A complaint from two masseurs gives tabloids many ways of calling John Travolta gay

Today's tabloids, May 9, 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 latest news about John Travolta is that two more people are saying he's gay. There is a history of this stretching back decades, which depending on your point of view makes it either more likely to be true (where there's smoke, lots and lots of smoke ...) or less likely (there's a market for shipping "Travolta is gay" material, and relatively little risk involved). And, yes, the real news is that two male masseurs have accused Travolta of touching them inappropriately or demanding sex acts from them.

That's news on its own, but if the masseuses had been women, the news would have been the fact that he is accused of assault. The most newsworthy element of the story, given that the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit are men, is that if they're telling the truth, Travolta's gay.

But the reason something's news isn't always the same thing as the way you spin it. Look at today's Post, which has fun with Photoshop, putting the smiling face of Travolta over a stock photo of a man being massaged by another man's arms. Way in the background his feet are up, crossed at the ankles, like he's having the time of his life. But those male arms are the only thing that indicate a gay element to the story: the yellow text says "PULP FRICTION," styled to look like the title of Travolta's big comeback movie of similar-sounding name. "Second lewd rubdown claim vs. Travolta."

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But let's go to the main news story.

"BLIND SPOT," reads the giant black text. There's no photo with the story. "We'd have missed new undie bomber." The subjective mood here is important, since of course the person who worked with Al Qaeda in Yemen to develop this new plot to sew an explosive into his undies and board a flight bound for the United States was a double agent working with Saudi intelligence all along (with approval from the Central Intelligence Agency), and also because the Post's sources dispute what many intelligence sources are telling other news outlets, which is that current security in the United States would detect the bomb.

The problem is that the U.S. doesn't set the security standard for flights originating at airports not under U.S. jurisdiction. So who is to say that the bomb would be found in Jakarta, if a terrorist boarded a flight from there to Los Angeles? That's not so much about the bomb tech as it is about antiterror protections at international airports.

And on the left, a little strip heralds Andy Pettitte major-league return on Mother's Day. "Pettitte gets the call," reads the knockout-white text under a picture of Pettitte, looking focused.

Daily News: The News doesn't need Photoshop to get a good picture of Travolta, his chest peeping out of the top of a blue terry robe from a hotel in Hawaii, it looks like. And they've got the same idea about the headline, "PULP FRICTION," though a few other contenders dot the front page and the inside story. A red bar across the top says "LOOK WHO'S TALKING, TOO!" which is a reference to a less-good Travolta flick and to the second masseur to join the lawsuit against him. Inside, the headline is "REVOLTA." And there's the joke you'd expect in the dek: "Second massage guy claims that Travolta rubbed him wrong way."

It's pretty much a full-page takeover, unless you count another "BASEBALL BINGO" tout in the lower left, or a tiny picture of the 2 train with the words "SECRET BEHIND SUBWAY DELAYS" (which is just a study from the Straphangers Campaign blaming old signals for delays).

Observations: I'm with Carrie Fischer on this Travolta thing: I don't care. But I see why it's big. And really, in a lot of ways it is important beyond the tabloid hype. The charges, let's not forget, are very serious. And also he is a supporter of Scientology, a group whose political influence over government policies toward gays became clear during the Proposition 8 battle in California.

Don't expect any of this to make its way into the coverage. And in fact, don't expect anything to happen except for this lawsuit to disappear in a morass of confusing settlements and take-backs. It's been going on for 20 years and it will probably go on forever.

That said, it's great tabloid stuff. And the News makes a bigger meal of it. Having dispatched with the terror story yesterday, they're free to let it go today, and they're leaving the Post with the short end of the terror-story stick.

Winner: Daily News.