‘Fireman Greg’ and a no-ring football circus

Today's tabloids, Dec. 3, 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?

OUR HERO, WHASSISNAME: One of the big problems with professional sports journalism, as the sports site Deadspin continually reveals, is that the emphasis on characters that drives the editorial agenda frequently clashes with the game itself. To witness the mechanics of that in pro football, consider this recent exegesis of a year of ESPN coverage of Tim Tebow, and how the cable sports-news network distorted the story of the last year in football.

John Koblin and the Deadspin folks have been practicing what they preach, too. Crediting an early call from heterodox Record columnist JP Pelzman but taking the argument much further, Koblin called on Jets coach Rex Ryan last week to prove the team wasn't corrupted in its decisions by ownership's stake in big recent acquisitions (like Tebow) by acknowledging Mark Sanchez's failures on the field and making seventh-round draft-pick Greg McElroy the starting quarterback in Sunday's game against Arizona.

As it happened, Ryan did something that may turn out to have been more profound in the reordering of the Jets' depth chart by not starting with McElroy, then sticking him in with an opportunity to save a disastrous game from Sanchez's bungling.  

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McElroy is not actually even named or pictured on the front page of today's New York Post, which is so dependent on Sanchez and Tebow to make sports faces recognizable to front-page readers they will put them there whether they are the accessible news story or not. They've repurposed their old Jets "clown car" graphic and put it on the upper right of the front page today, over a picture of a young-looking Jets fan with a bag over his head, making a thumbs-down gesture; the bag is printed with the words "JETS FAN in HIDING." The main hed is "FLEE CIRCUS," after the way Jets fans booed through the first half of the game and then fled at half-time. 

It means this isn't a package for Jets fans. The Post missed McElroy saving the game against a very bad Cardinals team. The win for the Jets is a loss, because Sanchez is benched and some witty fan wore a paper bag.

[ed note: Which by the way: Shut up, bandwagon people? The Jets went to two AFC championship games in the last four years. They were 4-7 going into yesterday. They're now 5-7, and don't be surprised if they go on some kind of run against their remaining, mostly bad opponents now that Sanchez won't be in there throwing 19 picks a game. If you were around when Pat Leahy was the best thing the Jets had going for them on offense, or really anytime before the team hired Bill Parcells, you'd know that this isn't nearly as bad as it gets. If you weren't, you're either a front-runner or a fortunate youngster. Either way, you haven't earned the self-pity. If you seriously think this is paper-bag territory, why don't you just go root for the Giants already?]

Some lede text reads, "Those who stayed saw Gang Green win only after a little-known QB replaced hapless Mark Sanchez."

OK, I do get it. This is the front page, not the back. But McElroy is not exactly "little known" to the Jets fans who walked out, or the ones who stayed, is he? If the hero of this depressing game doesn't warrant the front page, does this game warrant the front page? Yes, because there is a Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Rex Ryan story, about how they are embarrassed and ashamed, or ought to be.

The News, which as I have written before is much more of a players' bench paper and less of an owners' box paper, fronts McElroy looking straight at the camera, his arms opened out in a victory gesture, under the words "Fireman Greg." "Plucky 3rd-string QB rescues Jets in ugly 7-6 win over Cards" reads the subheadline. There is a nod to that larger corporate storyline: A circular cutout on the lower left with Tim Tebow in civilian clothes and Mark Sanchez, at the sidelines, looking in at the game in a kind of awe that is not quite happy awe.

GROSS EARNINGS: So apparently the New York City Housing Authority has so few resources to properly equip its own workers for the cleanup tasks in flooded buildings throughout its public housing system that it had to hire a private contractor, who pays people $28 bucks an hour to muck out gross basements and remediate mold with powerful chemicals, without much in the way of masks or protective gear and without any training about what they're doing. That sounds like a great use of the millions of dollars the authority was revealed earlier this year to be sitting on and not using.

Leave it to the News to find a union angle on the story; or rather, leave them to find a big story hidden in the annals of union-city agency disputes. This is, I think, a big story, a scandal with lots of other scandals nested inside. "DIRTY WORK" reads the hed. "Toxic fear for crews cleaning NYCHA's mold mess." I wonder what, if anything, will come of it? Will NYCHA actually spend what it needs to to get the equipment and training it needs to to put its own employees on the frontline to help with the cleanup process? Or, as I think is more likely, will several of these day laborers someday in the not too distant future be joining residents of NYCHA housing suing the city for mold-related diseases?

OBSERVATIONS: It's time for the Post to come down out of the owners' box. It's not the reporters, or even the columnists, that are the problem here. It's really only a problem for the front page.

But it's a big one. Why, for instance, did the Post devote an entire cover to a sports story in which the hero is one they judge too obscure for the front page? Could we have gone with just a half-page even? Or if this is the view the Post takes on the newsworthiness of yesterday's game, why put it on the front page at all?

And this NYCHA cleanup story is, I think, important for building credibility on the NYCHA beat. And it will be a beat, trust me.

So, we do have to contend with the fact that the overall sensibility story of Jets fans rebelling against their team is the real theme of today's Post. That is indeed a real story, something that is really happening, as unremarkable as the event may be. And "FLEE CIRCUS" is pretty damn good, while "Fireman Greg" is a bore. So, what is the hesitating newsstand visitor going to pick? Inspiring story about "unknown" QB plus mold scandal? Or big fun Post cover with wacky headline?

Often enough the Post depends on the latter inclination to pull off their front. It just doesn't work every time.

WINNER: Daily News.