10:45 am Apr. 20, 20123
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: One of the reasons the Anglo-American liberal sensibility, as a rule, winces at the idea of prostitution, officially, is that it's considered dangerous to put a valuation on some portion of one's body. The implication is that a total dollar value of a total life can be derived from that, which undercuts everything we think Westernism is founded upon. Of course, sex work is a special category for this: Marxists have argued for a long time that wages for any work essentially do the same thing, but for lots of reasons that doesn't bug us too much. And Marxists are not liberals.
So I imagine there will be a lot of trouble for the Post this morning in their presentation of one of the first pictures of Dania Suarez, the prostitute at the center of the present Secret Service sex scandal.
"C'mon! She's worth $800," reads the knockout-white text at the bottom of a photo of Suarez that takes up a vertical half of the page. Right above that it says "Secret service hooker revealed."
What they mean, of course, is that the agent who haggled with Suarez over an apparently agreed-upon $800 fee was being a cheapskate. I'm not sure what I was expecting of a successful prostitute's looks in a city where prostitution is legal in certain quarters, but it probably shouldn't have been a surprise that she is very attractive in conventional terms: Skinny and curvy, with a pleasant face. Presumably if she were an iota less good-looking, the copy would have gone the other way.
At any rate, once her name was revealed it was only necessary to quickly screenshot all her Facebook pictures to create a permanent pictorial record. At least it will no longer be necessary for the tabloids to use fakey stock photos of unidentifiable women in alluring poses on the front page.
You can bet that if the Post had been the first to identify Suarez and to publish her picture on the front page, it would have taken over the whole thing.
But now it's time to go over to the other side of the Post front, to the news which has many of us scrambling down memory lane: The case of the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz (by the way, the test of a longtime New Yorker is whether a person knows the last name is pronounced "pates," not "pats"), reopened in 2010, appears to have gotten somewhere. The boy was walking himself to the school bus (for the first time) in Soho one morning more than 30 years ago never made it to school, and was declared dead in 2001. Suspicion has centered on one sex offender already in jail in Pennsylvania. But after initial tests with "scent pads" placed on the concrete floor of a Soho building basement got a reaction from dogs trained to find human remains, the dogs were brought to the location, and zoomed to the boiler room. Now, the basement is being taken apart.
There are a few things that are amazing about the Etan Patz case in retrospect.
First of all, the fact that Patz would have been allowed to walk to the school bus himself at all at the age of six. I'm roughly the same age as Patz would have been had he lived, and I can tell you that I walked to school with my brother and a friend every morning, about eight blocks, in a not-great section of the Bronx. But it's easy to forget, even for me, that kids were on much longer leashes in the city back then. It's not that Soho was particularly safe in 1979; Soho, like pretty much everything south of 14th Street except the very strictly defined western part of Greenwich Village, was a dicey proposition.
Second, would you like to guess when Patz was called in as a missing person by his parents? 3:30 p.m. I find it difficult to imagine today that parents of a six-year-old who doesn't make it to school wouldn't be called by the school. Even when I was a kid, the attendance lists from the morning went down to an office where a secretary called each parent of each child not in attendance, getting to all of them by around 10 a.m.
Third: Would you like to know the reason why the basement wasn't dug up in 1979 when investigators chased a lead in the case there? Because the landlord said the NYPD would have to pay to restore the concrete floor if they busted it up, and the NYPD didn't foot the bill. They are footing it now.
The Post has been covering this story for 33 years. It's simple enough to draw the conclusion from where police and the F.B.I. are looking now that a body in that basement would implicate Othniel Miller, a local handyman who had his workshop below the gallery back then but who now lives in Brooklyn. The Post gives us an unsavory-looking photo of Miller on the right, and a picture of Patz on the left that is as familiar pretty much as any picture could be; the word iconic is overused to the point where it no longer quite does justice to it.
Patz was the first child to be featured on a milk carton. Since milk was locally distributed, advertising on cartons tended to be local, and Patz's parents were famous for their zeal in getting Patz's picture out as widely as possible in the hopes of finding some information. The whole story is so compelling, we don't need much more than we get here: "ETAN CLUE," with a dek that reads "New suspect; feds search city basement."
Across the bottom, an old standby: Corcoran Group broker Carrie Chiang, who is famous for handling the real-estate needs of famous people, has been trying for some time to hock Derek Jeter's unbelievable Trump World Tower apartment; a price drop, usually bad news for a broker, can at least be turned into a marketing opportunity if you make a deal with a paper to publish lots of breathtaking high-resolution photos of the interior. Everyone wins: Chiang gets another infusion of interest in her listing (her commission will easily net her more than a million dollars if she finds a buyer) and the Post gets an "inside" look at a celebrity home that said celebrity is actually about to ditch and doesn't really use anymore. "Exclusive photos: Jeter's Manhattan bachelor pad" reads the yellow text in a red stripe across the bottom of the page.
Daily News: Back to Suarez! So the thing is, the Post was not first to publish pictures of her; the News was, yesterday, online. The problem of course is that the "exclusive," especially when it comes to photography that you don't yourself own, is worth a rat's ass online. Hear the sound of a million bloggers right-clicking on all those photos the second you publish them? That's the sound of your "exclusive" becoming worthless.
It's a print game, really. Now, I'm not sure what the process was here: Perhaps the News realized that if they didn't win the race to the "publish" button on these pictures, someone else would. Neither the News nor anyone I can find seems to take credit for identifying Suarez by name first. The Facebook photos are simply the natural next step, available to everyone. So there is something a little desperate about the News' cover today, which has the same picture as the Post but has blown it up a little more, cropped it a little less. The result of the blowing up is that the picture is a little blurry. "At your service!" reads the white text in black outline with a drop shadow; I'm not sure why it's not all caps. "REVEALED: Agents' cash-money honey." And now for the desperate part: The big red circle up near the top with the words, "WE BRING YOU ALL THE HOT EXCLUSIVES FIRST."
All the same, I do wonder what happened inside the Post newsroom yesterday after those pictures came online. Their man in Cartagena certainly got on the case; what's inside the News and the Post, both, is largely chat with neighbors who are either surprised or totally not surprised to learn that Suarez is a prostitute.
Observations: It would be pretty silly to award the star to the News for getting these photos online yesterday in a competition for print-newsstand readers today in which the Post has the same photo, looking slightly better. If the Post alienates readers with its coarser approach, I also think the News makes a mistake trying to plant a flag in print. The newspaper should be allowed to be a newspaper after all, just as the website must be allowed to be the website. As far as the newspaper is concerned, the photos are no longer exclusive; insisting they are doesn't help. We're not choosing a paper to reward yesterday's online journalism, are we? If so the tabloids really don't have a future.
Plus, frankly, Suarez is a fantastic cover story, really the answer to a tabloid editor's dream, but so is Patz. I find it surprising that the News didn't front it.
Winner: New York Post.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified the address where police are searching for the remains of Etan Patz as having been a gallery of gay-themed art; this is incorrect. I apologize, and also thank my readers for being smart enough to know better than me, and kind enough to help me correct myself.