Fonzie Scheme

Last Monday, as they now surely know even in Uzbekistan, Geraldine Ferraro announced her candidacy for Alfonse D’Amato’s U.S. Senate seat. Which made for an interesting edition of the Post on Tuesday, when the paper’s coverage concentrated not on the announcement but on the incumbent’s reaction to it: FIRST BLOOD, howled the front-page headline, followed by D’AMATO TEAM PUNCHES GERRY WITH NEW MOB CHARGES.

It seems that Arthur Coia, a labor official long suspected of organized-crime ties, had hosted a birthday party for Ferraro at the 1996 Democratic convention.

The charge isn’t irrelevant: A pol with Ferraro’s background on such matters might have thought twice about consenting to this particular fête. But the Daily News reported it way back during the convention.

Just how does a seventeen-month-old story get reborn as front-page “news?” Easy, when it’s part of the New York Post’s D’Amato Protection Plan. The alliance between the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, and the senator goes back years. Every time he launches a re-election campaign, the paper cranks up its supplemental coverage, championing any story that could in any way benefit its friend the Fonz. In 1992, the Post even gave a few weeks of improbably friendly coverage to Democratic Senate candidate (and longtime Post target) Al Sharpton, in the apparent hope that helping him would hurt the Democrats, and therefore benefit D’Amato. The Fonz is a gracious winner, and he has carefully repaid such favors – first by helping Murdoch get a federal exemption to repurchase the Post five years ago, and later by helping him get his Fox News Channel on the Time Warner cable system.

The Post’s M.O., like that of any good con man, is always well conceived and methodical. This time around, stage one commenced on December 29, when Albany-bureau chief Fred Dicker got the story that Ferraro was hiring David Eichenbaum, the Democratic National Committee’s former flack. It was a micro-scoop at best that most papers would relegate to the page 27 political-dope column. The Post played it big on page 2.

Next, Post reporters tracked Gerry all the way to St. Croix, where she was on a quiet vacation with her family. They plastered the next day’s cover with a stalkerazzi photo of her in sunbathing attire (bonus for that) walking on the beach with a grandson. The story inside quoted unnamed sources warning she risked an “abrupt end” to her career if she challenged D’Amato.

The groundwork was laid. The Coia story was probably arranged by this time, so both D’Amato and the Post would be ready to pop the day after Ferraro announced.

Which they did. But the action didn’t stop there. In Tuesday’s paper, Jack Newfield wrote a (mostly) anti-D’Amato column, which got some really choice placement on page 18. But it also gave the story legs for a second day, especially when grouped with Andrea Peyser’s column arguing that filling potholes isn’t such a bad thing and an editorial restating the Coia charges. It’s all part of the plan.

One thus learns to read the Post’s coverage as a palimpsest, scratching below the surface for a hidden text. But what’s the agenda here? Is D’Amato scared of Ferraro? Does he want her to lose the nomination? Conventional wisdom holds that he fears that she’ll exploit the gender gap and even give him a run for the Catholic vote. But it’s too early to say for sure. “He knows he’s gotta run against somebody,” says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, “so what he wants to do is destroy everybody. What’s important about the papers is what’s usable in commercials – the headlines, the pictures. That’s what this is about.”

Fonzie Scheme