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

woodwar 19 Wood War: Who Wins Todays Grabby Tabloid Battle For Your Eyeballs?New York Post: The trial of 84-year-old Anthony Marshall, son of the late great socialite and heiress Brooke Astor, has all the elements of a Trial of the Century: Every Monday through Thursday, muckraking journalists, the sliver of obsessed public, and various luminaries of the Manhattan social and charity circuit pack the lower Manhattan courtroom to catch the latest, whether it’s defense attorney Ken Fisher dangling a diamond necklace before the jury and asking its owner, Annette De la Renta, to confirm that it contained “528 individual diamonds,” or Lord William Waldorf Astor testifying that he thought, “Good Lord, what happened to the picture?” when he spied a suddenly vacant spot on the wall of his late American cousin where a favorite Childe Hassam painting had long hung. The whole thing has the whiff of an Anthony Trollope novel to it. (The Eustace Diamonds, anyone?) But it’s difficult to escape the notion that this trial is almost too high-toned, too rarefied, too old (Brooke Astor was 105 when she died; her son is in his 80s and his wife is in her 60s), too historical to break through the noise and become the Big Story. As though the fact that there are no big film stars, philandering bankers or Hipster Grifters associated with the case keeps it from going “viral.”

You’ll know that the trial concerns charges that Mr. Marshall, acting as his mother’s financial adviser, took advantage of her waning faculties late in life to divert massive amounts of money and property from her immense fortune to benefit himself—and, perhaps more importantly, his wife, Charlene Marshall, who is not charged with a crime but who has all along been promoted as the real villain of the saga. On Thursday morning in the courtroom, Ms. Marshall wept in her seat; it was her anniversary with the accused, her husband, and The New York Times had devoted a cover story to her status as the villain of the story even though she is not charged with a crime; less subtly, the Post made reference to comments attributed by witnesses to the late Brooke Astor that Charlene was a fortune-hunter with the headline “CHOKE ON THIS, CHARLENE,” referring to a diamond necklace Ms. De la Renta said she was given expressly so that it would not go to Charlene Marshall after Brooke Astor’s death. Today, the Post has something it’s willing to blast off the front page: A reporter visited the East 79th Street apartment of Anthony and Charlene Marshall—and was let in. Ms. Marshall reportedly told the reporter that Mr. Marshall wasn’t in, only to watch in horror as he appeared in his dressing gown and a dumb smile on his lips, at 2 in the afternoon. She ordered him back to his room, then put back on her own dumb smile, explained to the reporter that they could not talk to the press, and before sending the reporter off remarked on the weather and announced that she had planned a shopping trip for herself that afternoon. In the greater scheme of things, there is not much here. But the notion that Ms. Marshall is calling the shots, and possibly has been for some time, is reinforced here. The front page headline? “DISS ASTOR.”

Wait. Why don’t we get the joke? Was it a “dis” for Charlene Marshall to order her husband back to his room? That’s what the subheading suggests: “Wife sends Brooke’s boy to his room.” And of course, if you put the two words together, it sounds like “Disaster.” What’s the disaster? If you’ve been following this case, the Post reporter’s escapade is among the least interesting things to have happened yet. Far more damaging material spews from the witness stand each day than anything in the behavior of these two senior citizens at home on their day off. Some other display copy you can find inside the paper and on nypost.com looked better to us; we can see why “ASTOR & COMMANDER” didn’t rate the front (the reference is too obscure and, possibly, highbrow, the movie version of the classic Patrick O’Brian novel notwithstanding); “CHARLENE’S IN CHARGE” is a little long, given the size and weight of the type they would have decided to give the story on the front. But both illustrate that the Post probably had not finished its brainstorming by the time they had to go to press with what they had, and DISS ASTOR is the result. We also are forced to point out that in the little teaser (under the heading “EXCLUSIVE”) that accompanies the cover treatment, the late Astor matron’s first name is misspelled “Brook,” even though it appears correctly spelled in the headline, scant inches away.

There is no question that the diss-astor-ous headline on the Astor story is the lead, even though it’s at the bottom of the page. Still, the Post gives significant real estate to Yankee hitter Johnny Damon: “Damon rescues reeling Yankees,” reads the bold flesh-colored text (underlined, too, in very British-tabloid style) next to a pretty compelling shot of the ex-Red Sock at the plate. The Post has devoted considerably more real estate to this Yankees comeback story than it has to the losing streak Mr. Damon is credited with helping to end (on the front page, at least; the Sports pages are a different matter). Just saying.

Daily News: In the battle between the two big New York daily tabloids, one oft-cited advantage of the Daily News is their willingness to do “enterprise” journalism: They take themselves off the news treadmill long enough to investigate and report on things that become news because the newspaper covers them, instead of the other way around. This morning’s cover story on the News only required them to find some lawsuits against two brain surgeons at North Shore University Hospital, where, last week, the paper reported that two neurosurgeons had gone AWOL while an anesthetized patient awaited them in the operating room. Since then, one of the surgeons has stepped down as chair of his department and pulled from the O.R.; but in that same time the News has stumbled upon four lawsuits against the two neurosurgeons and report that eight more suits are coming. Today’s story focuses on one patient, a 4-year-old Washington girl whose parents claim was given an experimental surgery on the basis of a misdiagnosis, the results of which have forced their daughter into more surgeries and procedures, including brain surgery. Of course, we’ve only got the suit to go on—the hospital offered little concrete response to the charges—and we can’t tell how frequently neurosurgeons, given their sensitive practice area, are sued when the results of their treatment are not good (which they must sometimes be). Still, the charges are pretty shocking, and they’re bolstered by taped interviews with the neurosurgeon provided to the paper. The wood reads “BRAIN DOCS SCANDAL GROWS,” then, in large type: “SURGEONS HURT MY BABY.” Pictured is the mother in the case, April Bryant, with her daughter Katie and a teddy bear, photographed in April. “Suit: Doctors botched tot’s ‘unnecessary’ spine surgery.”

We’re in full-on baseball season, and the News packages the home teams’ recent performance neatly with two blue boxes, each with the circular team logo, accompanying the headlines “METS WIN 7TH STRAIGHT” and “JOKE’S ON O’S AS YANKS ROLL.”

General observations: Given that there’s been no courtroom drama since Thursday in the Astor trial, it seems odd that the bit of made-up news the Post found in the case should dominate Monday’s front page. But if the paper is campaigning to get its readers’ interest in the case up, they could be setting themselves up for a few nice covers this coming week as testimony resumes. Still, it compounds the central problem, that nothing material has happened in the case in this story, and the headline is a clunker and the paper doesn’t seem to have absolute command over the spelling of the name of the main character in the drama. And while we’re not sure whether Johnny Damon has really “rescued” the Yankees just yet, it’s a nice grabby bit of display aimed at an audience that is probably much more Yankees than Mets to begin with.

While this News cover story on the two neurosurgeons is not Pulitzer material by a long stretch, the contrast it creates to the Post caused this reporter, for instance, to repeat the central brand message of the News—serious, investigative journalism beats sensationalistic Fleet Streetism. In this case, they’re probably right. We would love the Astor story to be bigger than it is, but wishing doesn’t make it so. We hope the Post‘s campaign to put the trial front-of-mind will make this trial as fascinating to New York’s subway tabloid readers as it is to us.

Winner: Daily News.