Tabloid trouble: The NY media vs. the candidates

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  • it's a media market like no other
  • 'There's no more aggressive group in the country'

(CNN)The Big Apple media market is gritty, combative and hyper-competitive — and it's going to take great pleasure in trying to tear the 2016 candidates apart.

It is a rare thing for the Empire State to host a presidential primary contest that actually matters, and rarer still for New York to have two weeks as the sole contest in play. Tossed into the already volatile mix: It's a race in which the front-runners of both parties are local New Yorkers.
    "We're in the Bronx Zoo phase" of the campaign, quipped Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary who lives in New York. "It's rougher, tougher, meaner."
    For instance:
    When Ted Cruz disparaged "New York values" in Queens, The New York Daily News told him, "F U."
    After Bernie Sanders visited that paper's offices for an interview, he was shamed on the next day's front page for his gun control stance.
    And when Hillary Clinton on Thursday briefly struggled to get through a subway turnstile -- a familiar experience for most New Yorkers -- she was ridiculed by the New York Post. "Hillary has to take five swipes with MetroCard to ride subway," the story's online headline blared.
    On Friday, the Daily News kept up the pounding, packing three unflattering headlines onto the top of its front page: "Cruz misses the train!" "How Bernie bailed out 'big guns'" and "Bubba has Black Lives meltdown." Not to be outdone, the Post splashed its presidential coverage across two pages under the headline "The Out of Towners." The story told readers that the candidates' attempts to act like New Yorkers "are fooling no one."
    And the press is just getting started -- the state's primary isn't until the April 19.
    "New York is the media capital of the world. The dynamic between the media and its subjects is more contentious and more combative than anywhere, and intentionally so," said Jim Rich, the editor in chief of the Daily News, which has gained recognition for some of the most outrageous political front pages recently.
    "This is an eager, hungry political press corps," said Susan Del Percio, the New York-based Republican strategist. "There's no more aggressive group in the country."
    Like the city it lives in, New York media never sleeps. Every day, the tabloids compete for eyeballs with blustery, over-the-top headlines. Gossip columnists insinuate controversy and scandal with reckless abandon. There is no such thing as a slow news day, because if there isn't news, New York will invent some. Usually, it doesn't have to.
    "It's the rare New York primary that people think matters; the stakes are (or seem) higher; and nerves are frayed," said Adam Moss, the editor-in-chief of New York Magazine.
    For two weeks, the words printed on the front pages of the Post and the Daily News -- what's known as "the wood" -- will be broadcast all day on cable news, used for punchlines on late night television, and go viral on social media.
    The tabloids have already seen their covers go viral this cycle: The Daily News has frequently portrayed Trump as an evil clown, and branded his supporters "brain dead" zombies. It's also told Cruz to "drop dead." The Post has called Clinton "Deleter Of The Free World," a reference to her email scandal.
    For the presidential candidates who are used to competing in markets like Des Moines, Manchester and Milwaukee, this tone presents a radical change of pace.
    Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, said that New York's voracious press corps would cover the candidates aggressively no matter what they do. The only way for the candidates to exert any control over the coverage, he said, was to feed into it.
    "The iron law of politics is feed the beast or the beast will eat you. In New York, you've got to feed that beast four or five times a day," Begala said. "You have to surf the wave, because it's bigger than you and it's bigger than your campaign."
    Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, one a native New Yorker and the other an adopted one, have a clear edge in this regard, while Sanders and Cruz are at a disadvantage, observers said.
    "Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have lived with these tabloids for so long, have been so vetted and ridiculed by them, that they are much smarter and better prepared for dealing with it," said Frank Rich, the New York Magazine columnist and executive producer of HBO's "Veep."
    "There's a disadvantage for Cruz and Sanders. There's no equivalent to this in Washington, and certainly not in Vermont or Texas," Rich added. "It's something they really don't understand."
    Of such criticism, Sanders fired back Thursday, "If Secretary Clinton thinks I just come from the small state of Vermont, we're not used to this. Well, we'll get used to it fast. I'm not going to get beaten up, I'm not going to get lied about. We will fight back."
    Both Sanders and Cruz have already been victims of their own inexperience.
    In an April 1 meeting with the Daily News editorial board, Sanders showed difficulty answering questions about both foreign and domestic policy, including the implementation of his much-touted plan to reform Wall Street.
    But it was Sanders' failure to handle a question about gun control -- the paper's well-known pet issue -- that won him a searing front-page reading "Bernie's Sandy Hook Shame."
    The next day, when Cruz criticized "New York values" during a campaign stop in Queens, he was rewarded with a Daily News wood that suggested the Texas senator take the "F U" train to get out of the Bronx.
    Ohio Gov. John Kasich made the mistake of eating pizza with a fork during a city campaign stop -- and got rolled like a piece of dough in the media for the gastronomic gaffe.
    "For the candidates who don't have experience dealing with the New York City media market, they've arrived to a rude awakening," said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic political strategist.
    By the same token, Stavisky added, "the two candidates that have long experienced the ups and downs of the NYC media market have a sense of what to expect."
    Trump has been making the front pages of the Post for decades, most famously as far back as 1990, when the paper's wood asserted that his now-former wife Marla Trump has boasted that he was the "best sex I've ever had."
    The real estate magnate's entire presidential campaign has been based on a tabloid strategy. By feeding reporters new material to cover on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, Trump guarantees that he'll stay in the limelight. The more incendiary or controversial his material is, the better.
    "Trump doesn't need to spend a dime, as he has demonstrated. He says crazy sh-- and people cover it," said Liz Benjamin, the editor-in-chief of "State of Politics," a blog covering the New York politics.
    Clinton is showing her own New York savvy as well. On Thursday, one day after Sanders demonstrated an outdated knowledge of how the New York City subway works (he thought riders still paid with tokens - phased out more than 10 years ago), she rode the subway. That subway ride ate up a significant amount of media air time.
    The question is what impact, if any, the New York media circus will have on voters come the April 19 primary.
    Fred Dicker, the longtime New York Post columnist and dean of the Albany press corps, says that while the tabloid wars make for a fun show, he questions its impact.
    "It's good theater and good journalism, but I'm not sure the media qua media is going to make all that much of a difference," he said.
    "It's fun and it's part of the media circus," Rich said, "but whether any of this stuff really moves voters is a questionable proposition."
    Whatever the case, the circus is in town and the show is in full swing. For New York's tabloid culture, which has been a victim of the same economic pressures that have hurt print media across the country, the intense national focus on the New York primary will give it a new moment in the sun on cable news and on social media.
    "Circulation for the tabloids is nowhere near what it was a generation ago, but the amplifying properties of the web more than make up for it," said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. "It should be a wild couple of weeks. Of course, it's already been a wild year. Why should New York be lower volume?"