9:41 am May. 17, 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?
The similarities between the two tabloid covers this morning are more remarkable at first glance than the differences.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Mary, who was found dead yesterday in a barn on her estate in Westchester, were a prominent couple active in environmental charities and nonprofits, and pictured together frequently at events over the course of their 18-year marriage. Yet one particular photograph of the couple, taken by photographer Michael Buckner at a Utah fund-raiser for Kennedy's Waterkeeper Alliance in early December, 2010, appears on both front pages.
It's one of a set in which the two are shot twice with each other and several times with other celebrities who were at the fund-raiser, including singer KT Tunstall and actor Cheryl Hines.
At the time of the Utah fund-raiser reports had already emerged that Kennedy had filed for divorce, and there were some public incidents in which police were called to the Bedford house. There was also a D.U.I. arrest for Mary Kennedy. It's really the last photograph in which the two appear to be a couple, though the marriage had broken down by then. (Mary Kennedy's lawyer is telling reporters the divorce was not final.)
The difference between the two papers' presentation is in the text.
"KENNEDY SUICIDE," reads the knockout-white text at the bottom of the News front. A red strip across the bottom contains the dek: "RFK Jr's wife, Mary, found hanged."
The picture is a close-in crop of the couple's faces from the Buckner photograph.
The Post has more to say.
At the top, over the couple's heads, knockout-white text over a red underline reads, "Kennedy curse strikes again." The big knockout-white text at the bottom reads "RFK Jr. WIFE DEAD," and there's another short dek that reads "Body found in NY home." There's also a bit of lead text that begins: "Another tragedy has struck the Kennedy family. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s estranged wife, Mary, hanged herself yesterday at their Westchester home."
At first, I thought perhaps the News had decided to take a liberty the Post hadn't. Yesterday, local police would only confirm that they had been called to the house to respond to an "unattended death." That was it. Statements from various members of the Kennedy family did not address the circumstances surrounding her death but confirmed that she was dead. Perhaps the Post felt, as the Times apparently did, that the headline couldn't quite come down on suicide? All the papers talk to friends of the late Kennedy wife, who characterized her death as a suicide and said she left a note. But none of them are named.
And yet, if suicide isn't quite well enough established to form the headline, why is it in the lede sentence, declared as an established fact?
It's a nitpick, but the reason it's worth considering is that it gives the News the win today. From the moment yesterday evening when I got a news alert on my iPhone about the death and read that she was found hanged in an outbuilding on the estate, I figured suicide. So the News is possibly not delivering more information in the headline than the Post is. But the overall decisiveness of the headline is what makes it work better than the Post's half-measures.
An irrelevant bit now: Inside the paper, the coverage emphasizes an advantage the News has on these kinds of stories. Richard Johnson is no longer with the Post, having instead redirected his efforts toward News Corp.'s iPad app, The Daily, where he edits Hollywood news. Page Six is in the hands of British import Emily Smith.
The story of the Kennedys in New York is one of long historical relationships. Joanna Molloy, who perhaps was not as dogged in the old days about maudlin celebrity news as her counterparts over at the Post, has the advantage here. The bylines on the Post stories belong mostly to crime reporters, with Smith's name just one among the bunch; Molloy gives a long history of the relationship between gossip reporters and the couple.
So the playing field may be even when it comes to younger, newer stars, but when something happens with the Kennedys, institutional knowledge wins.
Winner: Daily News.