Urbanities

Harry Stein
New York’s Tabloid Treasure
Winter 2001

A friend of mine reports that a few days into the extended post-election agony, he found himself on a plane out of LaGuardia beside a forty-fiveish Upper West Sider. Midway through the flight, his seatmate suggested they exchange papers, his New York Times for my friend's New York Post.

"I never buy it myself," remarked the guy, taking the tabloid, "but I get a kick out of the gossip and scandal stuff. The Post's a guilty pleasure."

My friend looked from the Gray Lady's headline—BUSH SUES TO HALT HAND RECOUNT IN FLORIDA—to the one in the Post: stop, thief! "And also an antidote to the Times," he replied.

I say my friend had it just right. Though in the best (and worst) tabloid tradition, the Post is as subtle as a Vegas floor show—its tone more Bill O'Reilly than Alistair Cooke—we should stop making apologies for the paper and recognize it for what it is: a civic treasure. In a town whose other dailies celebrate every kind of diversity except the intellectual kind—and in an era when the meaning of morality is as flexible as a Clinton-Gore Democrat's concept of the rule of law—the Post, in its noisy, irreverent, often over-the-top way, stands out as an oasis of good sense.

For an increasing number of us, the Post is a daily essential, reflecting our attitudes and values in ways the holier-than-thou Times, obsessed with social and moral fashion, would scorn to do. Nor has the tabloid ever been so vital as in the ethical chaos of the Clinton-Gore years. "These days," as my friend puts it, "I actually flaunt my affection for the Post. What better way to tick off the terminally smug?"

It goes without saying that those on the other side of the political and cultural divide are clueless about the paper's appeal to anyone with an IQ north of 90. With a history of bizarre sensational headlines stretching back to the seventies—HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, ran one classic—and with its continuing enthusiasm for stories featuring sex and mayhem, the Post is easy to caricature; and its detractors, including many who labor at more conventionally respectable media outlets, do so with reflexive relish. Across the city, the politically correct love to dismiss it as a sort of daily National Enquirer—only worse, for having an editorial side that's pre-Neanderthal.

Of course, some committed liberals do continue to read the Post, if only by force of habit. Most are holdovers from the pre-1983 days, when, under publisher Dorothy Schiff and editorial page editor James Wechsler, it was by far the most liberal paper in town, its opinion page for years home to Eleanor Roosevelt herself. But now, with an eye toward their blood pressure, these readers tend to navigate past the editorial pages, heading instead to the celebrity gossip on Page Six or the excellent sports section. For those inhabiting America's most politically correct precincts, today's Post is more than just a source of pitiless aggravation; it speaks the vilest kind of sacrilege, challenging—mocking—contemporary liberalism's guiding assumptions. In an era of rampant relativism, on issue after contentious issue—from the Brooklyn Museum's Sensation exhibition to bilingual education, from homosexual scoutmasters to feel-good multicultural history—the paper confidently makes the case for standards and the sustaining power of tradition, unapologetically asserting conservatism's claim to the moral high ground.

Little wonder that on the Times opinion pages, virtually every reference to Post proprietor Rupert Murdoch or his paper comes laced with venom. But of course what truly gets to the broadsheet's mandarins is that their fury is to so little effect. Indeed, as the Times's readership has continued to erode, the Post is the only daily in the nation whose circulation has actually risen (if usually only slightly) in every reporting period over the past six years.

That is, ever since Murdoch (who had owned the paper in the eighties and been forced to sell after acquiring a local TV outlet) was allowed to reassume control at the end of l993, after a series of tragi-comic misadventures with would-be publishers had left the Post gasping for life. While much of the region celebrated the resurrection of the nation's oldest continually published paper, founded by Alexander Hamilton—even Mario Cuomo had played a key role in saving it, very likely to his regret—the very day Murdoch was back, the Times editorialized that "his purchase of the Post may save it as a daily, but there should be no illusions that he is a healthy influence on American journalism. . . . Mr. Murdoch's greatest sins have not been those against taste. His newspaper journalism has often been, at bottom, professionally and politically dishonest. He used his papers to grind the axes of his political buddies, to promote a reflexive conservatism and to make sensationalism rather than accuracy the animating principle of the news pages."

