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.

The New York Post. Click image to expand.
The New York Post

It was the "$177 Bagel" that did it, finally solved for me the mystery of how the New York Post remains the nation's iconic daily tabloid in a media realm overrun by celebrification.

Despite not being a celeb or a serial killer, the $177 bagel was the subject of a Post cover on Feb. 10, the day a blizzard hit New York City. Instead of going with some conventional "Snowpocalypse" headline, the Post front page was dominated by terrorism-size type about the bagel, complete with a color photo of … a bagel. True, not the bagel, the long-digested original, but a stunt bagel, you might say, a stuffed half-bagel sandwich that was meant to represent the offending breakfast item. Or, to be precise, the breakfast item of the offender.

I've long been a humble student of the tabloid art. I once did a story on the legendary New York Daily News homicide guy, the late Pat Doyle (nickname: "The Inspector" because he supposedly let his crime-scene sources assume he was a cop). Doyle boasted he'd covered 15,000 homicides. In another piece for Harpers in 1983 (subscription required, I'm afraid), I compared the Post's focus on crimes of passion to our founding fathers' concerns about the dangers "the passions" posed to democratic rule, as discussed in The Federalist Papers.(I probably don't need to add that the founder of the Post was founding father Alexander Hamilton. Coincidence? I guess.)

And, terminal English major that I am, I have always thought that all great literature is founded on a tabloid template. Anna Karenina:

MAD HOUSEWIFE DERAILED
IN FATAL LOVE TRIANGLE

KID: "GHOST DAD"
LED TO MOM KILL

And now, as tabloids are ascendant—the National Enquirer, after all, has just convinced the Pulitzer committee to consider its work on the John Edwards affair for the highest prize in journalism—the Post's bagel has arrived to help me attain true clarity on what its particular brand of tabloidism represents.

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But, first, let's define our terms with more precision. One distinction that has been lost in the arguments over tabloid culture—and is key to what's remarkable about the Post—is the difference between "sensationalism" and what I'd call "celebrity-ism." Of course, there's considerable overlap. But I believe there are reasons to respect, or at least learn from, intense tabloid coverage of sensational true-crime stories while still reserving the right to feel contempt for celebrity-ism, cringe-making red-carpet reporting, and the publicity-industrial complex that feeds it.

I've long felt there are things to be learned from tabloid stories that one does not learn from the "serious" journalism favored by elitists and J-school prudes. It's true that there is a campy, somewhat condescending relish for Post headlines among some serious journalists, but behind that there often lies a sneer at the subject matter of the paper itself. I've encountered it at the three J-schools where I've taught. And consider this characterization from the comments section of Nytpicker.com, the erudite Times-watching blog, published after a Times hire from the Post was caught plagiarizing: "[W]hy did the NYT hire from the NYP anyway? Are there not more reputable news orgs from which to hire? Jeez[.]"

But these sneers are not necessarily warranted. A tabloid focus on "sensationalist" stories can teach us more about human passions than any wonkish analysis of cap-and-trade amendments.

Still, the bagel headline has deepened my understanding of and appreciation for the paper's continuing distinctive appeal in an age where almost all other tabs have succumbed to celebrification. The bagel was not your conventional celeb.

Under the main headline—

$177
BAGEL

—was this subhed:

Councilman
Ripped Off
'Hole' Lotta
Dough: Feds

It was not an earth-shaking story, not what you'd usually consider Post front-page material. The bagel photo was less alluring than the previous month's parade of Tiger Woods "gal pals."

But it helped me recognize the true mainstay of Post stories. It's not just that the paper focuses on human passions; it also focuses on the right humans. The secret source of its staying power is its emphasis on what I'll call MLNCBB: mid-level noncelebrity bad behavior, the kind of crime and punishment stories that fascinate precisely because they're committed not by the gods and goddess of the red carpet but by (relatively) ordinary human beings who suddenly do extraordinarily ill-advised things, up to and including murder. Crime stories, usually with some bizarre, out-of-the-box twist, ones with often hidden but nonetheless accessible moral and philosophical implications, are the meat and potatoes of the Post's stew.

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