Wood War! Who Wins Today’s Grabby Tabloid Battle For Your Eyeballs?

l woodwar Wood War! Who Wins Todays Grabby Tabloid Battle For Your Eyeballs?Daily News: Hey, Madonna’s not looking so hot on the cover of the Daily News this morning, is she? That is undoubtedly because the photo on the cover was shot by a News photographer who managed to get the singer, who is recuperating from a fall off a horse at the photographer Steven Klein’s Hamptons farm, walking along the beach in Amagansett. To look at today’s New York Post you’d think that nobody had been able to get these candid shots, in which Madonna is wearing what the News termed a “bizarre ensemble” of baggy turquoise sweatpants, a quilted black Chanel vest and a fedora.

The Material Girl took a tumble off a horse on Saturday afternoon, and since then Madonna’s handlers have been saying a photographer that leapt out of the bushes to catch her riding spooked her horse, causing the fall. But the photographer they’ve fingered says he wasn’t at the farm until 10 minutes after the fall happened. Either way, it’s clear that tabloid photographers descended upon the Hamptons in droves after the accident, hoping to get some candid shots of the singer, and it appears that the News succeeded: Walking on the beach, she agreed to be photographed on her own; at unspecified times, according to the Post, she refused the same request of other photographers. So the News has a candid photo of Madonna that the other guys were trying to get: what to do? There’s not much of a story here, is there? And yet, she looks so nutty in these pictures—at least, nutty for someone whose public image is normally so closely tended. You have to put it on the front. They crop in close to her face, which is looking a bit tired and windswept, tendrils of dyed-blond hair blowing like stale cornsilk across her distinctly unretouched visage. The headline? “LADY SINGS THE BRUISE.” O.K.!

Even with this arguably “hot” photograph, though, the news is a bit thin on the ground on the Madonna story (the News had, after all, already devoted half its cover to Madonna’s insignificant accident in the Sunday paper). So two little refer-boxes at the top: one proclaiming the Yankees’ finally winning a game; the other an update on the developing “pension scandal” story, in which a “Clinton pal” is now named.

New York Post: First, a little background that puts our own “tabloid wars” in a bit of perspective. News of the World, the British tabloid that is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and which is currently edited by Colin Myler, a former executive editor of the New York Post, got a tip a while back that the father of Rubina Ali, the child star of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, was looking to find an adoptive family for his daughter in an illegal cash transaction. The family is poor, and remains so even after the success of the film; the family’s plight, documented on an Al Jazeera program, had prompted a family in Dubai to make inquiries about adopting the girl, and a source told News of the World that the offer had set Rafiq Qureshi, the girl’s father, on a path of finding an even more generous offer to adopt the child from somewhere in the Middle East or the West. So News of the World reporters did what any journalists would do: They dressed up as a family of sheiks and made an offer, recording the interview for posterity. It’s quite a tale, and no doubt the Post‘s connection to News of the World made it that much more of an obvious choice for the cover of the paper today: After all, promoting another newspaper’s big scoop is easy enough when you’ve got the same owners. The headline even front-loads the “sting operation” itself: “‘Scumdog’ dad in girl for sale sting,” the headline reads.

It’s all about the kids in the Post this morning, in fact: The bottom of the page reads “KIDS LOSE: UFT killed bill and saved bad teachers.” But better by far is the little photo illustration of United Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who is pictured manipulating the strings of the famous marionette Pinocchio (the Disney version) over the legend “PUPPET MASTER.” This follows up on an April 8 cover treatment of Ms. Weingarten that read “PUPPET MASTERS,” and was about something called a “shock charter ploy.” No, we didn’t figure that out, either. This time it’s also difficult. It appears that Ms. Weingarten’s staffers introduced language into a bill through statehouse staffers sometime last year that effectively removed the possibility of test scores being factored into tenure evaluations. This happened in “apparent violation” of a law that ordered the formation of a commission to investigate the use of test scores. More importantly, all of this happened about a year ago. What is newly discovered, and what was already known? The article, which is a coproduction of Albany wag Fred Dicker and reporter Chuck Bennett, isn’t too clear on this point: “[In] in mid-March 2008, an operative from the UFT contacted mid-level budget staffers for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Bruno to insert a phrase into the budget that effectively eviscerated the tenure-reform effort.

‘The union was claiming that the [phrase] would only clarify what was an already existing policy,’ a Senate Republican insider said. ‘It turned out to be much more than a clarification.’

At the end of the article, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted from last year calling the whole thing “craziness,” but it seems it is the result of this nefarous Puppet Master plotting he is reacting to; the news must be the actual tick-tock on how Ms. Weingarten got the job done. For which, incidentally, there are no apologies and no obvious cover-up. Ron Davis, a spokesman for Ms. Weingarten, tells the Post: “We forcefully advocated for the tenure language, and we make no apologies for this.”

General observations: We’ve said before both that Randi Weingarten has a soporific effect on front pages, and that the issue of her leadership at the UFT and the ongoing struggles over school reform are a great topic for the tabloids. Today’s outing looks pretty promising: You’ll have had to plunk down your two bits already before you discover that you’re not sure what the news is. Meanwhile, the smiling face of Rubina Ali is hard to refuse, looking pleadingly outward from her father’s embrace at the reader just as though we, too, are dressed up as ersatz sheiks planning to adopt. (So much for that, Rubina. Looks like you’re stuck with Dad now!) We’re left now to consider the position of the Daily News. If you or someone you know ever, as a child, actually caught a pigeon, you know how weird it is: The impossible achieved, now you’ve got a dirty bird in your fingers, and no real idea what to do with it. Such, we imagine, is how the News must have felt about this Madonna picture. Of course you must go with it: This is a photo that the other guys tried and failed to get, so it scores a direct hit in the Tabloid War. It’s just too bad there is so little story to go with the picture. The two refers up top of the page don’t help much to lend substance to the cover. But Madonna’s giant porous un-made-up face is sure to attract attention; it’s really Madonna vs. Rubina Ali. How to choose? The Rubina Ali story has some real narrative to it, even if it is just lifted wholesale from a sister paper. The Madonna story, well, it’s really just that the News got the picture. It’s a close thing: We expect that the Madonna cover made the Post a little angry, and that is good. We’d applaud the ongoing UFT campaign for topicality, if the news didn’t seem a bit old to deserve the kind of treatment it got today. The Rubina Ali story is just sad all around, and somehow seems to depend on the Post‘s access to a faraway tabloid battle that plays by its own set of rules; the News doesn’t have a sister paper where people can dress up as sheiks and pretend to adopt a child star from the slums of Mumbai. All is fair in war, but the battle of photographers to get Madge in her natural state is a much bigger enterprise than any suggested by the Fake Sheikhs of Fleet Street. We’re keeping this battle local.

Winner: Daily News.