In a gay-themed ‘Post,’ Obama finishes second to John Travolta’s receipt from Mr. Chow

Today's tabloids, May 10, 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 day after President Barack Obama publicly declared his support for the right of gays to marry legally, the New York Post acknowledges the event with a thin blue strip at the bottom of the page, with yellow letters that read "OBAMA SAYS 'I DO' TO GAY NUPS."

A story about John Travolta, who is accused in a lawsuit by two male masseurs of inappropriate sexual advances, takes up the better part of the page. It got a splashy treatment yesterday, too.

The news today is that Travolta's lawyer has supplied what he calls evidence that Travolta was not in Los Angeles on the day one of the two masseurs claims to have been the victim of Travolta's unwanted request for sex. They include a receipt from Tribeca eatery Mr. Chow, where he says he met with producers (whose names he wrote on the bottom of the receipt) and spent $338 on dinner (with a generous $100 tip, too). Though the receipt page is labeled the "MERCHANT COPY," it isn't signed; that seems insignificant in light of the fact that the restaurant has confirmed he ate there. Of less evidentiary value are two photos taken of him getting a costume fitting at a designer's studio in Tribeca with digital time-stamps on them.

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The lawyer for the masseur claims both that the evidence is fabricated and that he can easily find other plaintiffs who will tell similar stories, so let's just say it does indeed seem like this lawyer isn't being too careful about what he takes on. But the real point is that the Post is having fun putting pictures of John Travolta next to double entendres about rubdowns with happy endings. Yesterday was "PULP FRICTION," and today, though there's new news in the case, they stick with he same idea: "RUB A DUB DUB." The dek reads "Travolta has NY 'grope' alibis."

Proving that really no tabloid-news bubble needs to burst, a thin strip across the top is given to Patricia Krentcil, whose face in today's papers looks a little like that of an exhausted Hobbit who has just stared into the fiery pits of Mount Doom, next to the words "Tan ban!" It's a deal that works out well for everybody: Tanning salons in North Jersey get "earned media" in the tabloids and all over the web for "banning" Krentcil, and the tabloids get another day out of the story, reporting as the Post did, that "At least 63 local tanning salons have banned the 44-year-old mom of four — saying she’s giving the industry a bad name." Presumably, if the Post had called 37 more, they'd have reached an even 100 before press time.

Daily News: There are news days where a story so dominates that readers' appetites for it expand, it seems, infinitely. These are stories that disprove the notion that the purpose of news is largely informational. People will read article after article about the story, perfectly happy to "waste their time" reading things they've already read to assemble the little nuggets themselves, and then look for more. We learned this about television some time ago. Do watchers of a big developing story—whether it's O.J. in the white Bronco or Elizabeth Smart or Sept. 11, turn off the television when it starts to repeat itself? Nope.

The problem is it can be hard to judge, for a local newspaper, whether to be local after a day like that. Obama's interview with Robin Roberts was not a local story, but then again, is any local story as important to most New York readers as this was? It's a difficult judgment, and clearly the News has made a different decision from the Post on it today. "GAY OK!" reads the enormous black type across the top of the page. Rainbow bunting is shopped in behind a silhouette of Barack Obama speechifying in a seemingly unrelated photo. Two bullet points: "Hops off fence with historic stance" and "Says talks with daughters led to decision." The paper advertises a two-page spread.

The only concession to other news is a reefer to sports: "MO CLOT SCARE" read the yellow letters set in a thin blue strip across the top of the page, with the silhouetted face of Mariano Rivera peeking out of the left-hand side. "YANKEES CLOSER FACES SURGERY DELAY."

Observations: In this space I've largely encouraged the papers to avoid simply rehasing yesterday's big news and to give us something local that's important and original to them. But there are limits. The Post actually looks more marginal, in a way, giving the Obama interview a tiny strip across the bottom than it would have if the paper had ignored the thing altogether. Which is usually a good sign they just should have led with it.

The thing that I find poignant and a little depressing is the tension between the Travolta story and the gay-marriage one. Let's be honest: The fight between these masseurs and Travolta's lawyers is not about sexual harassment or assault; it's about Travolta's reputation, and the degree to which people are likely to think him gay as a result of these accusations. Let's not forget that Travolta is an active Scientologist, or the role that the Church of Scientology, recently going retail with television ads in a bid to recruit new members, has played in advocating backward laws like California's Proposition 8. The belief that fashionable Hollywood is overwhelmingly in support of gay marriage is probably correct, but a story like this is a reminder how complicated that can be.

Putting that all aside, though, it seems to me that Krentcil and Travolta are both too old, and too little a part of what it meant to be around yesterday, to have pushed Obama off the front. The Post looks parochial and marginal today as a result.

Winner: Daily News.