Etan Patz ‘proof’ that doesn’t prove anything yet

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Today's tabloids, June 8, 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: It's another Etan Patz exclusive, from the New York Police Department, in the New York Post!

Last Tuesday I argued that "what [the tabloids are] selling on the front pages is tied to their best sources, and right now that appears to be the F.B.I. for the News and the NYPD in the Post."

Notwithstanding the laser-like focus of this column on the two tabloids, the real significance of that is the ongoing turf war between the two law-enforcement agencies. For the always-anonymous Federal Bureau of Investigation sources feeding the News, that war means casting doubt on the possibility that the recent confession of Pedro Hernandez obtained by the NYPD will result in a conviction, or even whether Hernandez killed Patz at all. For the almost-always-anonymous NYPD sources feeding the Post, that means making sure the Post gets an exclusive on every tidbit from the investigation that might seem, even for a moment, to bolster Hernandez's confession.

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Last Tuesday the Post promised that police had a "secret clue," information about the crime police believed could only be in the possession of Patz's killer—though the paper did not say anything about what it might be besides getting guesses from third parties. And we have not heard anything about the "secret clue" since, from the Post or anyone else.

Today, the Post goes one better, saying their sources have told them police may have obtained "proof" corroborating Hernandez's confession during a ten-hour-long search of his house in Maple Shade, N.J. yesterday.

"NYPD detectives found an old toy and worn clothing that are 'age appropriate' for Etan Patz hidden in the New Jersey home of the boy’s confessed killer," the Post reports. "Investigators planned to test the items for DNA—and hope they will serve as key evidence in the murder case against 51-year-old former SoHo bodega stockboy Pedro Hernandez, the sources said."

I was immediately struck by the fact that long before DNA evidence might be obtained, the clothing and toy might well be identified by the Patz family.

According to reports describing Hernandez's confession, he killed Patz almost immediately upon luring him into the basement of the Soho bodega where he worked as a stock-boy; stored the body there for a brief time; and dumped it in a dumpster a block and a half or so north of the bodega. There was no kidnapping, and so no real likelihood that any toy or clothing that didn't belong to Patz would be in Hernandez's possession.

The Post's sources do not have satisfying answers here.

"It was unclear whether cops have shown the new evidence to Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julia Patz, to see whether the couple could identify the items," the Post reports. "The sources noted that Hernandez also has a son, and that the items would be tested to see if they belonged to him."

Well, sure, to be thorough. But it seems likely that Hernandez's wife or daughter could make that identification. Perhaps that's unlikely because Hernandez's family has no motive for cooperating with the police (his wife is said to be flabbergasted that her husband, a diagnosed schizophrenic who has suffered hallucinations, should be taken seriously) or because even if they did, their statements could be self-serving. But on the other end, the police wouldn't have much confidence left in the value of this "proof" if they showed the clothing to the Patzes and they could not identify them.

It's well known what Patz was wearing when he disappeared: blue pants, a blue jacket and a black Eastern Air Lines pilot’s cap. So do these clothes match the description or not? The Post markets the story with the headline "ETAN 'PROOF,'" the scare quotes around the word "PROOF" barely covering the paper's ass for what appears to be massive overconfidence in the likelihood this evidence will pan out. Or it could be something more cynical: overconfidence that they will not be held accountable for their hysterical credulity as the investigation into the Hernandez confession unfolds.

One reason I think this is likely: If the Post were at all confident in the Patz story they were selling, it would take over the page, especially given what else is here: an entire half page devoted to shilling the paper's bettor's guide to Sunday's Belmont Stakes, and a box pointing out that recent no-hitter Mets hero Johan Santana gets a test against the Yankees in the coming Subway Series.

Daily News: It was a nightmare with a happy ending, because Patricia Villa, a 49-year-old woman from the Bronx, woke up.

In an exclusive report, the News tells the story of how she descended a stairway at the Hunts Point IRT platform in the Bronx at about 9 p.m. Tuesday night when a man, described as Latino and wearing jeans and a white jacket with a bodybuilder's physique, somehow grabbed her by the head and threw her onto the tracks before fleeing.

She hit her head and was bleeding, but woke up as classmates from the English as a Second Language night class she was coming home from screamed for her to get up. They then clambered onto the tracks as noise suggested an oncoming train and got her to safety.

The train, as it happens, was on another track. Villa has had staples to a gash in her scalp, but otherwise seems to be doing well.

One of her classmates attempted to pursue her attacker and got close enough to punch him in the back, he said, before he heard the screams that a train was coming and reversed course to help rescue the woman. Nobody got a good look at the man.

"SUBWAY HORROR," reads the knockout-white type on a black field; a red strip across the top reads "EXCLUSIVE: FRIENDS PULL WOMAN TO SAFETY." The dek: "Psycho throws her onto tracks." It's a two-page spread.

One of the reasons this is an important piece for a city tabloid is that it is one of those "there but for the grace of God go I" stories.

Someone who's willing to randomly throw a person onto a subway track for no apparent reason is not likely to engage in criminal stratagems like waiting till nobody's around, choosing targets based on whether they are displaying valuable objects or the like. You can't protect yourself from a crime like this by avoiding contact with drug dealers or prostitutes or by avoiding dark alleys or opening your door to a stranger. This really could happen to just about anyone, and has, several times. Each time it's a front-pager.

The rest of the page: Again with the family riding the green-dragon roller coaster in their maniacal pursuit of summer family fun, and the News' own "TRIPLE CROWN BETTORS' GUIDE."

Observations: It's important to note that many times in the course of the Hernandez-confession story, the fault I've found with the Post has not been the substance of the report inside the paper but the way it was sold on the front. Today's different. The story itself looks half-baked.

I still think it's not really a reporting problem but an editor problem. I don't know enough about how the story was made to know whether reporters were pressured to deliver something that still had obvious holes in it, but I do know that editors should not have allowed it into the paper without answering several important questions, like the ones we've asked here. If an incremental report about this new "proof" were allowed in the paper, it should have appeared as incremental. It should not, for instance, have the prominence on the front page that it does. And the story should have been structured very differently. As it is, the Post is starting to ruin its credibility on the Patz investigation. I'm not trying to be a crusader for journalism here. I just really do believe that, at this point, confronted with a Post cover that says "ETAN 'PROOF,'" most readers assume that what's inside will be conclusive. 

Winner: Daily News.