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 2)

Now he's harassing the mother who paid all the medical expenses and undertook the awful burden of keeping her daughter alive for a share of medical costs which he never even paid. This is mid-level, noncelebrity very bad behavior, and it serves another function of a tabloid story, perhaps not utterly noble. For the million New Yorkers eating their bagels that morning it was a chance to think, OK, I'm no saint, but I'd never in a million years treat my child like that. A kind of reverse tabloid-feel-good moment for the rest of us. (By the way, I probably should mention I was once cited by the Post's vigilant Page Six for late payment of a storage bill; maybe that helped someone have a feel-good moment.)

Then, buried on Page 22, comes a shocker. A real Mr. Goodbar emerges from the cobweb-shrouded, disco-era, serial-killer-friendly mists of the past.

It's like suddenly going from Dickens to The Silence of the Lambs.

The headline:

BACHELOR # 1
SLAY DEFENSE

This story has a great lede (by Tori Richards filing from Santa Ana, Calif.): "A suspected serial killer claims an episode of 'The Dating Game' will clear him of murder."

Not just one murder. He's on trial for "the slaying of five women in Southern California in the 1970s including the rape-murder of 12 year old Robin Samsoe who was wearing gold earrings when she vanished on June 20, 1979. ... [C]ops believe they recovered Robin's earrings when Alcala was arrested in 1979."

(Moreover, according to the Post, NYPD cops want to pin some New York slayings from the disco era on him, too. A potential monster among us was bachelor No. 1.)

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During his California trial, the alleged killer showed the court a still of himself wearing earrings on The Dating Game in 1978, which he claimed absolved him of the earring theft and murder (although the fact that he wore earrings on The Dating Game didn't prove he didn't steal the earrings in his possession at the time of his arrest).

The telltale earrings! Again, it's the novelistic detail that distinguishes this serial killer story from your run-of-the-mill serial killer story. It's the kind of thing you often find in the more granular coverage of an MLNCBB case.

I recall the great newspaper columnist Murray Kempton, my idol, a writer who always had an eye for the deeper, darker truths in tabloid stories, telling me about the earrings in the "preppy murder" case, the crime in which Robert Chambers was found guilty of murdering Jennifer Levin in a Central Park strangling he tried to claim was just "rough sex" gone wrong.

It was the earrings that made Kempton hate the convicted "preppy murderer." Kempton suspected (based on the evidence of absence) that Chambers stole Levin's earrings off her dead body after killing her. I'll never forget the darkly ironic way Kempton expressed it: "There is, to be sure, gossip, however unsubstantiated, that Chambers took Jennifer Levin's earrings with him before departing, which were it true, might hint faintly at susceptibility to tokens of sentiment, but there is otherwise no expression of Chambers that does not smoke the fuels of hatred."

"Smoke the fuels of hatred." Wow. Kempton was a guy who had seen everything and written about everything everywhere, from the Post to the New York Review of Books, but this one novelistic detail, this act within the act, crime within the crime, brought forth the wrath of an Old Testament prophet. Tabloid stories are our equivalent of Old Testament admonitory allegories. Which may explain why liberal tabloids are rarely successful in the long term. Because, it seems, successful tabloids believe in sin. Ineradicable, original sin. The best tabloid stories are about original ways of being sinful. And most liberals believe less in sin than in psychology: Everyone's a victim. I'm not saying either side has the whole truth. But sin often makes a better story.

That's why I read the Post. It give you both Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Yes, the Post's mainstay is MLNCBB. But every once in a while, it gives you a glimpse of the abyss beneath the $177 bagel. A glimpse of the smoking fuels of hell.

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