12:29 pm Jan. 30, 2013
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?
A-ROID: Why wasn't this the headline on the front page of both tabloids this morning? Maybe it's too obvious. But in fact the reasons are a little more complex, and say a bit about where both papers have been and where they're going these days.
First, the background. Yesterday, the Miami New Times published a story based on payment records and handwritten notebooks kept by the chief of a Florida "anti-aging" clinic which seem to indicate the firm supplied Alex Rodriguez with performance-enhancing drugs and treatments. (For the record, Rodriguez's representatives have since said the documents are not genuine, though the paper in its initial report claimed to have corroborated them with "six customers and two former employees.")
Now to the Post, deep in the sports pages, to take a look at the lede of the main news story on pages 66-67:
No, this isn't a reprint: Alex Rodriguez is in hot water once again, thanks to explosive, newly published allegations yesterday that he has purchased illegal performance-enhancing drugs each of the prior four years.
So, as far as the Post is concerned, new evidence that the Yankees' falling star may have been using performance-enhancing drugs as recently as the very last season is, because it belongs to an old narrative, old news. This isn't always the way with tabloid newspapers eager to follow every twist and turn of a celebrity story-line.
Now let's look at the back page: "VOID RAGE," reads the main hed in big knockout-white text. "Yanks want out of final $114M in contract after report links A-Rod to HGH."
In other words, the important thing here is not whether or not the Yankees' biggest celebrity owes his career to steroids, like Lance Armstrong, but whether this provides a loophole for Yankee management to squeeze out of a bad contract that exposes the team to massive luxury-tax penalties and hobbles them from bringing younger, less expensive and likely more promising players onto the roster.
And on the front? Not a peep about it.
The Post is not a dugout or a bleachers paper; it's an owner's box paper. This is something we've said over and over again, and in coverage of baseball it's usually been the chief way of guessing how the Post and its rival would differ in shading news about the Yankees. Each piece of news is immediately processed as if by management in the Post, where as a rule the News processes news as if by fans and players' union officials. That's why this is a sports story, and not a front-page story, for the Post.
So this is "not a reprint," fans. "We" all already knew A-Rod is a fraud. There's no room here for shock or outrage, because the steroids stuff was just part of the bargain with him, and the question is only whether the new allegations will allow "us" to formally eject him from the roster without undue expense.
In light of which the front page of the News is also characteristic. "Is this the bombshell evidence that proves A-Rod lied about juicing? If so, just ... GO A-WAY," reads the rather text-heavy treatment on page 1. "Dirty doc's files point to Rodriguez's drug use" reads another line, set in knockout-white on a red stripe at the bottom of the page. Some pictures of the doctor's notes, published in the Miami New Times, add even more text. Scrunched along the right margin is a standard field photo of A-Rod doing nothing in particular.
The back page, for the News, provides a contrast. "TOXIC WASTE" reads the hed. "Yanks will have hard time cleaning up A-Rod's roid mess."
We're looking at the management from the bleachers and tsk-ing, not liking their chances of recovering from the embarrassment of having promised a subpar performer so much money, and getting so little, with a scandal now thrown in the mix. It's the back-page story because it is the real sports-fan story, and it's not "overheard from the management," it's an assessment from the outside. The front page is the "everyone" version of the story: A-Rod is a very public figure in New York, if not a popular one, and if he has betrayed the city then he must be sent away.
SCARED STRAIGHT? So if the obvious big tabloid news story is taboo for the Post, what's left? Well, let's see if our court reporters and crime-beat guys have anything. They do! They've obtained documents (and interviews with the litigants) in a $250 million lawsuit against the NYPD.
Despite the Post's general solicitousness toward the department, they're among the quickest to jump down the throats of its bad actors. (This is not inconsistent with that generally high regard for the work of management: You won't find extensive "culture of X" investigations into the NYPD at the Post, but you will find vigorous, almost joyful prosecution of dirty, or boneheaded, cops.)
The facts in the case are not easy to establish. According to the suit, 7-year-old Bronx school kid Wilson Reyes was picked up by police after reports of an assault and robbery outside his school. It concerned five dollars. Police questioned him first for a few hours in a room at the school, then took him down to the police station, everyone agrees. And everyone agrees that it was ultimately determined that another kid was responsible for the fracas, not Reyes. The disagreements concern Reyes' treatment by police. According to the lawsuit, filed by his mother, police didn't immediately allow her to see the boy while he was being interrogated, and when she was allowed to see him, she found him handcuffed to a bar screwed into a cinder-block wall, and took a picture. That picture is worth a thousand words, and possibly $250 million.
"COPS CUFF MR. BIG" reads the taunting headline over the photo. "Boy, 7, busted in $5 school money theft."
It's a great story, and it will have repercussions, at least for the police officers involved, who say they did nothing out of the ordinary. (That that may well be the case would not be good news for the NYPD, so expect other outlets to pick up the story from here while it recedes from the Post.)
But it's still odd that the Rodriguez story didn't even merit a mention on the front.
OBSERVATIONS: I'm not here to criticize the Post's editorial point of view. Point of view is important. It gives a paper its identity, it creates cohesion among the paper's readership, it keeps subscription renewals and repeat newsstand-buying going. It gives the paper a position in the greater narrative of the city, solidifying its coverage and giving the paper muscle beyond the opinions of its readership, ebbing over into influence over city power brokers. No serious newspaper in New York City aims for less, and there is nothing offensive, really, to the basic principles of journalism in that.
No doubt there are wastrels among those educators protected by the union and public schools that need to be overhauled, just as there are hard-working, deeply committed teachers who have to struggle with management strategies and workplace conditions that are legitimately abominable.
Let's let the Post take care of the former and the News take care of the latter, and everybody wins.
But when a paper starts to get tired, it hides behind its point of view, avoiding stories from a misguided sense of mission that actually leaves important topics on the table for others. Training that point of view on whatever exclusive items burble up from the newsroom, instead of on the things the greatest number of Post readers are likely to be shocked, confused, upset or angry about is an abdication.
WINNER: Daily News.