WOOD WAR: 05.18.2009

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New York Post: Let's start at the top, shall we? Umm. A guy with a jetpack seems to have propelled himself out of a diving plane and survived its crash. The picture looks a bit like a scene from a G.I. Joe cartoon show: Drat, Destro got away again! "Great escape" reads the copy, in white with black outline and underlining. "'Rocketman' survives crash," and "MORE PHOTOS, STORY: PAGE 3." Wait: Or is the top of the page a picture of Johnny Damon at bat, with the headline "Johnny on the spot," and the subhead "Powers Yankees to another walk-off win"? This is the front page the Post is displaying on its Web site; but not the one you're likely to find on the stands. Both are labeled "LATE CITY FINAL." Anyone know what's up here? (To see this cover, click where it says "View Slideshow" beneath the picture above. After the side-by-side, click next and you'll see that in this cover, President Obama's speech at Notre Dame takes the little box on the lower left; it looks like Rocketman knocked Johnny off the top, and Johnny knocked Barack off the bottom.)

Anyway! The Rocketman story concerns an RAF pilot escaping from a crashing plane using his jetpack; the RAF confirms that the near-fatal crash resulted from engine failure and not enemy fire. In print, the inside pictures are pretty spectacular. As is often the case with the tabloids, when the photography on a story is rough, the top position is given to a beautiful photo treatment, while the bottom of the page is taken up with the less photogenic news story. Important to make sure the text on the bottom story, if it's leading the paper, is very, very big, and very, very black.

This is accomplished with the headine "SWINE DEATH." Subheading: "1st city casualty; 5 schools shuttered." A postage-stamp-sized picture of Mitchell Wiener, the assistant principal who died last night of complications from swine flu, accompanies the story. This is big news: the first death in New York City from America's favorite new pandemic, and, just possibly, a fracas over the city's handling of school closings amid the panic? Not really. Most of the story, rather uncharacteristically respectfully, is given over to news of the five new school closings announced yesterday afternoon and remembrances of a math teacher and school official who was by all accounts popular and dedicated.

Daily News: Another way to deal with a story that doesn't have much strong photography is to fill the whole page with headline. This is a great tactic when the story deserves to really scream. But it looks really screamy when you do that. Which is one of the reasons the front of today's News feels a little odd. It's really long: "SWINE FLU CLAIMS 1st NYC VICTIM" reads the main head, after a superhed lead-in of "11 SCHOOLS SHUTTERED AS …" The first thought we had when we read that was, "the Post is saying five schools were shuttered; did the News scoop the Post on six schools? They didn't: five schools were closed yesterday afternoon, which added to the six closed late last week brings us to a total of 11. Of course, that means that as Mitchell Wiener was dying of complications from the virus, five schools were shuttered; six were shuttered before Wiener's condition was clearly life-threatening. So this is a little misleading. We also wonder—this isn't a rhetorical question, we really are unsure—whether the News headline would actually mean anything to anyone who hadn't already heard of Wiener's death either by logging on or switching the television on pretty much any time since 7 p.m. last night. Couldn't "SWINE FLU CLAIMS 1st NYC VICTIM" refer equally to a first case of swine flu as a first death from swine flu? Perhaps this seems nitpicky. But it at least serves to demonstrate that the News did not hit the nail on the head.

General observations: A thing we rarely do is attempt to break a tie by expanding our scope beyond the two New York City tabloids. But reading this morning's version of the story in The New York Times was instructive about how the tabloids' own reporting ethos is sometimes self-vitiating. From this morning's story by Anemona Hartocollis (with additional reporting by A.G. Sulzberger, among others!):

Health officials said Sunday that the death was not surprising, since even in a normal flu season, thousands of victims die of complications from the disease.

Mr. Wiener had a history of medical problems that may have put him at greater risk, the officials said. His family said that he had suffered from gout but that it was under control with medication. [snip]

His wife, Bonnie, a reading teacher, blamed the city for failing to act sooner to close the school where she and her husband both worked. “I know we have a duty to educate the children of New York,” Ms. Wiener, who is not sick, said on Friday. But, she added, “something just doesn’t fit right.” [snip]

In one shift in the way the city was responding to the disease, hours before Mr. Wiener’s death, the health department issued a statement urging New Yorkers who suffered from underlying health issues like emphysema, diabetes or asthma and who were exposed to the flu to see their doctors to determine whether they should take antiviral drugs as a precaution.

Dr. Frieden said Sunday that city officials did not expect to stop the flu from spreading at this point. But he said that the school closings and the warnings to people with underlying health conditions were an attempt to keep people from getting seriously ill, as Mr. Wiener had.

Why does this dispute matter?

On Friday, Dr. Frieden was named by President Obama to head the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he will have to make critical decisions about how to deal with the spread of the disease. He starts in June. He has urged the federal government to mount a Manhattan Project-type effort to develop a vaccine.

Over the weekend, the tabloids presented the dispute between Ms. Wiener, arguing that her husband had become sick because of the school's failure to close quickly enough after the swine flu hit, and the city; there isn't much to add to that story since the event of Wiener's death, except that the city's efforts to characterize Mitchell Wiener's death as exceptional due to unspecified underlying medical conditions or unexceptional in that a thousand people die of more typical flu strains each year probably deserves some further investigation. What's more, the city both explicitly linked Wiener's death to underlying conditions and did a bit of quick policy work, issuing a warning to anyone exposed to the virus who has an underlying condition to be tested even if they have no symptoms. Is this a public-relations problem that is translating immediately into policy?

If the situation had been slightly different—let's say, a police officer is involved in the shooting death of a civilian, and the mayor acts prematurely to excuse his administration or city agencies from culpability—the tabloids would typically leave no stone unturned until they could break the tie between the victim's family and the city. Here, the tabloids seem satisfied with a "he-said, she said." They may not have the information they need to dig deeper, but you might expect them to present the matter to the reader at least, and indicate somehow their intention to follow up. We'll see whether it is soon enough.

We tend to think that the News got little advantage from its front-page swine-flu takeover, since the treatment was so much sloppier than the treatment in the Post. So we won't bother too much about what stories actually are on the front page of the Post you've got in your actual, meatspace hands. (We got Rocketman.) No matter what the two other stories on the Post cover are for you, the Post beats the News on the swine flu, and there's nothing else the News can offer.

Winner: New York Post

WOOD WAR: 05.18.2009