Grisly murder in New York makes perfect grist for tabloids

Media

March 19, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

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.

FOR THE RECORD - A story Sunday in the A&E section about tabloid newspapers misstated Jesse Angelo's title at the New York Post. He is the metropolitan editor.
The Sun regrets the error.

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.

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