Amid all the heartbreaking news related to the Boston Marathon bombings, it’s nice to know that something positive may come out of the tragedy.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported that El Houssein Barhoum, the father of one of the teenage boys depicted on the New York Post’s infamous “Bag Men” cover, is considering suing the perennially tasteless tabloid. According to Wemple, Barhoum has already sought legal counsel and is working toward retaining a lawyer who is studying the case.
In case you missed it, The Post sparked a whirlwind of controversy in the wake of the bombings, when it splashed a photo of Barhoum’s son and another young man across its cover under the headline “Bag Men.” The subhead read, “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”
When the paper hit newsstands on April 18, decent people everywhere, and journalists in particular, were outraged. The cover was called a “new low” by Salon, “appalling” by a Time magazine columnist, and Wemple himself even went on record saying he hopes the two young men will take legal action.
As we know now, the youngsters in question had nothing to do with the bombings, and as far as we know, were never even persons of interest. Defending the paper’s reporting in a statement, Col Allan, the Post’s editor-in-chief, pointed out the convenient fact that the Post never identified the young men as suspects: “The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported.” (That may or may not be true, as we have only the Post’s word to go by, but what Allan and the Post’s story both failed to mention was that law enforcement officials were circulating lots of photos of marathon attendees. The paper had no justification for singling out the two young men in question and identifying them as “Bag Men.”)
It’s a sleazy line that Rupert Murdoch’s vanity tabloid is used to toeing. Last year, when the Post published the photo of a man about to be killed by a subway train, outrage was swift and severe. But we received no apology from Allan, no acknowledgment that the cover shot of an innocent man under the subhead “this man is about to die” served no legitimate journalistic purpose. Indeed, the only purpose it served at all was to get people talking about the New York Post. (Congratulations, it worked.) And last month, that purpose was served again, when the Post made the indefensible choice to endanger the welfare of innocent marathon-goers for no other reason but to achieve the increasingly difficult task of selling newspapers.
This is why the prospect of a defamation lawsuit against the Post is so appealing. It’s not just the idea that consequences may, at long last, await a publication that abuses First Amendment protections the way kids with Super Soakers abuse water. It’s the possibility that someone may actually be held accountable for one of its malicious covers before it finally stops printing them. After all, we know it’s only a matter of time. The New York Post loses, by some estimates, as much as $110 million a year, and no one, not even Rupert Murdoch, likes to lose that much money. The most recent numbers from the Alliance of Audited Media put the Post’s print circulation at 500,521, a 10 percent drop from last year and a more than 25 percent drop since 2005. How much longer can it go on?
Murdoch, for all his faults, truly does love newspapers, which is why he found the prospect of owning the Post so appealing. But let’s be honest: his soon-to-be-split News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWSA) is not going to want to keep floating the money-devouring Post once it's spun off from its profitable entertainment and media properties. That means the usual course of action for a dying daily: staff layoffs, cuts in frequency, and finally, folding the print edition completely. As a brand, the Post will probably continue online for the foreseeable future, but it’s hard to imagine Murdoch wanting much to do with it at that point. (He tried new media with the iPad-only newspaper "The Daily" and MySpace, and we all know how those turned out.) What’s more, without its inflammatory covers plastered all over New York City, it’s equally hard to imagine anyone, anywhere, talking about the New York Post. And that will be a great day.