2:32 pm Dec. 5, 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?
COVER FLAP: I feel like a bit of a deserter for not having a column yesterday when the front page of the New York Post was such big news, though we did cover it here, and I weighed in on the controversy elsewhere.
Luckily, the Post put an image of yesterday's front page on its front page today. So here we go.
There were basically two kinds of objections to the cover, and one thing I was saying yesterday was that without having the facts at the ready it was hard to judge the Post fairly. The first was: The photographer taking pictures should instead have been helping Ki Suk Han, the man who was pushed onto the trackbed at the 49th Street subway station and then was struck by a Queens-bound Q train. The second was: The Post should have consulted with Han's family before putting the gruesome image of him, moments before he was fatally struck, on its front page.
Today we have answers to both of the factual questions embedded in these objections. On the first: The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, gave an interview to The New York Times in which he explained he was too far away when he noticed Han on the tracks; that he ran as fast as he could toward him, snapping photos with his arm extended, not even changing the settings or using the viewfinder, partly to signal with his flash to the driver and partly because he thought whatever photos he could manage might help police later on. He seems to have come through on all points. He hadn't even seen his film before he brought cops back to his offices to look at them, and while his photos weren't ultimately a factor in the police pick-up of Naeem Davis, who, it is reported today, has confessed to pushing Han onto the tracks, it's entirely plausible that they could have been.
He also points out to the Times reporter, who he took down to the subway station to demonstrate where he was and what he did, that it was not his decision to print the photo, to put it on the front page, or to provide any of the text the Post editors put along with it.
On the other point, in an admittedly self-serving article, rival Daily News interviewed friends of Han's wife, who say she and her daughter, a student at the City University's Hunter College, were shocked by the publication of the photo.
"They can’t believe that their father’s picture is out there, about to get hit by a train,” the family's lawyer, Charen Kim, told the News.
The family was also made aware, because of the printing of this photo, that there were plenty of people much closer than Abbasi who did nothing to help.
This morning I was on "The Brian Lehrer Show" on WNYC, where two callers related personal experiences of seeing someone struggling on the tracks.
One woman told the story of her uncle, Everett Sanderson, who in 1975 watched as a six-year-old girl standing on the platform of the 86th Streeet I.R.T. station fell into the tracks as a train approached. Sanderson found he couldn't reach her from the platform, so he jumped down onto the tracks and managed to get her and himself to safety before the train arrived.
Another man related his experience in an Upper West Side station, where a man leapt onto the tracks on one side in order to cross them and gain access to the opposite platform. As a train was approaching, the caller said, it became clear the man couldn't get himself up onto the platform; he said he watched helplessly from the other side as people simply gawked, before he screamed at them to do something. In the nick of time, two men reached down into the track bed and helped the man to safety.
Also on the show, WNYC transit reporter Jim O'Grady said that last year 146 people in New York City fell onto trackbeds and were hit by trains, and that 47 died. The annual average number of deaths is pretty constant at 50, or approximately one a week.
So here is a question for everyone who is upset about the Post cover: Isn't it the case that this photo more than anything else has made the story what it is, which is a collective self-examination about our willingness to help people in our midst who are in distress?
It might help if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were willing to offer any pointers on best practices in these situations. While always willing to heap rewards on "Subway Heroes" when they do act, liability questions constrain them from making any specific suggestions either for how to save yourself when you find yourself in danger from an oncoming train, or whether and how to help someone who finds him or herself in this situation.
Today, the Post publishes an account from the photographer that goes into some more detail than the Times piece on just how it all unfolded. According to him there were about 15 seconds between the time Han was pushed onto the tracks and the time he was hit by the train. Other estimates range from 20 seconds to a full minute; either way, another thing that has emerged this morning is that the man who police say pushed him stood still at the scene and watched the train hit Han before fleeing. More eyewitness accounts would be helpful, but the presence of a man who has already pushed one man to the tracks right near the scene might have been a powerful disincentive to get too close.
"Photographer: MY SNAP DECISION" reads the knockout-white text on a black field at the top of the page. On the left, a rather large reproduction of yesterday's cover (doubling the infamy). The rest of the page is devoted to the new developments: The arrest of Naeem Davis, specifically. "PUSH BUST: Subway fiend watched his victim die" reads the text, next to pictures of Han and Davis.