For Eric Breindel, then the Post's lead editorialist, this was akin to a Margaret Dumont lob to Groucho. A more gifted thinker than the sober apparatchiks of the Times's editorial board and an infinitely better writer, Breindel clearly saw the attack as an opening skirmish in a welcome war. An "important message permeates this smug diatribe," he wrote the very next day. "Indeed, the Times provides a key clue to the genesis of its animosity when it decries Murdoch 'for using his papers to promote a reflexive conservatism.'

"Now, as it happens, Rupert Murdoch isn't 'reflexively' anything. But it is fair to say he doesn't hide his generally right-of-center ideological orientation. And he's allergic by nature to that which is deemed Politically Correct.

"Interestingly—as the Times editorial demonstrates—the liberals and leftists who dominate the American media universe can't face the fact that they too are likewise animated by ideological considerations. Those folks actually think that they—and the newspapers they produce—are entirely non-partisan and non-ideological.

"By their lights, conservative journalists are—ipso facto—ideologues; liberal editors and writers, on the other hand, believe that they, somehow, manage to check their ideological baggage at the door and carry out their journalistic duties in an entirely apolitical fashion. . . .

"Americans are expected to accept this fantasy at face value."

Breindel remained in place another five years, his influence such that when he died at 42, in l998, conservatives across the country felt his loss keenly. His funeral service was very much a Post event: mingling with Henry Kissinger, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and assorted former Harvard classmates of Breindel were a good number of ordinary readers. As each august eulogizer in turn stepped solemnly to the podium, one large, open-faced fellow in a ski jacket, carrying the Star as well as the Post, loudly asked from his seat a couple of rows behind the family, "Who's that?"

Though in Breindel's wake the Post remains a powerful redoubt of conservative thought and opinion, in fact it has never been quite as ideologically uniform as outsiders on both sides of the cultural divide assume. This being New York—and the journalism business—most of the paper's reporters and news editors tend to be, in their personal politics, decidedly liberal. One Post scribe, who confided in me that his dream job would be at The New Yorker, acknowledges he's often hesitant even to tell other journalists where he works. Another ruefully noted that when he applied for a job at the Times, "the first thing they asked was if I was hired pre- or post-Murdoch." Too bad for him: there are precious few holdovers from the Schiff days; the very last hire of the late liberal regime, conservative Eric Fettman, is happily ensconced as one of the paper's top editorialists.

But you can make a strong case that, on both the news and editorial sides, the Post takes the task of airing alternative viewpoints at least as seriously as do publications that make a fetish of diversity. During the Elián Gonzalez business, notwithstanding the paper's strongly anti-Castro tilt, columnist Douglas Montero, a liberal who sees himself as a voice for the disenfranchised, was in Havana beating the drums for the child's return to Cuba with the zeal of Fidel himself: he actually filed stories that used Cuban government documents as reliable sources. Gossip mavens Liz Smith and Cindy Adams both use their daily allotment of space to push liberal themes, with Cindy laying it on particularly thick for her pal Hillary Clinton. Ditto TV critic Linda Stasi. During the post-election chaos, columnist Sidney Zion, a Times and News vet in the regular-guy, street-smart Jimmy Breslin-Pete Hamill mode, could be found blasting away at the Bush team with all the snarly contempt of a West Palm oldster. Not least, there's metro columnist and onetime Village Voice heavy Jack Newfield, the most inveterate old-line leftist at any New York daily, at least as far to the left as his counterpart in the same department, my friend Rod Dreher, is on the right.

