HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR
How America's Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters
By Steven Cuozzo Times Books -- 342pp -- $25
The thick black letters screamed across the New York Post's front page on Apr. 15, 1983. It became perhaps the most famous, or infamous, headline in New York newspaper history. To most of the city's editors and writers, especially those at The New York Times, it was yet another affront to responsible journalism by press baron Rupert Murdoch, who had bought the paper in 1977. In 1980, the Columbia Journalism Review called the Post "a force for evil." But to the Post's staff, the headline was a triumph. "What should we have said?" asked Post editor Steve Dunleavy. "`Decapitated cerebellum in tavern of ill repute'?"
Well, times--and the Times--have changed. In It's Alive!, his "anecdotal memoir" of 24 years at the paper, Steven D. Cuozzo, the Post's executive editor, argues that the Post's "tabloid" journalism has fundamentally helped reshape the media--mainly for the good. The Post's emphasis on personality and its "gift for telling a human story colorfully and dramatically," he says, are now ubiquitous: Witness mainstream magazines such as Vanity Fair and People, TV shows such as Fox's A Current Affair and ABC's Prime Time Live, and the once-gray Times itself. Can we ever forget Diane Sawyer getting Marla Maples to tell us about her "best sex" with The Donald? As Cuozzo sees it, it was the Post that "broke the elitist media stranglehold on the national agenda."
As a chronicler of the Post's exploits and a passionate advocate of tabloid values, Cuozzo is in a somewhat compromised position. He signed a contract to write It's Alive! on Mar. 31, 1993, a time when it seemed certain the financially ailing Post would go under. But Murdoch, who sold it in 1988, returned to rescue the paper. Cuozzo then told his book editor that he would take his account only up to the contract signing date. But the book contains an afterword that extends the narrative to the present. And Cuozzo continues to function as one of the top Post editors--giving him a strong motive to portray himself, his co-workers, the Post, its owner, and the whole of tabloid journalism itself in a favorable light.
Bearing that in mind, It's Alive! is still a lively romp through the Post's tumultuous recent times--starting in the early 1970s, when Cuozzo joined the paper. The parade of feuds, fights, firings, frolics, and fiascos makes The Front Page seem, by comparison, like a story meeting at Biblical Archaeology Review. And the Post's near-death experiences were almost annual events. The odd array of owners has included Peter S. Kalikow, a real estate magnate who went bankrupt, Steven Hoffenberg, a financier who pleaded guilty to securities fraud, and Abraham D. Hirschfeld, a true eccentric who made his fortune building parking garages. One day in 1993, when Hoffenberg and Hirschfeld were sharing Post ownership, the two got into such a fight that the former chased the latter down the hall. To protest the firing of four staff members, longtime on-and-off staffer Pete Hamill once edited the paper from a diner.
Cuozzo sees a role for both tabs and "trads": Each serves "as a philosophical check and balance on the other." But he criticizes the so-called responsible media for insisting that they rely "on `balance' and a dispassionate tone [that] imply an objectivity and thoroughness." Meanwhile, such media brand the tabloids' coverage as superficial, biased, and marginal. Cuozzo argues, not without reason, that mainstream media claims to the journalistic high ground "exist principally in the imagination of journalism professors." In fact, Cuozzo says, "there is no trouble finding every kind of error, misrepresentation, statistical gamesmanship, and exaggeration masquerading as fact" in the mainstream press.
More telling, he faults the mainstream press for explaining events in terms of "underlying forces" like wars, economic upheavals, social change, and the activities of government and corporations--all of which imply the work of a "collective will." Cuozzo contends that events are more accurately explained in terms of "individual human passions." Among his arguments--a quote from Alexander Hamilton, who founded the Post in 1801: "Has it not been found that momentary passions...have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice?"
Focusing on "individuals and dramatic storytelling," as Cuozzo puts it, is probably the tabloids' most important contribution to news coverage. The newly personalized New York Times a few years ago ran a story on celebrity-kiss-and-tell author Kitty Kelley on page 1. And it pursued the William Kennedy Smith episode with a zeal that the National Enquirer might have envied. But even Cuozzo admits the personalization of news now often goes too far, as illustrated by the proliferation of trash TV and the blurring of news and entertainment.
Although Cuozzo sees the Post as the driving force in this trend, a claim that seems more than a little overblown, the paper itself is languishing, its role largely eclipsed by the Establishment press. While the Times sells more than 1,158,000 copies daily, the Post's circulation has slumped from 700,000 in the late 1960s to 418,000 today. The paper lost $20 million last year. In an age of O.J. and the Unabomber, HEADLESS...TOPLESS is strictly page 3.