Bloody Capitol and Pozner eulogy: Two attempts to make a bold statement about Newtown

Today's tabloids, Dec. 18, 2012. ((Click here to enlarge.))
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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?

THE PERSONAL, AND THE POLITICAL: There is a brief window of time—very roughly 48 hours, but anyway, brief—after a traumatic event when news editors believe the thing readers want most are details.

How did Adam Lanza gain access to the building? Who died, and who was injured? How did he target his victims once he was in the school? What did the school do to try to stop him? What security measures were in place? Who is Adam Lanza? Who were his parents? What was his mental state? What kinds of guns did he use?

These questions, which seem so urgent to the public as the immediate news story unfolds, are answered to greater or lesser degree of satisfaction in the first 48 hours. But after that, interest in them dies down, and the answers readers and viewers got in that time are likely to be forgotten, though they're lodged in the brain and help direct people's feelings about the wider meaning of the event. 

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As of Sunday morning, whatever the papers had been first to report about the actual unfolding of the events in Newtown was less likely to dominate the front pages.

Now it's Tuesday, and there are only really two things people want: Stories about the families of the victims, and stories about actions being taken, or not taken, to keep similar tragedies from happening in the future. 

The tabloids this morning exhibit the two sides of the coin for a story of this age. The Post goes personal, and the News goes political.

"BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS," reads the big, bold black text on the front page of today's News. The "you" in this case is Congress, accused of cowering before the gun lobby instead of passing meaningful gun-control reforms thought to be palatable to the majority of voters.

A big question in the coming weeks is whether the assumption is true that a large majority of Americans would like to see a firmer government hand on gun ownership.

I'm not totally convinced, but the point is academic: Once you are talking about regulation instead of outright bans, the degrees of reform are measured in tiny increments, and I think it's very difficult to say what level of control gives sufficient popular support. It's one reason among many that broad messaging has been the stock in trade for the gun lobby and for gun-control advocates, as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was first elected to represent a  gun-friendly House district upstate, has pointed out.

The actual legislation will be as boring to bring about as health care was, and similarly underscrutinized and misinterpreted in its details.

"As burials begin, it's time for D.C. to act," reads a dek; and then, exercising its unfathomable love for red military-stencil type, across the bottom: "SIGN THE NEWS' PETITION: PAGES 2-10."

To whatever extent the News' petition is a real political act, it is also a bit of political theater by a newspaper that wants to shore up its reputation as a civic leader.

"I support a ban on all military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," reads the entire text of the petition, which you can clip and send to the News or fill out online.

That might be something most people in the Capitol can respond affirmatively to. But it's when you start defining these guns and working out where the exceptions and what the definitions are (guns already legally owned, for instance; also date of manufacture, and also what is a "military-style" weapon?) that you end up with a legislative mess.

What is meant to be truly provocative is the picture in the background: The Capitol, its roof seeping blood. It looks fake, and it's kind of shoved up on top of all the type and under the "DAILY NEWS" flag, so it's all a little recessive visually, as much as the idea of a Capitol bathed in blood is theoretically powerful. I know what they're hoping for: That this cover will be held up in press conferences or in legislative sessions, that people will use it as a picture to document articles about how the tide is turning on gun control and all that. I don't think it will work, but maybe it will. Still, it's a longer-term bid than newsstand sales this morning, so it's not in the plus column for today's papers.

And now, to the personal.

For the Post, that's a long, texty headline quoting a mother's eulogy for her son, six-year-old Noah Pozner, who was killed in Friday's massacre.

"The sky is crying and the flags are at half mast. It is a sad, sad day. And it's also your day, Noah, my little man," reads the text, rather small in white. Its laid over a picture of a hearse driving past a picturesque clapboard house wreathed in tree branches over an old stone bridge, slick with rain, on which a red sign, the black marker-ink bleeding in the drizzle, reads "PRAY FOR NEWTOWN."

It's not the work of a Post photographer but of the photographer Peter Foley, licensed through E.P.A.

From that point of view, there was a vast selection of arresting photography available to the paper showing mourners and scenes of the town, so this choice must be viewed as deliberate. The picture suggests this is about a specific town and a specific place in a great moment of tragedy and mourning; it's cinematic, really. And a little risky. The notion that faces are absolutely necessary for a front page to resonate with readers is now passé with serious designers. (The face, the old thinking goes, looks at you from the front page; it's difficult not to return a gaze, but it's easy just to not look at a thing. The new thinking: Pictures that tell stories or express emotions will always draw eyeballs.)

But you generally expect a newspaper like the Post to be among the last to drop old newspaper-design ideas. (The News wedges faces in by reproducing an image of its Sunday cover, with the faces of nearly a dozen of the children who died at Sandy Hook.)

OBSERVATIONS: I've deliberately left aside the question whether the News is doing something bold by making a gun-control petition its front page. It isn't, exactly: Everyone seems surprised by these kinds of covers until you point out the tabloids do them all the time. What's risky is deciding on a day like today to make a front page that's almost reminiscent of a scene from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, something that's a portrait of a town in a decisive moment, and to do it with a single picture.

WINNER: New York Post.