One of my first jobs as a clerk at The Associated Press in 1991 was going to St. Patrick's Cathedral every Sunday and writing a story about the sermon of Cardinal John O'Connor. A big newsmaker, the cardinal attracted a few reporters and cameras every week and even held press conferences following his homily, a practice he had discontinued by the time I was covering him.
On one sleepy June morning, O'Connor talked at length about how there was a move by some to change references to god in the bible from "him" to "her"; but the cardinal said that it was beyond the church's purview to alter how the bible had been originally written.
The next day, the New York Post had somehow translated the cardinal's thoughtful and lengthy talk into a screaming front-page headline: "God is a Man."
Needless to say, the tabloid created a mini-firestorm, with the Archdiocese forced to politely rebut the story and even publishing O'Connor's entire sermon in its weekly newspaper, Catholic New York.
Twenty-three years later, Mayor de Blasio is grappling with the sometimes-crude mutation of reality into tabloid talk with The New York Post's take on a New York magazine interview with First Lady Chirlane McCray.
Like Google Translate gone beserk, New York's headline "The Power of Chirlane McCray" somehow turned into "I Was a Bad Mom" on the Post's cover. The Daily News front page was slightly less spicier with: "Didn't Want to be a Mom."
In the lengthy interview, McCray talks candidly about motherhood, saying that it wasn't easy for her when her daughter, Chiara, was born: "The truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it...It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”
Of course, it's a bit of a quantum leap from there to the Post's headline but that's how tabloids often write their book reports – with the subtlety of a hammer.
Mayor de Blasio yesterday wasn't scheduled to talk to reporters but all this tabloid talk made him decide to hold "an availability" in which he ripped into the Post and the News.
"A lot of hardworking women in this city are offended,” the mayor said. "I think they owe all of us an apology.”
But such a request is like asking a scorpion to stop its stinging. Sloppiness and all, tabloid shorthand is part of the city's media culture. It can benefit politicians, as it did when de Blasio and his family were seen celebrating after Primary Night last September but it can also go awry like with McCray's interview.
Ripping into the media might feel satisfying for the mayor – and maybe win some points at home – but it's only going to enrage the beast. Picking a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel and were raised on Fleet Street journalism is just a recipe for more front page agita.
The mayor would be wise to follow the lead of his predecessor who either didn't read the tabloid headlines or just ignored them, bulling through his day and embracing his inner roots as a former corporate CEO. Being right doesn't mean you should hold a press conference; just ask Cardinal O'Connor. God knows what he's up to.