Still, let's not pretend: the Post's ideological reputation is hardly unmerited. Day after day, in its news coverage as well as in the opinion sections, it offers a slant on events that goes against the usual media grain—occasionally enough to make a real difference. Think back on the paper's role in the controversy over the pro-homosexual "Children of the Rainbow" elementary-school curriculum in l992; how, while the Times reflexively characterized curriculum opponents as unregenerate bigots, running pieces entitled BOOKS HELP CHILDREN OF GAY PARENTS and TEACHING ABOUT GAYS AND TOLERANCE, the Post gave a hearing to those, like District 24's Mary Cummins, who spoke to traditional religious beliefs and age appropriateness—which is to say, it covered the issue not only more equitably but with a far greater sense of nuance and sophistication. Only in the Post could you learn how deep and widespread among parents, including many minority parents, was the belief that to inflict Daddy's Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies on six- and seven-year-olds was an assault upon their own most cherished values.

Then, too, just this past summer, none of the city's other papers, for all their ostensible concern with First Amendment issues, initially saw any news value in the MTA's summary rejection of pro-life ads for the subways. It was left to the Post to break and pursue the story, eventually leading to a lifting of the ban.

That, of course, is the dirty but increasingly blatant little secret in many newsrooms: that what's fit to print, and how to print it, is a highly subjective proposition. Many have drawn attention to the Times's strategic use of story placement—how, for instance, during the recent presidential campaign, even when a story bearing on Al Gore's ethical lapses managed to make it into the paper, it would get buried in the corner of page A23. Such tactics help explain why, even today, many who get their news exclusively from the paper of record or NPR, let alone the broadcast networks, have only the dimmest awareness that someone named Juanita Broaddrick lodged a highly credible accusation of rape against Bill Clinton or that the open-ended sexual harassment statute that brought on the president's troubles had been signed into law by Clinton himself.

Needless to say, the typical Post reader, in his way far less blinkered, is likely to know all that.

The Post gives its readers something else that Times followers don't get: gritty reporting on the street-level realities of metropolitan life. Its columns teem with stories of everyday crime and everyday heartbreak that Times mandarins would dismiss as mere sensationalism, vulgar and beneath contempt. But without knowing the human reality, the details of what people are actually doing to one another, who can gauge the city's social health?

In no area is this difference more apparent than in the two papers' treatment of violent crime, especially when committed by minorities. The Times, viewing certain kinds of criminality largely as a product of social forces beyond individual control, routinely strains to understand (and thereby prompt sympathy for) even the most predatory monsters. An opposite set of understandings relentlessly informs the Post's coverage: that it is not the perpetrators of crime but those whose lives they've shattered who merit our concern; that in the ongoing war for the city's streets between cops and robbers (and murderers, rapists, child abusers, and assorted lesser thugs), it is law enforcement that saves us from mayhem; and that those who smugly sow confusion in the public mind about who are the good guys and who are the bad abet evil.

To understand the distinction I'm pointing to, recall for a moment the notorious l992 shooting of a young Dominican, Kiko Garcia, by officer Michael O'Keefe, which led to three days of rioting in Washington Heights. Details on the case were fuzzy at first, but community activists vigorously asserted that the victim was a decent young man who'd been shot in the back for the crime (in essence) of being poor and nonwhite. And though the police maintained that, in fact, he was a drug dealer who had died in a struggle for O'Keefe's gun, liberal sympathies instinctively were strongly pro-Garcia and anti-cop. ANOTHER NATIVE SON RETURNS IN COFFIN, ran the Times's mournful headline the day Garcia's body was returned to the Dominican Republic—the bill for the funeral, thanks to David Dinkins, to be footed by the city.

"Mr. Garcia," the Times story read, "an illegal alien who came to this country four years ago to be with his family, apparently eked out a living peddling clothing on the street, returning at night to a cramped one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother, two sisters, two brothers and a niece. Friends and relatives said he was a timid 'big kid' who loved to eat, watch television and have a beer or two with friends."

