10:17 am Oct. 16, 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?
BERNARD KERIK REDUCTIO: Bernard Kerik, the former police commissioner, interim interior minister for Iraq and candidate to head the Department of Homeland Security, was in New York yesterday on a field trip from his Maryland prison cell. You may remember that he withdrew his bid for the big D.H.S. appointment, supposedly because he had hired an immigrant nanny not legal to work in the U.S.. As more was revealed about his checkered financial history, he found himself facing a 16-count indictment accusing him of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and defrauding the Internal Revenue Service. His legal journey came to an end when he pled to eight of the 16 counts and is now serving a four-year jail term.
As part of his plea bargain, he named two contractors, Peter and Frank DiTommaso, and admitted that he paid nothing for their quarter-million-dollar renovation of his Riverside Drive apartment in exchange for getting them government contracts. Now, the DiTommaso brothers are on trial, and he's being brought in as a stole.
He's not being very cooperative (perhaps this relates to allegations the DiTommasos are mobbed up). And inside the tabloids today, his testimony (mostly "I do not recall" and so forth) takes up most of the scant column inches the story gets. But this is front-page news for one reason: Kerik looks almost unrecognizable now. His weight loss and complete hair loss have transformed not just his figure but his face. He is as different-looking now as the character of Walter White in "Breaking Bad" after he begins intensive chemotherapy.
That makes for a visual, and both papers went all-out to put it on the front. The Post went as far as to give it the whole page, though they are less transparent about the reasons. Barely mentioning the change in appearance that is the reason for his being there, the Post goes with "THE FALLEN MIGHTY," an iteration of the line from the Book of Samuel ("Oh, how the mighty heores have fallen in battle" etc.). Kerik is pictured in his blue prison jumpsuit, hands cuffed in front of him, and more text reads "Former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik in shackles," which is not at all news of course aside from his appearance. An inset box has some story text and a picture of Kerik as you remember him, more rotund and mustachioed.
On the News front, the transaction is transparent. Two photos of Kerik are placed side by side. On the left, the thin man, with pleading eyes, his neck swimming in his collar; on the right, Kerik in 2003, a roll of fat bulging from the base of his skull over what looks like the same shirt collar in the back of his head, his eyes all ambition and intent. Amazingly, when he changed out of his prison jumpsuit into a suit to take the stand, he put on the same tie he wore as a guest at the White House back when his ascent still seemed assured to us, even if he knew it was precarious. It's really quite remarkable. The text: "SHRINKING BERNIE."
RUBBER ROOMS: If you're like me, you're taking it on faith from the editors of the News that they've got news today about the education department. Carving out a little less than a half page at the bottom of today's wood to bring us a now-familiar "DAILY NEWS INVESTIGATES" piece (it does not say "EXCLUSIVE" on the front page). What they've investigated really amounts to descriptions of life in limbo for teachers awaiting disciplinary proceedings. The article admits that there are far fewer teachers in this position than there were before Mayor Michael Bloomberg trumpeted "rubber room" reforms in 2010, and an agreement between the city and the teachers' unions reduced drastically the time it takes for accused teachers to get a disciplinary hearing (from two years to three-to-six months).
I think the News is just hoping that the amount of salary paid this year to teachers suspended pending disciplinary proceedings will seem like a lot, if we forget what a drastic reduction it is from what the city was spending on the same salaries before 2010. "SCANDAL OF CITY SCHOOLS' WASTE" reads red text across the page, over a black box in which the main hed appears in knockout-white: "$22M RUBBER ROOMS." "RUBBER ROOMS are back—unofficially—at schools, and they're costing the city a fortune." Well, they're not really back, are they? There are just some that still remain. I'm not sure how there possibly could not be.
Still, it will look compelling, especially austerity-hawk readers with little memory of the recent history of rubber-room reform, of which there are likely many among the News' regular audience.
OBSERVATIONS: There are some cases where the pictorial element of the front page needs to be—if you'll forgive the phrase, which is overextended at the moment—a dog-whistle to readers. You show an emaciated looking Kerik to readers, and the question is, do you make the headline about how different he looks, or do you make it about the news and let readers pick it up because they're amazed at what he looks like? There are advantages and disadvantages to each. "BERNIE KERIK LOST A LOT OF WEIGHT IN PRISON" seems like an altogether less newsworthy headline than "BERNIE KERIK CRIES, WHIMPERS, EVADES IN STOOL-PIGEON PERCH" or whatever.
But increasingly it's the trend to dispense with dog whistles and just tell the reader precisely why they should read a story. It's driven by the web, sure, but as the web has so many more readers than print newspapers it's also changing readers' expectations about the print they do see and read. The Post, famously digitally backward, doesn't pick up these cues very quickly, whereas the News under editor Colin Myler has shown that it does. And it's true here, too. Just give us the before-and-after shots, it's why it's on the front page after all isn't it? The tie detail, which is actual reporting to my mind and an amazingly telling detail, puts the News over the top.
Still, Kerik isn't an ideal front-page star, and I don't think he needed the whole page. I may be skeptical of the News' rubber-rooms story, but whatever they are gaining from it they lose nothing by having it there; the Post, using the wrong headline and presentation, and giving it the whole page, has lost an opportunity here.
WINNER: Daily News.
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.
If you're interested in receiving this post each morning as an email, enter your email address in the space below and hit "SUBSCRIBE," and give us a week or so to figure it out and get started. (The page will reload after you hit submit; don't worry that you don't get a pop-up message, we've got you.)