NEW YORK / / The crime had all the ingredients: the brutal murder of an attractive young woman after a night on the town, her lacerated body dumped along a desolate Brooklyn street; a scramble for clues by harried detectives under heavy pressure to track down the killer; and finally, the emergence of a suspect with a dark, violent past.
The rape and killing of Imette St. Guillen on Feb. 25 has sent the New York tabloids into their characteristic frenzy of sensational reporting and shrieking headlines, all but shoving aside most other human concerns.
There's nothing like depravity and violence to propel the tabs into full-throat and full-throttle.
So has it ever been. The St. Guillen murder and the arrest of a bouncer, Darryl Littlejohn, 41, in the case, are only the latest skirmish in New York's long-fought tabloid wars. The markers from past battles bear such names as Son of Sam, the Long Island Lolita, the Preppy Murderer, the Central Park Jogger and countless others going back through the decades.
The stakes in these wars only seem to have grown over the years, not just for circulation but bragging-rights supremacy in an age when newspapers everywhere are struggling to hold on to their dwindling readers and to remain relevant in an age of instantaneous Internet access and 24-hour cable news. In such an environment, the St. Guillen murder, appalling though it was, is typical is the stories that daily tabloids believe they do best and that keep readers coming back for more.
The St. Guillen's case raised the tabloids into fever pitch. "Beast May Strike Again," the New York Daily News, the country's first tabloid, warned Tuesday in a headline above a story reporting that the "twisted sex fiend who tortured, raped and killed a beautiful criminology student -- covering her face with strips of clear tape -- likely chose his prey at random."
No shrinking violet, The New York Post, The News's perennial competitor, breathlessly reported that several of St. Guillen's fingernails were ripped, indicating that the 24-year old graduate student might have tried to fight off her assailant.
And Newsday, the Long Island tab, muscled its way in as well, blaring in a Feb. 28th headline "Slain Student May Have Been Gang-Raped."
Even the sober New York Times has weighed in on the murder of St. Guillen, a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. On Tuesday, the paper's Pulitzer Prize winning rewrite man , Robert D. McFadden, led a story with this vivid paragraph: "A sock found in a woman's throat, plastic ties used to bind her wrists and ankles, semen samples, cat hairs and fibers from a quilt that wrapped her body, a glimpse by witnesses of two strangers on a dark street -- these are the fragments of a murder case that has mesmerized the city for two weeks."
'A feeding frenzy'
The editors of the tabloids don't apologize for their relish in pulling out all the stops on a story like this one. They are only giving readers want they want.
"Not to be crass, but the fact that she was an attractive young brunette, a grad student here in New York, from a prestigious Boston school before that, obviously all that didn't hurt the story," Dean Chang, metro editor of the Daily News, said in his office Wednesday, as the newsroom hummed with activity outside his door. "It added to whatever formula makes up a compelling story.
"Add to that the fact that there was no immediate witness, no immediate clues and no immediate suspect, all of that, especially in New York, tends to create a feeding frenzy in the media."
Thousands of New Yorkers lap it up , a guilty pleasure that, for many, is irresistible.
"The Post will print anything," Zack Turner, a co-owner of the Crown Art Gallery on Broadway in midtown, said dismissively as he smoked a cigarette at a crowded newspaper kiosk down the street. "It's all nonsense, most of it. The next day they'll run something else so people can forget the first story. Sometimes I'll get the Post, look at it, and give it back."
Friday afternoon near Bryant Park, paper vendor Curtis Johnson kept watch over the only wares he offered, the News and the Post, neatly stacked on a pair of crates, their pages snapping in the breeze. Business, he says, depends entirely on what's in the news. And what sells best? "Tragedies," Johnson answered instantly.
The Post seems not to welcome questions about its tactics. The paper's deputy metro editor, Jesse Angelo, declined to comment for this article. "We very rarely talk to other press," he said.
But there's really no secret. The tabloids deliver exactly what the public wants, says Gerald S. Greenberg, a senior librarian at Ohio State University's Sullivant Library who compiled Tabloid Journalism: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources.
"The readership of newspapers, of the electronic media, TV audiences, they want sensationalism," Greenberg said. "Even the cable channels that say they're presenting news and information, it's still sensationalism. You can debate whether it's driven by the providers or whether the audience demands it. It's an unanswered question."
The term "tabloid" Greenberg said, initially referred to a page size that was smaller than the traditional broadsheet. "Now, we mean news that appeals to the emotions -- fear, excitement, sympathy. It's about human nature."
Jonathan Mahler, a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and author of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City, says that tabloids "see the city as a kind of drama."
"They need actors for that drama," Mahler said. "The life of the city becomes a narrative in the eyes of the tabloids. A broadsheet keeps readers informed; the tabloids capture the city's feel."
Ladies and Gentlemen covers the summer of 1977, when serial killer David Berkowitz, later dubbed "Son of Sam," was on the loose and city residents were living in terror, thanks in no small measure to the hysterical coverage in the tabs. Mahler recounts that, when Paul Sann took over as editor of the Post in 1962, he understood that tabloids were "passionate, dramatic, melodramatic."
"Even when larger issues were at stake, tabloid stories had to be driven, and unabashedly, by larger-than-life characters and defining details," Mahler wrote. "With Sann making sure that the rapists and crumb-bums got the same play as the pols and the eggheads, the paper hit high stride."
Anything but lofty
After Rupert Murdoch bought The Post in 1976, Mahler wrote, he "deserved at least a little credit for reminding New Yorkers that reading the newspaper, like living in the city, was an emotional experience."
Often, however, both the stories the tabloids run and the war of words between their editors are anything but lofty. Last year, The Post, the longest continuously published newspaper in the United States, incessantly derided The News, for a misprint in a "Scratch n' Match" lottery offer, which misled hundreds of people into thinking they had won cash prizes of up to $100,000. "The Post smelled blood and pounced," Jarrett Murphy wrote in the Village Voice. "It chronicled the disappointment of nonwinners, mocked the News's million-dollar makeup drawing as 'peanuts,' sent a million peanuts to News offices, then shelled out the costs of a Disney World trip for one disappointed Scratch n' Match family."
At the heart of the antipathy, of course, is a struggle for readers. Average weekday circulation figures for the six-month period that ended on Sept. 30, as reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, showed the News at 688,584, down 3.7 percent from the comparable period a year earlier, and the Post at 662,681, down 1.74 percent.
So both newspapers are highly motivated to be first and splashiest when it comes to blood and guts and sex. "We're both tabloids and we think news," said Michael Lipack, director of photography for the News and a 35-year veteran of the paper. "When the police scanner goes, it's a matter who gets there first."