Tabloid Man

By Daly, Michael | Newsweek, March 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Tabloid Man


Daly, Michael, Newsweek


Byline: Michael Daly

Nora Ephron's last work comes to Broadway.

There he was up on stage, Mike McAlary, brought back to life by Tom Hanks with uncanny accuracy, a moustache making him look like the New York newspaper columnist who fought a losing battle with cancer even as he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for breaking one of a series of police scandals.

Another actor was playing Police Officer Brian O'Regan, who shot himself back in 1986 rather than go to jail on corruption charges. A third actor was playing me, the only one of the three alive to sit in a theater and marvel at the wild improbability that O'Regan's meeting with us in a Rockaway diner on a stormy night nearly three decades ago was now being re-created on Broadway in the play Lucky Guy.

I might have marveled aloud to the playwright--the celebrated essayist, author, screenwriter, and movie director Nora Ephron--but she herself had died just last June.

Ephron also had cancer, though I am told she had been drawn to the McAlary story before she fell ill. She sent me an early draft of the play several years ago and asked for my thoughts. My first one was, Why had she written it?

I knew she had started out as a reporter with the New York Post. I also knew from her subsequent work that, along with being hugely talented and bright and funny, she was a romantic.

To Ephron, being a shoe-leather newspaper guy in New York was a rollicking, hard-charging, this-round's-on-me romance that was fading into nostalgia just as McAlary hit the scene in the 1980s. He was hardly alone in wanting to be the next Jimmy Breslin, who was to New York columnists what Babe Ruth was to the New York Yankees.

Breslin had once been proclaimed "a stationhouse genius." He was from, and of, the city, and he made everyday life bigger than you imagined, magnifying himself along with it. He became "Jimmy Breslin," the one and only, who wrote about people often overlooked. He was the guy who had famously covered President Kennedy's funeral by interviewing the gravedigger. A whole generation of aspiring columnists, particularly of the Irish-American persuasion, spoke of "the gravedigger column."

But first, McAlary had to get a city column, and that seemed a long way off when he arrived from his native New Hampshire to work for New York Newsday, which was once termed a "tabloid in a tutu." The paper was an effort by Long Island-based Newsday to venture into the New York City newspaper market, which had long been dominated by the New York Daily News.

The News was the voice of working New Yorkers, the inscription over the door to its headquarters drawn from the famous saying, "God must have loved the common people, He made so many of them." It was a paper for people whose lives were directly affected by the day-to-day events it covered. And, until it lost a sense of itself, it was dedicated to the notion that a tabloid had to be smarter, not dumber, than a broadsheet. The New York Times was dismissed by one of the News's more illustrious rewrite men as "a small English-language daily headquartered on Manhattan's west side." The other tabloid, the New York Post of Ephron's time there, was of a liberal bent and seemed hardly a rival.

Then, in 1976, Rupert Murdoch bought the Post and changed everything. He made it a morning paper and a tabloid in the British sense. The new Post's immediate goal was just to sell papers by manipulating rather than enlightening the customers, no differently than if it were selling widgets. The ultimate aim was to advance the interests of Rupert Murdoch. The inscription over this paper's door might as well have said, "God must know media moguls are special, He made so few of them."

New York being New York, the Post was and remains a huge money loser. An enduring mystery is why the News started viewing it as a serious rival. It was like Muhammad Ali getting into a bar fight; all it did was elevate the other guy. …

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