Like the boy who dips a girl's ponytail in the inkwell. ... Wait, let's modernize that. Like the teen who writes nasty things about a girl in his MySpace profile because he can't admit he likes her, many mainstream-media journalists and pundits sneer at the Post because they can't admit how frustrated they are by their inability to achieve the paper's lively, confident, insider's tone. The Post tells a story the way most people do when talking to a friend or co-worker; it knows the real interest is in the story behind the story, and it doesn't shy away from the humor (absurdity) of most situations.
'Post' business coverage
I'm talking here specifically about the paper's business coverage, which often is criticized by other business journalists as being gossipy or lacking credibility. But the business section actually employs some talented and hard-digging journalists who regularly break big news. And it is an operation distinct from the paper's frighteningly downmarket and screechy news pages. That, in fact, is the brilliance of the New York Post. It simultaneously serves gory crime stories to a blue-collar audience and gossip, business news and sports to a more upscale reader-power players on both coasts.
The only amazing thing is that it hasn't built a successful business on the model.
But my purpose here isn't to defend the Post -- there's plenty of sloppy work in the paper's construction. Rather, I'd like to point out the hypocrisy of those media outlets that mimic the paper by mocking it, justifying their coverage of a seamy story by reporting on the Post's coverage -- all the while pretending they're doing no such thing. Before this gets too meta -- a story criticizing stories about stories --I'll offer a hard example.
On a recent Saturday, the Post splashed across its front page a story about the relationship between the CFO of a major media company and a woman accused of running a prostitution ring. BlackBerries buzzed from the Hamptons to Greenwich to Malibu -- Omigod, can you believe it? -- as word spread through the pop-culture industries.
That day, the story found its way onto the radio, and by Monday and Tuesday it was in other papers, on the web and on TV. But many of the stories were about the Post story, in some cases exploring whether the CFO was a legitimate target or whether the paper had blown the whole thing out of proportion. Ignored was the fact that these reports were doing the same thing the Post had done: spreading word to their audiences about this man's personal life. "A high-level [company] executive ... is enmeshed in a tabloid frenzy in New York," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The report went on to call it a "made-for-the-tabloids story" while reprinting the woman's "salacious claims" and repeating the Post's use of the phrase "sugar daddy."
How despicably dishonest is that? I don't think the man in question qualified as a public figure, and I believe the Post overplayed the story. But at least Rupert Murdoch's tabloid had the guts to be upfront about what it was doing. It saw this as a juicy story that would get tongues wagging and move papers. There's a refreshing honesty in that kind of marketing. The audience can reject it, but if they buy in they won't be surprised by the product.
Disguised as media commentary
Yet other media outlets disguised their coverage as media commentary, pretending to remain above it all while serving their readers the scandalous details.
This isn't entirely new -- many "serious" journalists covered the Clinton sex scandals by covering the National Enquirer's coverage of them. And it can be a hard trap to avoid. When Ad Age does a story analyzing whether a certain news event was actually a publicity stunt, we add to the PR noise. But at least we're able to admit it.