The Post, meanwhile, gave the beleaguered cops the benefit of the doubt from the outset, printing an exclusive on O'Keefe's version of events and reporting in depth on the less lachrymose aspects of Garcia's existence: that he had been "a member of a drug gang known as the End of the Block Boys" and that the building where he died was a known drug location. In the end, this was the version that the facts wholly vindicated, and O'Keefe was exonerated.

Seven years later, in the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo shooting, it was more of the same. The Times led the charge to crucify the cops whose gunfire killed the Guinean immigrant, day after day attacking the Street Crime Unit to which they belonged as reckless, ill-trained, and racially insensitive and according vast respect to the Diallo family "advisor," Al Sharpton.

The Post, while acknowledging the dimensions of the tragedy, from the first allowed that, far from an execution, the shooting appeared to have been a ghastly accident. "The four cops who gunned down Amadou Diallo in a fusillade of 41 bullets stood ashen," began police reporter Murray Weiss's account of the incident, "stunned and teary-eyed outside Diallo's Wheeler Avenue home that night when their deadly smoke cleared. One cop cried openly on the sidewalk, crouching and rubbing his eyes, just 15 feet from Diallo's lifeless, bullet-riddled body in the vestibule outside his apartment."

Moreover, the Post never let its readers lose sight, as the Times seemed so eager to, of Reverend Sharpton's long, ugly, often violent history of racial racketeering; noting that in the past few years alone he'd been convicted of defamation in the Tawana Brawley case and been caught on tape preaching words of racial division that seemed to have led directly to the murder of eight people in the massacre and arson at Freddies Fashion Mart in Harlem by one of his followers. Then, too, citing the plummeting morale in the Street Crime Unit—"which recovers about 40 percent of guns seized citywide," among other dramatic successes—the paper made the larger point that the continual, demoralizing assaults on the police loomed as a threat to the safety of the city itself.

The character of a news operation also shows itself in its choice of less weighty stories, even the most incidental items. Take, for instance, the following items that zipped across the wires over the past few months, further documenting the degree to which the P.C. epidemic has gripped the nation's campuses. While both items got a fair amount of play, neither saw the light of day in the paper of record. In the Post, however, each got full treatment, complete with photo.

  • In the interest of highlighting its commitment to diversity, the University of Wisconsin had altered the cover photo on its recruiting brochure, turning a white student into a black one.
  • The administration at SUNY Albany, faced with black activists' bizarre claim that the word "picnic" was derived from lynch mobs crying "pick a nigger," had decreed the word could not be used to describe an event honoring Jackie Robinson. Administrators ruled that, while the activists were mistaken, their sensibilities demanded respect. The Post writer also reported that, in deference to homosexual students, the school's Affirmative Action Director had further forbidden the use of the word "outing."

This is where having the Post around really pays off. Askew as the world often seems these days, indifferent to what were once taken to be common sense and common decency, the brassy tabloid offers daily proof that one isn't crazy—or alone.

Never was that more true than during the Clinton scandals and impeachment saga. While the ostensibly high-minded press gave the president the kind of indulgence that only common interest and shared values can explain, with elite reporters and editorialists more and more brazenly echoing the party lines of "it's only sex" and "let's move on," the Post's outrage at the president's—and the nation's—capacity for cynicism and denial steadily grew. Yes, obviously the paper went after the sex and personal betrayal angles with wanton abandon—this is the Post we're talking about—and it also had its fair share of fun with the scandal, much of it at the hands of Sean Delonas, one of New York's most gifted editorial cartoonists. Indeed, Delonas's portrayal of Clinton as a self-serving libertine, wearing nothing but heart-festooned underwear and accompanied by Arkansas chickens who, post-Lewinsky, started appearing with cigars in their beaks, ranks up with Thomas Nast for hilariously savage mockery.

During that tumultuous year, even Page Six, where Delonas appears, jumped into the act, gleefully skewering "portly pepperpot" Monica and carrying on a joyous vendetta against arch-Clinton apologist Alec "Bloviator" Baldwin.

