Tim Tebow looms over the Jets, and New York, and they’re not the same thing

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Today's tabloids, March 22, 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: The story of Tim Tebow being signed to the New York Jets in a trade with the Denver Broncos is really two related stories. First, there's the story of the famous quarterback, with his public displays of religiosity, his boyish good looks and his end-zone prayer antics, to be served up to the New York that cheers for the home team but reads more about them in the real-estate and gossip columns than the back page. Then there is the New York of sports fans—both Jets fans and otherwise—who want the team to win.

Newspapers like the Post have to be game for anything. You want to "Tebow" in front of the Jets store in Midtown? We'll interview you! Are you a priest at a small evangelical parish in Manhattan? We'd like to talk to you about how happy you are a man of faith is about to occupy such a prominent position in city society! Are you the proprietress of a strip club? We'd like to talk to you about how badly you want Tebow to yield to a lap dance! Are you a bar owner eager for promotion? We'll let you invent a signature mocktail, "No Sex on the Beach," on the spot in the pages of our paper. Do you collect shirtless pictures of Mark Sanchez? We've got a tale-of-the-tape comparing Tebow's cute personal life (a virgin at 24!) to party-boy Sanchez. (Sample: In the category "Saving himself for ..." the Sanchez line reads "Not saving himself," and Tebow's reads, "Marriage."

But: Are you a Jets fan? We've got all the commiseration you want about how this is really about Woody Johnson needing to sell more seats even in what is might be a crappy season. We've got the pro and con arguments on whether a strategy that has been focused on the incredibly expensive and reputedly pouty and possessive Mark Sanchez will be rendered useless by the presence of the team's new mediocre thrower. Are you a "Money Ball" type? We've got plenty about how the finances will work, given the $32 million the team has already put in Sanchez's pocket. We've even got the fuzzy big-picture arguments about the team's persona: Will Sanchez and Tebow hate each other? Can a team with coach Rex Ryan, who made the front page of the tabloids for posting foot-fetish videos on YouTube, and can Sanchez survive another "off-field distraction"? (I'm never sure how much this kind of stuff actually distracts. Are football players as dumb as crows, distracted by shiny objects in their peripheral vision and missing plays?) Anyway, we've got that stuff, too.

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But how to package it all together? Pretty simple: Give the front page to the voyeurs and the back page to people who care about the game. Open today's Post at the middle and lay it down with the two covers facing up and the schizophrenia is clear. On the front: Tim Tebow in his signature "end-zone prayer" position is photoshopped like Gulliver over a Lilliputian Times Square (see, it's the center of New York decadence, symbolically if not factually). "GOD HIM!" reads the big white text at the bottom of the page. This isn't quite an endorsement of the deal. But there's more display. A dek at the top of the page reads "Tebow a New York Jet." Straight news, again. Here's the caption: "Holy hunk tim Tebow is bringing his magic to New york after a dramatic Jets' [sic] trade with Denver late last night." The way you know this isn't for sports fans is the hunk reference, and the reference to his "magic."

Flip to the back, though, for the other side of the story: "NO-RING CIRCUS" reads the big white text (get it? No Super Bowl ring). Rex Ryan is on the left in this photomontage, screaming into his mouthpiece in a familiar pose. Tebow is in the center, looking outraged in his Denver Broncos full gear. (The helmet would get in the way of a picture on the front page; Tebow's looks are a part of the appeal there.) On the right, Mark Sanchez looks annoyed, his left hand clenched and his fingers apparently rubbing together; it's like he's thinking, "Wait a minute, what's this guy gonna do to my set-up here?" The dek: "Jets are clowns for bringing Tebow under tent." It's attributed to no columnist in particular—just the dek covering all the Tebow coverage in the section (four pages of it).

Daily News: I have to hand it to the News: This is a nice picture of Tebow. And they got one thing right: His face is huge. You really do know what he looks like (and that is, much more familiar and less exceptional than you are often led to think). But it's a genuine smile that creeps up to the eyes, and gives us some of why Tebow is so well loved by people who know and work with him. (We'll see if Antonio Cromartie, who continued to tweet his objections to the hire through the evening yesterday, warms up.) "AMEN!" reads the giant hed in white type at the bottom, which is pretty unmistakably the paper's own endorsement of the deal. "Gang green gets Tebow" reads the relatively huge dek up top. Two pages in the front section, and a reference to the sports section here, too.

But flip the paper over: Were you expecting something like the Post? You'll be disappointed. Now, I know it's just mean, but I was never a huge fan of the cartoons by Ed Murawinski, which always look to me like they were pastelled out in 10 minutes at a portrait station at a Bar Mitzvah. The conceit here is obvious and not particularly ingenious; the Statue of Liberty is Tebowing on her pedestal, one eye cocked up looking at the reader. "TEBOW TOWN" reads the big white type at the bottom. "Brace yourself, Big Apple, timsanity is officially upon us!"

I can't begin to count the ways this dek stinks. Anytime someone who writes for a newspaper tells you to "brace yourself" you know that you have a choice: Whether to decide to pretend to care about what they are talking about just for the fun of participating, or groan and drop the thing in the nearest recycling tub. It's the newspaper equivalent of "Let's face it," followed by some mundanity that does not need to be "faced" with anything but equanimity or even disinterest. I'll leave it there to get to the bigger point: The News has taken the reverse step on a big citywide sports story from the one you expect, and not in a good way. Instead of deciding to take over the general-interest front page story with a sports story, they've taken over the specialized sports page with the general-interest story.

Observations: OK, but we're not judging on back pages, right? So first of all, I wonder if it's possible that the Murawinski was commissioned for the front and relegated to the back page by editor Colin Myler. It's well known that on news stories in daily newspapers, it's rare for a pure illustration to have as much impact as a photo or photomontage. That's just the truth. It's all well and good for The New Yorker, or New York, or The New York Observer, but not for the tabloids. If that's the case, this straightforward close-up photo of Tebow was a nice save. That it hobbled the back page with an illustration that constrained their spin on the story is neither here nor there. The question though is whether the front of the News portrays "Tebowmania" at all: It doesn't. The Post does, simply by having a giant Tebow Tebowing on Times Square. If the Holy Hunk is going to move papers from the front page, it's going to be with covers like this, not straight news sales about his football career. This should hardly be a surprise, since the Post knows its two cover audiences well enough to play the same story completely differently to each; if the News can't even figure out what its sports readers want to see on the back page, how to entrust them with the entire city?

Winner: New York Post.