The face of Etan Patz, and the house in Maple Shade, N.J.
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?
Daily News: There are several remarkable things about the News' efforts on the Etan Patz story today.
First: The sheer number of pages. Following a practice that used to belong to the Post, the News lists the page numbers for effect on the cover: "FULL STORY—PAGES 2,3,4,5,6,7,8."
Second: It begins right on page 2, a rarity even for the biggest stories. But it says something: Today, you open page 1 and you don't want a "front of book," or familiar columnists or Metro Briefs. You want the Patz story.
Third: The luxuriousness of the layouts. Space was clearly not a consideration here, but it wasn't wasted either, really. The opening spread has a huge picture of Pedro Hernandez, the former SoHo bodega stock-boy who now has told police he lured Patz into his store, across the street from the boy's school-bus stop, strangled him, then disposed of the remains in a trash receptacle When he returned a couple days later to look for them, he says, they were gone.
This picture isn't big on the front page really for one reason: All of the pictures of him are tiny, and most are screenshots from the television program "Inside Edition." A combination aerial photo and map of the three blocks that made up Patz's doomed journey that school morning in May of 1979 is the facing page, with giant letters reading "174 STEPS TO HIS DEATH" across the bottom. (Counting the steps feels like an old Joseph Pulitzer move, and I think it's great.)
There's a box containing police commissioner Ray Kelly's full announcement of the arrest. The next spread is similarly full of enormous photos, giving us a picture of Patz's parents today big enough to focus on, and even larger pictures of Hernandez's wife and daughter as they drove away form the mob scene at their suburban New Jersey home.
There's a timeline of the case; a column from Joanna Molloy about how it was raining the day Patz was abducted, and the school didn't call his parents, and how evidence was washed away as a result. She investigates the current system for notifying parents of kids' absences and finds it wanting.
The pages with reports from Maple Shade, N.J. has an enormous picture of parents pushing strollers past Hernandez's house, and a neighbor who shared a wall with Hernandez in their two-family house. The last page, an orphan (it's on the left, with a full page Macy's ad on the right) is missable entry from Mike Lupica, which, whatever.
The fact that Patz's father Stanley was a professional photographer is strangely a key to the whole story of the country's obsession with the Patz case: There is a wealth of beautiful professional photography of Patz available to the press as a result. An art director couldn't ask for more than the sober photo of Patz that's on both tabloid fronts today, looking directly and piercingly at the reader through those dark-blue eyes, in his ratty blue-and-white polo shirt.
With all of this, it's shocking to see the headline the News chose: "Etan: Choked Bagged Dumped in trash." For some reason the middle three lines are underlined. The lack of a concession to the slightest grammar, removing the commas, was probably an art choice, but it seems almost to add to the slapdash cruelty of the headline. This happened to Patz 33 years ago. What happened today is that he and his family look, finally, like they might get some justice.
The small picture of Hernandez at the bottom is lined up with text that reads "AND HERE'S HIS KILLER." The fact is, you could choose a large picture of Hernandez and go for the "DEAD EYES OF A MONSTER" treatment, with a small Patz inset with a line that says "JUSTICE FOR ETAN PATZ AFTER 33 YEARS," say; or you can go big with the picture of Patz and reverse the valence of the headlines. The News played a game of mix-and-match and lost.
New York Post: Whereas the Post has done the converse in almost every way. The cover, with its amateurish silhouetting of the portrait, doesn't do it justice. White on black was the right type-and-background choice here, and the Post did not make it. But they match the right headline with the right picture: "ETAN CASE SOLVED" and "NJ man charged in '79 murder."
Mind-bogglingly, the front refers readers to "PAGES 4-5" when in fact the Post has twice as much coverage. Not that it stacks up: They match or exceed the News with their full-page map with callouts of Prince Street and West Broadway, but the lead-all feels rushed and even forced, with two tiny pictures of Hernandez's house and his wife and daughter in a car. A fantastic photo of the Patzes standing on their fire escape back in 1979, as if looking out right at that moment for their son's return, is paired with a story we've heard a million times before about the Patz's influence on the country's responses to child-abduction.
There's a worthless column by Andrea Peyser that uses no real evidence whatsoever to yell at the police for overlooking Hernandez, and at unnamed family members of Hernandez for not going to the police sooner.
The Post focused on SoHo neighbors instead of New Jersey neighbors, which was the wrong choice. Does anybody in SoHo feel "safer" now that Hernandez is behind bars? SoHo is safer because it's rich now, full-stop. It's the notion of this killer retiring to a leafy suburb, to a small house abutting a baseball field, that is chilling, and it's his neighbors who can tell us about him.
Observations: You know those true-crime shows that begin with a warning that "what you are about to see" is gruesome? I've never been sure whether those things might attract more viewers than they deflect. But I consider the News to be a version of that which is, even worse, in poor taste. It's a shame, because they did a much better job covering the story. I just think readers won't find out unless they want to revel in the torture Patz went through that day, rather than reading about its resolution.
Winner: New York Post.