9:32 am Sep. 14, 20122
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?
We've been doing this weekday column now for more than two years. (Recently one reader said that his rough estimate was that the Post has won 289 times, the News 160.) We changed the format recently, and now, in response to something a few readers have asked for, we're thinking of producing the column as an email.
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Both tabloids today lead with arrest and booking pictures of David Albert Mitchell, the man police say beat and raped a 73-year-old birdwatcher in Central Park a little before noon Wednesday. Mitchell, pictured yesterday in surveillance footage near the park after the incident, was not identified by the victim in a photo array but was picked out of a lineup; he asked for a lawyer and did not confess. The only thing that doesn't quite seem to match up with early descriptions is that Mitchell would likely have a Southern, or at least an American, accent, not a Ukrainian or Russian accent, as we were told yesterday.
There are several reasons this attack is such big news for the tabloids. For one, the attack took place near Strawberry Fields in the middle of the day, an area and time that most consider completely safe in Central Park. The victim is 73, and while the newspapers are not naming her, she is talking to them, allowing herself to be quoted extensively; her quotes are succinct and gripping, and in the case of a sexual-assault victim, rare. And, the case is not typical in that she has had an encounter with the suspect before: Earlier this month, she says, she came across Mitchell in the Ramble, exposing himself.
She took a picture of him, which angered him, but she got away from him as he was shouting that he wanted her to give him her film.
A few notes about this: First, the relationship between birdwatchers and people who use the Ramble—almost entirely gay men—as a place of assignation has always been one of uneasy truce. They have historically shared an interest in opposing schemes to close off the woodsy area of the park, for divergent reasons. What this has to do with Mitchell or the woman who would become his victim is a complicated thing to detangle, particularly without knowing more about Mitchell.
It seems obvious to me that a transient man who has spent most of his adult life incarcerated might well both cruise for gay sex in the Ramble and sexually assault a woman. But what I find interesting is that so many people are thinking these things while reading the coverage and yet no mention of the Ramble's reputation makes it into any reports.
Second, it's another reason this case is singular: "This was a revenge attack," the victim told Channel 7 news yesterday.
While sexual assault is of course frequently perpetrated by someone who knows the victim, the profile people normally have in their mind of a rapist in Central Park is generally of a total stranger. Mitchell is neither, quite.
The two papers both use photos of Mitchell being led by police to booking. But the News' photo is cropped close on Mitchell, making his face (and facial and neck tattoos) more visible. There is just enough of the cops on either side to give the photo context. The Post is less strategic. Pulling out to get almost the entire bodies of both police officers leading the handcuffed suspect gives the Post a blurrier, more distant shot on the front page. Less abstract, but Mitchell right now is the object of fascination.
Both papers dwell on Mitchell's biography and rap sheet inside, which includes several incidences of plea bargains in sexual assault cases, almost always to related crimes and not the sex crimes themselves. This leaves the papers in the difficult position of pointing at crimes the man was not convicted of, though they are clearly relevant; it's one of those journalistic dog-whistles that keeps the papers' noses clean, technically, while being sure to transmit the underlying message that Mitchell is a serial sex offender. There are some acrobatics in the texts, if you know where to look for them, that accomplish this.
Mitchell, who comes from a town called—no joke—Jenkinjones, West Va., near the borders with Virginia and Kentucky, is picture-perfect, with prison tattoos including tears beneath each of his eyes, a grim reaper on his back and Nordic warriors all over his arms. And he looks like he was sent by central casting to appear on "Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit."
But it's in the headlines that the tabloids really ought to have inspired the public to pick up torches and run for One Police Plaza. And neither did. The News: "PARK ANIMAL," which really conjures more the image of the park's cute fauna than anything else. The Post's "BEAST OF CENTRAL PARK" is obviously far better.
This is a rare case in which the far better headline is in danger of losing because of the composition of the page. So much text, and so little face! But in both cases the text is dominant, and the text on the Post is better.
Winner: New York Post.