The same photo of Han appears in a small box at the top of the Daily News front page, where a story billed as an "EXCLUSIVE" is being sold. "SUBWAY-SHOVE HORROR: Motorman: I tried to save him" is the text, next to a picture of a Q train arriving at the 49th Street station.
In the interview, the motorman, who has been hospitalized for post-traumatic stress symptoms, explains what happened as the train pulled in. He stopped the train as early as he could, and noted that Han didn't seem to be doing anything in particular to get out of the way of the train (not that there were many options)."I saw the guy ... he never moved," the conductor said.
TAKING THE PLUNGE: Justin Volpe's name is famous around the world for its connection to one of the most infamous cases of police brutality in New York City history, and for the News, it's always been a huge story, and current Times columnist Jim Dwyer practically owned the story back when he was a reporter for the News. Inside the paper, there is a front page from during Volpe's spring 1999 trial for the crime that reads "VOLPE HAD THE STICK: Detective says he saw cop leave bathroom with Abner and broom handle."
What we are talking about is the broom handle that Volpe, eventually, confessed he had used to sodomize the victim, Abner Louima. What struck me immediately was the front-page headline, "BRIDE AND BROOM." In my memory, and the memory of everyone I asked, the instrument Volpe used on Louima was a toilet plunger from the station bathroom. I went back and read a bunch of contemporaneous reports and realize that I, and I guess everyone else I talk to, am wrong. Well, perhaps not wrong on the facts, but wrong in that the prosecution had always argued it was a broken-off part of a broomstick that was used in the torture of Louima. But the plunger doesn't come from nowhere: It was pivotal, in fact. In Louima's initial recollection of the events, he said that while he did not see the implement clearly he thought it was a plunger, a natural assumption given that the events took place in a station bathroom. Lawyers for Volpe attempted to use the fact that Louima had initially said it was a plunger to try to discredit him for later approving of the prosecution's case that it was a broken broom handle. It didn't work, for possibly obvious reasons. When Volpe confessed, he confirmed the broom handle version of events. So the News is right.
Today's story: Volpe, who at the time of the attack on Louima was engaged to be married, has since his time in prison found a different bride. Caroline Rose de Maso, the paper learned exclusively, married Volpe in a prison ceremony. Volpe doesn't get out until 2025. There is a picture of the bride, apparently in a veil, and an inset picture of Volpe in which he looks kind of old. "Louima torture cop in secret jail wedding," reads the hed.
PRE-SEASONING: In yet another sign of how enthusiastic the papers are to return to baseball—so enthusiastic that small-bore stories about preseason Yankees strategy actually makes the front page (yesterday they had a story about Alex Rodriguez's injury and rehab prospects)—today the paper traffics in speculation the Yankees might hire ex-Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis to replace A-Rod for whatever time he's out.
Quotes from Brian Cashman don't seem to back up the talk, but hey, would they ever? The paper appears ambivalent about whether this should be shocking: Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, and more have been recruited by the Yankees after having faced them down as Boston players, so is one more a shock, or just one more?
What is supposed to be alarming is that anyone who has played for the Sox is a "nemesis" to the team. He is at the very least a nemesis to pitcher Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, an otherwise nice guy from Nebraska who throws fastballs at Youkilis' head just about every time he sees him, with intent to kill.
"YOUK GOTTA BE KIDDING!" reads the yellow text. "Yankees talking to nemesis Youkilis."
Observations: The Post photographer was, very possibly, the biggest news yesterday in the whole sad case of Han's death, so it's a no-brainer to make it the front. And the Post would have to put the arrest up front alongside it and make a package. There is little else they could have wanted for the front page. What's confusing about the News is the fact that they had a second-best story—the story of the motorman—and they went so small with it that it's of little account. They did not put the arrest in the case anywhere in the front, or even mention it.
But then, sometimes you duck and sometimes you weave: The News had an exclusive today. Perhaps they were betting against sustained interest in the subway death story?
But the prison wedding of a long-serving criminal, however famous, strikes me as off-topic. That's the trick with exclusives: You're the only ones talking about it, so to give the front page to them, they have to be big enough, capable of driving readers who hear about the story to the newsstand to see the original for themselves. I don't think the Volpe wedding meets that bar.
WINNER: New York Post.