Still, in the most meaningful sense, throughout the long months of Clintonian evasion and spin, the Post took the scandal more seriously than most of its more liberal counterparts, never losing sight of the fundamental issues of law at the heart of the crisis, or the vital underlying matters of ethics and character. Leafing through the files I was keeping for a book I was doing at the time dealing in part with Clintonism's impact on the culture, I find more than 100 passionately written and argued pieces clipped from the paper. Indeed, if the good guys eventually prevail to write the story of our time, and Sexgate comes to be considered nearly as sorry a chapter in journalism's history as in America's, arguably only the Wall Street Journal will be seen as having brought to those events such visceral outrage as the Post.

And just post-election, with the nation's soul again at risk, there was the Post, back on the case. The edition my friend read on the plane that day launched a period of journalistic passion that surely equaled that of its most passionate reader. Here, truly, was Clinton's long-sought legacy in full bloom: a contempt for law and tradition never before imaginable on such a scale, and right in the glare of klieg lights! THE HIJACKING OF THE PRESIDENCY, proclaimed the Post's appalled front-page editorial the following morning; and in the days to come, as the Gore legal team and Democratic hand-counters showed themselves to be ever more brazen, the paper's star columnists returned to the theme with renewed intensity. The titles of their pieces tell the story: SMEARING HIS WAY TO A WIN (John Podhoretz); NOT-SO-BLIND JUSTICE IS ON GORE'S SIDE (Rod Dreher); AL'S STOMACH-TURNING PIETY (syndicated columnist Michael Kelly); HOW DOES OUR CREEP VEEP SLEEP AT NIGHT? (Steve Dunleavy); HAS AL NO DECENCY? (Podhoretz again); OH, HOW I WISH THAT I'D NEVER VOTED FOR GORE (Andrea Peyser); GIVE IT UP, AL (Dick Morris); IT'S PURE OPPORTUNISM—CLOAKED IN OUTRAGE (syndicated columnist George Will); MEDIA GANG OUT TO SMEAR HARRIS (Page Six gets in on the act); MORE SHAMELESS THAN BILL (Thomas Sowell). And of course, day after day, there was cartoonist Delonas. A typical effort had the President, in his heart-festooned boxers and smoking his cigar, in a golf foursome with O. J., Claus Von Bülow, and freed baby killer Louise Woodward. "Don't worry," he blithely reassures them, "the justice system will sort this election mess out."

Yes, it was utterly partisan; but hardly more so than the broadsheets and broadcast outlets that pretend to neutrality even while savaging Ken Starr or Linda Tripp or, this time around, Katherine Harris.

To be sure, there have been changes in the paper over the years that some of us who read it closely regret. Personally, I very much miss ex-Timesman Hilton Kramer's scathing weekly critique of the mainstream media and would like to see a lot more of Kelly, Mona Charen, and Paul Greenberg, among other compelling syndicated voices who've largely vanished from the opinion pages in favor of local writers on local themes. What's more, the TV and film reviews were far better when written by A-list social commentators like Podhoretz, Dreher, and Michael Medved; TV writer Linda Stasi and columnist Meredith Berkman are yuppie embarrassments.

Then, again, in the grand scheme of things—in a media universe that accepts as reasonable and fair the direction and tone set by the likes of Pinch Sulzberger and Howell Raines—these are quibbles. What counts is that, with the culture in the balance, we never have an instant's doubt where the Post's heart and mind are.

"The liberalism in this city is so militant," as my friend Dreher puts it, "with the Times as its house organ, that for a lot of people the Post is more than a newspaper: it's an inspiration. I know that sounds hokey, but I see it all the time in my mail-'Thank God someone's defending religion or the Boy Scouts or the cops. Maybe the world hasn't gone completely mad, after all.'"

A mere 25 cents (50 cents on Sundays): still a helluva bargain for that kind of reassurance.

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