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.
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—
—was this subhed:
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.
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.
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.
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.
BACHELOR # 1
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.)
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.