The telltale bagel and the secret moral hierarchy of the New York Post.

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 24 2010 3:21 PM

The Telltale Bagel

The secret moral hierarchy of the New York Post.

(Continued from Page 1)

The $177 bagel story was, otherwise, part of a fairly routine political graft story, but the Post had the sharp eye to focus in on a single act of (alleged) malfeasance in the multimillion-dollar indictment of a city councilman, the crucial novelistic detail: the telltale bagel. Somehow, the allegation that—in addition to the millions he'd allegedly scammed through kickbacks and sweetheart contracts—he had altered a $7 deli receipt for a bagel and soda to $177.00 and expensed some sketchy campaign entity for the fraudulent sum told you something about the mind behind the crime.

There was also a 13-count federal indictment; the text inside said the councilman was "allegedly trying to bilk the city out of 2.5 million by using an elaborate network of shady community groups to funnel cash to himself, family and pals." So you would think the $170 alleged bagel boost would be small change.

But, somehow, it said something. Here was a degree of greed that was truly awesome. An uncontrollable passion that knew no bounds. No bagel was safe from it. What the councilman saw was not a bagel on his plate but Ben Franklin beckoning him. And the story also forces Post readers munching their morning bagels to consider the question: What's the difference between me and the councilman? In his position would I be capable of a petty scam like this? Was it somehow worse in its awesome pettiness than the rest of $2.5 million boondoggle?

MLNCBB is particularly provocative because it's bad behavior that's accessible to ordinary (well, extraordinary ordinary) citizens in a way that Tiger Woods' "gal pals," say, are not.

I should not neglect to credit the Post for doing more than single out the bagel. According to the story, the newspaper's investigative reporters "first broke the story of the probe into the alleged mishandling of millions through council 'slush-funds' in 2008." Serious journalism, too!

But it is the artful detail of the bagel that made this front page "wood" (the old-journo term for big, blocky, front-page type). The Post's lede inside: "Hope he at least got a schmear with that bagel." Readers got a story of MLNCBB with a schmear of moral speculation on top.

But we've only just begun to examine the carnival of noncelebrity criminal behavior that can be found in this one issue. There is the story about the state senator who slashed his girlfriend with a piece of broken glass and was convicted of misdemeanor assault (or what the Post called "roughing up his girlfriend"). I'd read earlier that she testified that it all happened as he slipped bringing her a drink of water, breaking a glass that somehow slashed her, which may be one reason why he got an acquittal on felony charges. The issue came to the fore again when the State Senate voted to expel him.

SENATE SLASHES
SHAMED HIRAM

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Perhaps the most thought provoking remark comes from the convicted senator condemning his expulsion: "This is an effort by some in this body to publicly demonstrate that it is going to expiate all of its sins."

He introduces a religious subtext! He portrays himself as the sacrificial lamb, killed so the rest of his flock may be saved. Sin, forgiveness, expiation. Abraham, Isaac, Jesus. Just what I was talking about, the true subtext of tabloid stories: We are forced over our coffee to consider profound theological questions. Does this guy deserve absolution? No, we didn't need this jerk to slash his girlfriend in order provoke us to ask deep questions about sin and redemption. But would we have thought about these things otherwise? Or just finished our bagel and moved on.

And then turn the page and one finds perhaps the most important story of the day: the dog-mugging. The story featured a picture of a white-haired dog in the snow, identified by the Post as "Lexie, a ten-year-old Westie."

The photo appears under a caption that reads: "THAT'S COLD; Lexie looks traumatized yesterday after some goon stole his winter coat while he was tied up outside a grocery store in Park Slope, Brooklyn."

Now, OK, go ahead, remind me there are lots of human beings without adequate coats shivering in the snow with no warm apartment buildings to return to. Still, reading this, your first thought is that the crime against Lexie surely crosses some kind of line: You stole a dog's coat!? Dude, what were you thinking?

It's valuable, I've found, to reflect on what the Yale English department used to call "conspicuous irrelevancies." Those little disjunctions in poems that, when unlocked, open a door to some unexpected meaning. The conspicuous irrelevancy here: Who's gonna fence a mini dog coat? Is there a ring of dog-coat thieves? No, the thief really couldn't be stealing Lexie's outerwear because he thought he'd make a quick buck on the illicit canine coat market, could he?

But then I thought some more about the "TERRIER-FYING CRIME," as the Post had it. What if the alleged "goon" had a little dog at home in his unheated apartment, a mutt, probably, who shivered whenever he went out. He figured the Park Slope yuppies probably had a couple extra dog coats in their condo at home. So, yes, it was still stealing, it was still wrong, but maybe it was also, on some level, selfless. A story of poverty and desperation, love and sacrifice. (You'd kind of have to sacrifice your self-respect to steal the coat off a tiny dog's back, right?) Straight out of Dickens. Or maybe Chekhov. (Think "Lady with a Lapdog.")

I'm not saying that's the most likely explanation, but it does provoke thoughts about pets and class, and, in fact, I'd bet the Post reporters were alert to these class tensions when they cited Lexie's owner saying she felt so bad she bought him two new coats. Two new dog coats for Lexie when so many mutts have none! Another MLNCBB story turns out to have complex subtext one can project one's vision of the city's class structure on.

Then we come upon something really lower than low, something that challenges our sense of how low human nature can go.

DEADBEAT DAD TRIES TO MILK DEAD KID AGAIN.

This is the awful story of a deadbeat dad whose child, Jennifer Rogiers, "died in 2005 at 22 due to lifelong complications from a debilitating spinal cord injury suffered during a breech birth."

The alleged deadbeat dad has already gotten nearly half a million bucks from the child's estate, even though according to the story he "paid no child support, contributed nothing to her medical care and visited her less than a dozen times in her short life." Gotta like the frankly moralistic tone of the impassioned prose.

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