9:35 am Mar. 14, 2012
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: There's a theme running through the tabloids today. As both papers scratch for "news" in the slow-going early phases of the prosecution of East Side Madam Anna Gristina to keep the story alive, a gift arrived yesterday in the form of the woman sought by investigators as a key accomplice in Gristina's alleged enterprise.
30-year-old Williamsburg resident Jaynie Mae Baker "faces a possible seven years in prison if convicted of running a $2,000-per-visit escort service for millionaire clients, an operation that prosecutors say they are investigating for yet-to-be-described links to police protection," but was released on $100,000 bail yesterday, posted by her boyfriend, Long Islander Marcus Laun. Baker was characterized as being on the lam when the story of the East Side Madam broke last week. Her lawyers said she had been visiting her sister in Los Angeles and took a flight with her to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico before she knew she was wanted in New York. She came back as soon as she could get a flight he said.
Here's a little line from the Post I want to call out: "Lead prosecutor Charles Linehan countered in court yesterday that news of Baker’s indictment had already broken last week—in The Post—when Baker took her flight."
I don't know if that aside about the Post was actually said by the lawyer or inserted by Post editors; either way, every editor at the Post knows it is untrue. The story was broken by the website DNAinfo; the News picked it up next day and did lots of original reporting around the edges, and put it on its front page, Tuesday. The Post ran an inside squib with little news, and didn't get its own take on the story till Wednesday morning's papers, some 36 hours later. The fact that it's probably too much of an insider's objection for readers choosing a paper at the newsstands is true enough, so it won't count against the Post today. Nervy, though.*
Anyway, to the front: The theme running through the tabloids is that while Anna Gristina is a "soccer mom" (read: a little aged, a little dumpy in the fashion department though it's more a reflection of her priorities than her abilities in the glamor department, maybe a little thicker around the relevant parts than ideal) who, surprisingly, allegedly ran a prostitution ring, Baker is still very much a looker. So we have this photo of the young, tall, thin woman with long, auburn hair framing her chiseled face, and the big word "MADAMN!" in knockout-white type. "All eyes on stunning E. Side 'call girl' aide" reads the dek.
I have a theory that "stunning" actually means a little too tall and thin, and a little pointy-featured; the kind of woman who would make an excellent Hollywood version of the wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It can also cover beautiful, thin women who have prominent noses, as long as they are also "Greek" or "Roman." (See here, with a warning that this is old and offensive, though utterly safe for work.) But I think there is secret code in almost every word used to compliment a woman's appearance—and that if it's born out nowhere else it is certainly in the linguistic subconscious of the tabloids. Anyway: All this is to say that Baker is news because she is "stunning," which would not be news about someone in her station in life if not for the fact that she is tied up in the Gristina probe. Gristina is, in some pictures, "pretty," or "nice-looking," and not much more.
Daily News: This is all actually getting us somewhere, I promise. Because the News pretty much takes over its front page with the same story. A different headline: "HOT AND COOL." Now, "hot" is not the same thing as "stunning." To me it doesn't even really belong in the same category of compliment. It's almost not a compliment. To me, "hot" covers a variety of different looks; it also has to do with presentation. When men use the word, they usually mean something about the woman's appearance suggests to them that they are game. Which is why I've never really been comfortable with it. Consider that pictures of people can be "hot," and that usually means they are revealing or suggestive. The News dek reads: "Madam's little 'helper' hits the court in style." Which adds a new element: Baker is fashionable. For reasons set forth above, this is another contrast between Baker and Gristina, or at least the paper thinks we are inclined to believe that.
Observations: So there are really two things distinguishing the tabloids today, each of which uses a picture of the same woman taken at the same event, and each of which takes the same angle on her in the sale. One is the choice of picture, and the other is the choice of text. "HOT AND COOL" is pretty worthless. I'm not sure what phrase it's meant to evoke: "blowing hot and cold"? Are they saying she's cool, like Fonzi, and hot, meaning you totally want to get with that? It's just some words really filling up the space; there's no energy in them, and they fight each other without any resolution. The dek is just information; there's no joke or pun or anything interesting in there, unless "little helper" is supposed to evoke a chuckle for some reason. So I give the text to the Post; I think you're supposed to read it like "ma-DAMN!" and the DAMN! is supposed to sound something like what an awestruck man might say laying eyes upon a "hot" woman. It doesn't really read that well though. They should have fooled around with the orthography a bit to see if they couldn't tease that pronunciation more easily out of the newsstand visitor who shoots a quick glance at the cover.
Now, picture choice. Not only were both photos taken at the same court appearance, both are sourced from the same place: the Associated Press. With both papers looking for a picture that shows how striking, or hot, Baker is, the Post chooses a photo in which she is wearing frameless glasses and a heavy red would coat, and is locked arm-in-arm with her lawyer. It seems as though she's outside, either walking in or out of the court building. The News chooses an indoor photo of her in which she is wearing an impeccably fitting blouse, open to the chest, her long, thin neck revealed and her jawline set like marble in the foreground. No glasses. And that guy in the glasses is out-of-focus and barely visible behind her right shoulder.
In this case, though, both pictures give you the idea; the Post making the wrong photo choice isn't enough to lose them the fight today, when the News text is so limp. Today's win has a big fat asterisk though, for lying about breaking the story. Sometime in the future I'll be able to give demerits to the Post for this sort of thing in a different kind of column.
Winner: New York Post.
*CORRECTION: The question of who "broke" the hunt for Jaynie Mae Baker is a little more complicated than it looked to me at first.
DNAinfo broke the big story, about the arrest of Anna Gristina, on Monday March 5. Early Tuesday, they updated it, adding that "police were searching for a woman believed to be Gristina's associate—Jaynie Mae Baker, 30, a recruiter for a high-end matchmaking service VIP Life, sources told DNAinfo ... Prosecutors have not revealed what role, if any, they think Baker played in the ring."
At 11:07 a.m. on March 6, the Post went live with a story that read: "Accused millionaire madam Anna Gristina had an alleged partner in crime—gorgeous strawberry-blonde Jaynie Baker, who three sources told The Post today is Gristina's indicted but unapprehended accomplice."
So DNAinfo first reported that police were "looking to question" Baker, and Leela de Kretser, the editor in chief and publisher of DNAinfo, told me that their update, which identified Baker as "an associate" of Gristina, preceded the Post's Baker story.
But it was the Post that ID'd her first as an indicted conspirator, meaning that their claim to have reported that one fact first was, as far as I can tell, correct.
I have left the original text in place above for clarity.