After a Busy Week, the Post and the News Wash Their Hands of Rudy and Judi

The media spent much of the first week of May reporting on various new versions of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. When reporters and editors went to work on Monday, their Mayor was the sympathetic victim of prostate cancer, a condition he had announced April 27. The next day, Donna Hanover, the Mayor’s wife, with whom the Mayor had not shared any public moments in years, announced she was withdrawing from The Vagina Monologues out of what seemed to be some consideration for her husband, whose terse reactions to her imminent performance had seemed to indicate disapproval; the net emotional result was to make the Giulianis seem almost married. The Mayor was definitely moving up on the sympathy meter. And then Wednesday, again, a new Mayor was in the papers, this time the philanderer leaving an Upper East Side restaurant with Judith Nathan, a 45-year old divorcée who was not his wife.

Members of the press exploded with theories:

1) The Mayor had waited for a moment of public sympathy before allowing the Nathan photos to emerge, thereby soaking any distaste for his friendship with Ms. Nathan as a bomb squad would douse a potential explosive.

2) The New York Post , usually–fairly or not–chalked up by conventional wisdom to be about as friendly to Mayor Giuliani as he is with Ms. Nathan, was the chosen instrument of disclosure for the relationship, because it would be the safest.

3) That the disclosure could only do the Mayor good at this point, that Ms. Hanover could do him no harm, that Hillary Rodham Clinton was in no position to make a noise about it considering the events of 1998 in Washington.

4) That the Mayor had been waiting for the press to snap on this story for a long time and his calm response was squarely in the realm of “what took you so long.” Of these four points, we can only really report on No. 2.

The New York Daily News may have been the first to report that the Mayor had a very good friend–it happened in Mitchell Fink’s column–but it was the Post that was the first to pursue the story. The conventional wisdom about the Giuliani administration’s closeness to the Post was belied by the paper’s being the first to aggressively investigate–sending reporters and photographers to stake out the Mayor and Ms. Nathan. The Post ‘s coverage displayed an interesting truth about the paper: Tabloid competition trumps politics.

“This story wasn’t about Giuliani anymore,” said one of the Post reporters assigned to the Judith Nathan story. “It was about beating the Daily News .”

News gossip columnist Mitchell Fink first wrote an item in his May 2 column that the Mayor and his “companion” were regulars at a restaurant called Cronies on Second Avenue.

By that point the Post had already been trying to confirm its story about Mr. Giuliani’s girlfriend for three weeks. “In the middle of the week before April 15, we got a tip that they ate brunch at Hanratty’s,” said a Post editor of the restaurant on Madison Avenue in the Nineties. “That Saturday we staked it out and we didn’t get anything.”

The photographer went back on April 22, and managed to snap a picture of Ms. Nathan and the Mayor exiting Hanratty’s together after a Saturday brunch. However, according to Post sources, when Mr. Fink went with his item, the paper was still struggling to figure out the name of the mystery woman.

The Post was considering running the pictures captioned simply as the Mayor with a “mystery woman” when Mr. Giuliani made his prostate cancer announcement on April 27.

“Then it was like, ‘we have to put the story on the shelf,'” said the Post editor.

The next night, April 28, there were a bunch of media and entertainment types eating at Elaine’s, including Roger Friedman, a gossip columnist for Foxnews.com. Just before 11:30 P.M. according to Mr. Friedman, a friend of his in “television” had noticed the Mayor’s limo and security detail parked outside of Cronies, on Second Avenue. To Mr. Friedman, she said, “You’ll never guess what I saw: Mayor Giuliani is in Cronies with a date.”

Mr. Friedman took a dining companion to be his witness, crossed the street, took a look and returned to Elaine’s.

“Then it was a game of people going over from Elaine’s to Cronies,” Mr. Friedman said.

Op-ed columnist Sidney Zion of the Daily News , who was at another table, said that by the time he made his way to Cronies the couple had left. “No one in Elaine’s seemed to know her name,” Mr. Zion said.

The following Monday, Mr. Fink sent a reporter to Cronies who discovered the Mayor and the mystery woman had returned on Sunday. Meanwhile Page Six, which had found a name, Judith Nathan, as well as an address, sent out one of its reporters, who got the doorman of Ms. Nathan’s former building on East 55th Street to identify its photograph.

