‘Savages’: News and Post commit to a very public Hamas execution

Today's tabloids, Nov. 21, 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?

BRUTAL JUSTICE: Yesterday was the bloodiest day yet in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The death toll climbed as high as 138 in Gaza, as Israel widened its attack to target tunnels thought to be used to smuggle weapons into Gaza and road access connecting the central strip to Gaza City. Five Israelis are reported to have been killed so far.

But in all the fighting and killing, one sensationally graphic story ricocheted around the internet last night and into this morning as militants publicly executed six Palestinians accused of spying for Israel, and dragged the body of one of them through the street attached by rope to the back of a motorcycle.

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There were photos from every major news organization, but Reuters provided the closest ones, and the photos used on the front of both tabloids today.

This is the moment that puzzles out-of-towners, some from places with no daily print newspaper at all: New York City has not just two newspapers, but two tabloids—that sometimes put the same story on their front pages, with the same headline?

Of course that's not the goal. Both papers want to have the better front, so by definition they don't want them to be the same. But sometimes the tabloid mind is drawn , magnet-like, to a particular phrase or treatment and can't break out. That, in my opinion, is when you usually get days like today.

"SAVAGES!" reads the knockout-white type on the front of the Post today, over a fairly wide image of the motorcycle brigade dragging the body of the executed spy-suspect. Members of the brigade appear to be hollering and cheering and holding up guns. Beneath: "Hamas thugs execute 'spies.'"

The News opts for a tighter shot, closer to the ground, also from Reuters. This has the unsettling effect of bringing out more detail in the faces of the motorcycle brigade, and the dead man. But while the shot is tighter, the brigade looks all business; the body of the man might as well have caught on to the back of the motorcycle by accident, for the expressiveness of the riders.

"SAVAGES," reads the News headline, also in knockout-white (but without the exclamation point). And their dek: "How Hamas executed Israel 'spy.'" A lot less loaded here, too.

I was surprised to find so little debate on Twitter about this photo, after we heard so much about photos of Moammar Khadafy in extremis, and of the injured American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, shortly before he died.

Partly of course this has to do with the circumstances: an unnamed and unknown accused spy being executed in an internal Hamas proceeding.

But I think it's something else too. The event happened in full public view not because Hamas made an error. Public executions are public for a reason. It is true that the newsworthiness of the event is relatively small compared to what's happening in the streets of Tel Aviv, where a civilian bus was bombed (injuries but no deaths) in an event that was praised by Hamas though not claimed by them; and in the streets of Gaza where powerful Israeli rockets are destroying buildings and killing combatants and civilians alike. It's also small compared to what is happening in the great halls of state, as Hillary Clinton travels to Israel to attempt to help broker a cease-fire to "de-escalate" the conflict.

From that point of view, the use of the photos betrays nothing really more than opportunism. It's not that the photos aren't newsworthy; they are. (Individual stories about the executions can be found in most reputable news sources, and in the rest it forms a detail in a larger story about the conflict.) And that's what tabloids are really all about: Finding the postcard that expresses the latent emotional reaction of the reader, or what the paper presumes it to be, to the much larger unfolding event.

For both the Post and the News, that is the conviction: that whatever the reader thinks of the blockade of Gaza or the situation of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, the members of Hamas are terrorists and operate by a brutal, alien code that ought to be suppressed.

OBSERVATIONS: If you make the decision to put a graphic and ostensibly telling photo on your front page, you have made a commitment: you're making a serious statement about a serious matter. Which is why the presence along the left-hand margin on the front page of the Daily News of a blue strip advertising its guide to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with a photo of the new Papa Smurf Balloon, and another guide, to Black Friday shopping, promising the "best deals" on shoes, bags, dresses and more with a picture of a model who looks a little like a taller, younger Drew Barrymore is jarring.

It's actually enough to put me off the News today. As I mentioned yesterday, it may not be up to the paper whether to advertise the Macy's pullout; it's entirely possible that some kind of front-page referral was part of the deal that allowed the News to print the guide along with full-page ads from Macy's. But usually some veto power is allowed at the last minute for editorial considerations, and the fact the News didn't take it for this photo makes me think they don't take it all that seriously.

And in one sense they did the right thing: They chose the photo that zeroed in most closely on the action. But that rule is not without exceptions, and looking at the sparser, wider shot on the front of the Post you can see why it's the better photo anyway for a front page: The faces of the Hamas motorcycle drivers are visible, as are their emotions. It's a more disturbing and ultimately more powerful image.

Right next to Papa Smurf.

WINNER: New York Post.