‘News’ bullies ‘Post’ with an intrusive Rex Ryan exclusive

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Today's tabloids, Jan. 4, 2013. ((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?

MARKED FOR LIFE: After a season full of difficult press conferences, what Jets coach Rex Ryan can be presumed by the press to believe but won't say, is that it's not possible to fire the underperforming Mark Sanchez when the team will owe so much money on his contract.

But he could decide to start another quarterback, as some people assumed he might do first when the team hired Tim Tebow, and  as he actually did when Sanchez's incredibly bad play and Tebow's nonviability made third-stringer Greg McElroy into a totally rational option.

It's not Ryan's fault McElroy suffered a concussion in their second-to-last game, but then Ryan chose Sanchez rather than Tebow to start the team's meaningless season finale against Buffalo, which may not have gone any better if Tebow had started, but was nevertheless an embarrassment.

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As the storyline dragged on, the mechanics of Ryan's decision-making seemed to suggest that Ryan had an emotional attachment to Sanchez, beyond the fact that he had essentially bet the franchise on this one quarterback—some kind of gut feeling that wouldn't hold up under press and fan scrutiny.

In other words, maybe there was something besides money at play. A confidence in a Sanchez comeback that was singular to Ryan, or something weirder? The columnists would speculate every week; Ryan's public statements didn't offer a lot of real grist.

After a disaster of a season, Ryan thought he could disappear to the Bahamas, just as the general manager who hired him was fired, announcing a press conference for the second week of the year while he sat poolside reading the memoir of a Navy SEAL with his iPod headphones in.

He also thought that he could sunbathe his naked upper torso in a chaise longue. It's not clear how frequently Ryan might have been shirtless before his team or anyone else. But when a Daily News photographer caught him from behind at an angle that revealed a tattoo on his right tricep, it was the first time anyone had ever seen this: a tattoo of his wife in a come-hither, Betty Page pose wearing nothing but a Mark Sanchez jersey.

It's long established that Ryan and his wife, Michelle, have an imaginative sex life, and there's no scandal in that. I mean, they're married. Good for them. But I imagine it's a little emasculating for these obsessions to be trotted out before teammates and the public. At least when he and his wife made videos documenting Ryan's foot fetish and posted them online, presumably thinking somehow that they wouldn't be recognized, no Jets paraphernalia (and certainly none of the personal effects of his players) were involved in the sex play.

It's hard now to imagine that a Sanchez jersey has never made its way into the Ryan marital bed. Which, the Daily News rightly concludes, lends a certain … color to the question of Ryan's attachment to Sanchez.

The psychosexual matrix here isn't easy, or worthwhile, to map. It wouldn't be surprising to hear either that his team already knew about the tattoo, or that they didn't. In the latter case, the wisdom of the tattoo is the question, but we already know it's part of his thing to flirt with the threat of exposure. Inside the paper, these are the easily dismissible questions the News tries to fill out its G-rated, easy-reading-level column inches with, when really the picture was all the journalism that was required of them.

It's filler of course, since ultimately its up to the readership how much a story like this will matter.

It's really the relationship of the media to Ryan that is in question. The press has generally liked him until now. He is accessible, and says funny and crazy things that make their job easy. But now they're mad at him, because he did not hold a season-end press conference as the league requires. So they chased him down to his vacation spot and found the tattoo.

There are now four days before Ryan must appear before the press at a belated press conference. Mark Sanchez was already likely to be the center of attention there, but just imagine how difficult it will be now for Ryan to credibly say some of the things he normally says about his quarterback. If his stated opinions of Sanchez's abilities seemed weirdly reverential before, how will they seem now?

The News' efforts to tell the story with the photo occasioned some unnecessary bits, like the thought balloon coming out of his head and containing a gauzy picture of Sanchez, looking a bit like an image from a crypto-gay GQ photo-shoot, as Ryan lies down, eyes closed in a reverie, on that lounger. There is also a silhouette of him and his wife (presumably so nonexperts will know at a glance that the tattoo is an image of his wife). But the tattoo is front and center. And while it will take readers a second longer than is probably ideal to compose the whole scene into a story instantly in the mind (the gold standard for a story like this), it's still worth it. "KINKY INKY" reads the big headline. The dek: "Rex's QB sneak: Gets dirty tat of wife in Sanchez shirt."

COPS SHOT: Without the Ryan photo it's pretty clear that the line across the bottom of the News front page—"3 NYPD COPS SHOT IN NIGHT OF MAYHEM"—would have been the paper's front. And that's why it's the front of the Post today.

Under an uncaptioned photo of an unnamed person being hauled on a stretcher by urgent-looking E.M.T.'s, the words "3 COPS SHOT" aggregates two crimes that happened within an hour but miles away from each other. One off-duty police officer, working at his family's used-car lot in the Bronx, was bound and robbed by three men; his efforts to break free and tackle one of them resulted in a gun-shot wound to the leg, and the suspects were apprehended. He's gonna be OK.

The other two had a slightly more horrifying encounter, when they stopped a man riding illegally between cars only to meet a spray of bullets and that left them with nonfatal injuries before they shot the man dead. Absent more information, since this occurred on a crowded N train in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight, and since a bystander was also grazed at the leg by one of the bullets, that seems like a good shoot, as the NYPD calls them. Anyway: "Bronx, B'klyn night of hell" is the dek.

So, this will seem impolitic, and I only want to remind readers that I'm trying to recreate the thought process of the newsroom here, not at all trying to actually say what's important and what isn't. But: The injuries seem minor, the two incidents unrelated (and in a year when we've had enough of "NIGHTS OF HELL" that resulted in death and widespread bloodshed). In fact, "NIGHT OF HELL" could have been the main hed, except I think the editors of the Post were worried that's an oversell. At any rate that's the only reason I can think of that it isn't the main hed. Which is to say the Post itself knows this is not a stand-out cover; a winner on a weak or slow day, sure. If you haven't got an exclusive, salacious picture of Rex Ryan, that is.

OBSERVATIONS: One interesting note: Colin Myler's News is drastically reducing the number of the paper's own photographers on assignment, in favor of negotiating exclusives as they come up with photo agencies. This picture came from a News photographer. I don't think that's likely to change Myler's strategy particularly but it seemed worth noting.

Anyway, look: This Ryan thing is utterly unimportant. But I don't think Post editor Col Allan thinks that. The News has been upping the ante on its tabloidism. I don't think the paper has the genetic material to beat the Post at its best on that front, an opinion demonstrated by a year of these columns that greatly favored the Post. But somehow the Post is not at its best right now, is it?

I won't speak for the sports pages, which is one of the four tentpoles of the Post strategy. But its other tentpoles—the business section, Page Six, and politics—haven't exactly been setting the conversational agenda over the last several months as they have for stretches in the past. And the editorial board is stumbling. (I mean this in Post terms, of course: Whatever strangely tuned fife it marches to seems to have hit some sour notes, as on the Hillary illness and the Hurricane Sandy aid package, and for that matter its wishfully dismissive attitude toward the 2012 and, now, 2013 elections.)

We're only concerned with the front page here of course. But isn't what's inside the thing that makes the front page? Col Allan's magical ability to make a silk-purse front page out of a sow's-ear inside story seems to be on the blink. We have to see what 2013 brings.

The Post already lost the circulation battle. But today is a singularly illustrative instance of the papers seeming to trade places in the daily contest the Post was winning: the war of the wood.

WINNER: Daily News.