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

Daily News: There are exceptions to every rule. Today, I’d like to address the issue, which we’ve brought up before,

Daily News: There are exceptions to every rule. Today, I’d like to address the issue, which we’ve brought up before, of coming in close on faces. It’s almost always a good idea! But this morning’s Daily News takes things a bit far. It’s obvious enough why they chose this picture: the city’s new Archbishop, Timothy Dolan, is posing with a proudly displayed framed copy of yesterday’s Daily News, on which he also starred.

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Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was packed to the vault-ribs with onlookers at a three-hour mass that formally invested him with the office of Archbishop. These are the kinds of moments that non-Catholics thrill to: the smell of incense, the rows upon rows of funny-hatted priests, all looking to someone unused to the spectacle like hundreds of Cardinal Richelieus from a Monty Python skit.

And the setting, St. Patrick’s, is certainly amenable to photography. In other words, the story calls for some spectacle, and for placing the new Archbishop at the center of it. Sacrificing a close-up of Archbishop Dolan’s face for a photo that conveys the gravity of the occasion is the right move—even if the marketing department wants that endorsement photo of the Archbishop mugging with a framed copy of your yesterday wood. The coverline reads, “It’s his day!” and it certainly was. But the rest, “New archbishop wins over New York,” is probably a bit of a tautological proposition given the image. He certainly won over the city’s front pages. More on this below! But first, we should address the News‘ second story, a refer to coverage of the season opener at Yankee Stadium: “HOME RUN! New era starts for Yankees in Stadium opener: SEE 20-PAGE SPECIAL SECTION AND SPORTS.” 20 pages? That is a lot of pages! The presentation here is white on black, which probably was necessary to avoid offsetting the Dolan story too completely. And the information about the size of this insert was probably enough to sell the package. No doubt there was no question of selling it on the front: pages are costly, and if a 20-page insert can’t be recruited to move copies off the newsstand, why bother?

The New York Post: Let’s go inside first, to Cindy Adams. “NOT that I’ve majored in archbishops or anything,” she leads, “but a first meet ‘n’ greet with St. Patrick’s newest CEO brings up one Prince of the Church ago. John Cardinal O’Connor. Easy smile. Loved a joke. Once showed me his bedroom, and the inside of his personal closet. Would invite to his private quarters for an Irish oatmeal and Jewish bagel breakfast. His Eminence remained as accessible as he always told you God was. Those same vibes radiate from Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

“The man has it together. Milwaukee, Shmilwaukee, he’s in a New York frame of mind.”

This was possibly the best summation of the day of ritual—both liturgical and political—that dominated the city’s elite yesterday. If the tone is a tad admiring, it’s the only concession: Ms. Adams is interested in people who have power, and people who show her little off-message cordialities. Timothy Dolan is congenial, warm, self-effacing, politically shrewd and doctrinally sound. The reassessment of Cardinal O’Connor’s tenure as archbishop revealed his political acumen in retrospect, and also the warm feelings that City Fathers (and Mothers) had for him even when they were doing battle with him. Archbishop Dolan’s investiture was like a statement: the Church is back as a political player in New York. If Cardinal Egan was a bit of a cold fish, it’s only because his mission was largely internal to the Archdiocese. He had to get the thing back in working order. Now the pulpit of St. Pat’s can return to its former position as one of the most important political pulpits in New York, and Archbishop Dolan showed yesterday that he can get that job done nicely.

Why is none of this conveyed on the covers of the tabloids this morning? The Post comes close: it’s headline is “Dolan’s Mass appeal.” In other words: the Catholic Church is once again a power-constituency. Read inside and you’ll see that on the very day of his investiture he made sure the press knew he planned to fight for pro-life causes and fight gay marriage. The headline comes close, that is, to stating the premise: this guy is a leader of men, and not just a top administrator.

As for the art, the Post has always been a little less of a “catholic” newspaper than the News. What do I mean by that? It’s hard to say. But you can’t help but think that the News covers the Catholic church the way a New York City Catholic would talk about it with other Catholics, while the Post (and the Times, if it’s relevant) always seem to talk about it a bit as though they’ve just wandered in to a church for a Midnight Mass at Christmas, or had to sit through a wedding mass or something. All the pomp is called out, all the kneeling and standing, and lots and lots of quotes from the most metaphorically obscure and turgid parts of the homily.

And so the Post cover image, naturally, gives us Archbishop Dolan standing as if he is giving the Sermon on the Mount, with lots of bishops looking like little chess pieces tittering about at his foot. Yesterday was a spectacle of Roman proportions, and the Post didn’t shy away from picturing it thusly.

General observations: There is the sense looking at the two tabloid covers that decorum, on an occasion like this, demands the setting aside of the political in favor of … what, exactly? For what purpose besides politics were Michael Bloomberg and David Paterson, along with a host of other current and former city and state politicians, present here? Of course, the Archbishop himself is not known for restraint in his political speech. For geniality, straightforwardness, and diplomacy, yes; but polite restraint, no. In a question-and-answer session with reporters he was straightforward about his intention to wage a public battle against the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, to which the Governor will be devoting a chunk of his day today as he introduces legislation meant to put New York on the list of states where gays can marry.

And not only in this Q and A session but from the pulpit, he was forthright about his intention to use the pulpit to amplify the Catholic Church’s well-known position on legal abortions. But politicians present at St. Pat’s didn’t take any of the bait, preferring to say noncommittal stuff about how they were psyched to have “dialogue” with the pleasant Milwaukee priest. Make no mistake: none of them underestimates the man whom The New York Times in its lead sentence today described as “ a congenial cleric with a taste for baseball and fast food and a firm commitment to Roman Catholic orthodoxy.”

His political talents are formidable, and the fact that at his installation he could bring the crowd of St. Patrick’s to its feet with a line about protecting life “in the womb” without anybody seeming to point out that, from a citywide point of view, this is pretty controversial stuff, and without this element of his investiture being even hinted at on the front pages, may just be evidence of that.

In other words, the tabloids followed the lead of David Paterson, of people like thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, or avid pro-choice advocate Hillary Clinton, and offered the new Archbishop a broad, noncommittal smile. Can’t wait to Dialogue with you, Archbishop Dolan!

Of course, in the inside pages both papers covered all of it. How could you not? But the big message of today’s wood was just, “We’re glad to be back in business with St. Pat’s again.”

Winner: The New York Post

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