Monday night, however, with the photo set to run on Page Six in its usual cartoon spot, the editors decided to pull the item when Ms. Hanover announced she was withdrawing from The Vagina Monologues . “We felt the timing was bad,” said one Post editor.

When Mitchell Fink went with the item anyway, editors at the Post felt beaten. “We didn’t want the Daily News to the goods,” said one. “The most high-profile mayor in the United States is out in public in what appears to be an adulterous affair. It’s a great story.” By the end of the week, both papers reported that the couple had been spotted together plenty of public places in recent months: at town hall meetings, in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at the New York Marathon, and at the Times Square New Year’s Eve festivities.

And reporters at both tabloids, as well as The New York Times and Newsday , said that rumors that the Mayor had a girlfriend had been percolating since at least last summer when the scuttlebutt was that the Mayor was making frequent weekend getaways to a lady friend’s house in the Hamptons, which were later confirmed by both the Post and the News in the days after the Cronies spotting. Cindy Adams even wrote in the Post that the two had been an item for three years.

The City Hall press corps had apparently chosen to ignore the couple, however, and left it to the gossips. “The City Hall people, if they tried to write this,” Mr. Friedman said, “they would have gotten their asses kicked.”

In the first few days, Room Nine reporters were asked to look at pictures of Ms. Nathan by the other reporters on the story. But reporters other than the gossips seemed pretty queasy about delving into the romantic life of Mayor Giuliani. On Sunday, May 7, Daily News Jim Dwyer columnist dedicated an entire column suggesting the hard-news angles of the story: the Mayor’s trips to the Hamptons were publicly subsidized; an adulterous affair by the Mayor would draw into question some of his calls for public morality.

But one of Mr. Dwyer’s colleagues disagreed with the premise of his column. “I don’t think it’s political at all,” said gossip columnist Mitchell Fink, the first to set foot in the story. “It’s a story about a famous man who’s in a troubled marriage seeking counsel from a woman friend. At the end of the day, for me, it’s about fame, not politics.”

Sports-beat writing is a tough job. Through May 9, Selena Roberts, who covers the Knicks for The New York Times , had 208 stories in the paper, 86 of which simply reported on what happened during the games the team played. Still, it seemed, Ms. Roberts, was searching for something else on the basketball court.

Call it poetry.

Rife with metaphors, the Roberts prose has elicited giddy praise from executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, who last spring called Ms. Roberts’ stylings “heart-stopping, incandescent, all-star writing” in a memo to his staff.

That’s one way of putting it. But has anyone tried “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” lately? Ms. Roberts is writing about basketball and no team–well, maybe the 1970 Knicks–performs acts of literary proportions each and every game. Legends are made once a decade, not twice a week.

Try to match the following four lead paragraphs from Ms. Roberts’ game recaps this season with what (we think) her story is ultimately about.

1. One after another, the spindly stars of the league came floating into town this past week with helium in their moves and a first razor in their bags. But as the exciting neophytes rounded the corner on their dream paths to glory at Madison Square Garden, they found a crafty former All-Star clogging their way like a Winnebago in the fast lane.

2. Latrell Sprewell revealed his ability to slip into the locker room at half-time as an ordinary player and duck out as a comic-strip hero. Words like Wham! Bam! and Pow! seemed to dangle above his every move as he bounded onto the floor in the third quarter to save the Knicks from everything but asteroids.

3. Toronto’s stardusted Vince Carter swooped and swirled in front of Latrell Sprewell with the unpredictable flight of a paper airplane. Sprewell looked that way, and Carter darted this way. Sprewell lunged forward, and Carter faded back.

4. Under an ominous scoreboard that was growing uncomfortably tight, Allan Houston tried to barge his way through a thicket of Pistons like an outlaw throwing open a saloon door. It wasn’t his style. Once he saw trouble brewing under the basket, once he glimpsed the Pistons standing their ground, Houston forced up a desperate layup that went splat against the glass and seemed destined to fall into the posse of Pistons.

a. The Knicks won 109-94, due to Latrell Sprewell’s offense and Chris Childs’ aggressive play.

b. Marcus Camby played better than his fellow Knicks, helping the team win 105-94.

c. With their backcourt dominated, the Knicks lost 99-88.

d. Larry Johnson’s strong defense helped the Knicks beat a string of teams with hot, young stars.

Answers: 1) d; 2) a; 3) c; 4) b.