggled, her face all pores and in bad lighting; it's a paparazzo shot of her at the end of a pre-Grammy party late last week where several published reports have Houston getting very drunk. Photoshopped onto the picture is a bottle of pills open and spilling out onto the black space of the picture. "RX FOR DEATH" reads the main hed; "Whitney found in tub with Valium and Xanax near her." No particular claims on the front page about cause of death, and similar caution inside, including a similar degree of dependence on reports published on TMZ.com. But the valence of this cover is to suggest that it was the drugs that killed Houston directly, not the drowning.

Observations: What difference does all this speculation make in the end? I suspect it's as simple as you think: If Houston drowned in the tub after taking enough pills to make her lose consciousness but not enough to be called, precisely, an "overdose," then she died by accident. If the drugs themselves killed her, then she died of a drug overdose. The former is more dignified, by a degree. On that interpretation, both papers have rushed to judgment, though the News less explicitly. What matters this morning at the newsstand, though, is not which paper turns out to be right later on; people aren't waiting for the coroner's report to decide which tabloid to buy.

I strongly suspect the News showed better news judgment this morning, but I don't think that will win them much favor on the newsstand. The fact is Houston looks awful, and the whole thing feels ghoulish and mean. The story from the Post has narrative to it: She was so close to being savable, after all. Her aides were right there. She slipped under the water under the influence of sedatives meant to make the entire ordeal of the Grammys endurable; it ended in tragedy. I think this is the version people want to read this morning, even if it's not correct.

It's a little difficult to reward the Post for jumping the gun, but this isn't a contest of journalistic method.

Winner: New York Post.