11/08/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Tale of Two Tabloids

The fat lady has sung in New York. Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty with 73 percent of the vote. Yet this remarkable outpouring of support stood in stark contrast to the media institution that is supposed to represent the people: the city's two tabloids.

On the afternoon before Election Day, a strange sight appeared on the newsstands. A huge hammer-and-sickle adorned the front page of the New York Post, and next to it was de Blasio's face. "BACK IN THE USSR!" the headline read; the subhead promised a scoop on the candidate's "secret Cold War trip." The big revelation: During his student days at NYU, de Blasio visited the Soviet Union, traveling with classmates on a trip paid for by the university. "Commie here often?" the inside headline snarked, while the story reminded readers that the trip took place in "the same year President Reagan labeled the communist regime 'the Evil Empire'."

This was Rupert Murdoch's tabloid being itself, of course --except that it echoed the red-baiting campaign of de Blasio's Republican rival, Joe Lhota. Though he presented himself in TV debates as a seasoned and moderate manager of city affairs, Lhota's commercials took fear-mongering to new heights in New York politics. The ads, which warned that we were "one bad mayor away" from a plague of crime and disrepair, made Lhota the face and voice of white backlash. And, indeed, he did best in areas where Rudolph Giuliani is still spoken of in tones otherwise reserved for the Holy Ghost. Though the election was widely portrayed as a broad-based victory for de Blasio, precinct maps show that the richest areas of Manhattan joined with white-ethnic neighborhoods in the outer boroughs to support Lhota. This alliance was simply outnumbered by the new demographics of the city. Minority voters and white liberals are now a majority of the electorate. De Blasio has been able to embody this new force, but in the tabloids the old order lives on. Even as the voters embraced his ideology, dire warnings about what it would bring filled their pages.

As a journalism student, I loved the slogan, borrowed from Abe Lincoln, that graced the lobby of the Daily News building: "God must love the little people; He made so many of them." But in recent years the News has mainly reflected the interests of its owner, a real-estate tycoon who also serves as editor-in-chief of the business-minded U.S. News and World Report. Mort Zuckerman is no Murdoch, but he's also no friend to progressive politics, and his view of labor is, to be generous, wary. He's Bloomberg in beta, about as attuned to the perceptions of "the little people" as the mayor is. But unlike Bloomberg, Zuckerman owns a tabloid, and though it specializes in commonplace rhetoric, thanks largely to some colorful columnists, it has preserved that style under glass. Its tone is street, but its editorials are pure penthouse.

At first, the News's labored to dent de Blasio with negative stories, but none of them were truly scandalous. Yes, the candidate did favors for his constituents, and, yes, he courted realtors and financiers. But in a city with a long history of indicted officials, this is hardly corruption. Finally, the News had to make a choice, and it did, just before the election, rejecting Lhota on the sole grounds that "he swims futilely against a surging Democratic tide." The paper proceeded to back de Blasio with praise so faint that it could easily be taken for a slam. It cited "worrying reservations and strong prescriptions," prodding him to "trade ideology for pragmatism" and revise his "easy populism" and "ill-considered stances." The "unintended consequences of feel-good policies," warned the paper, "could be disastrous."

Here was a (slightly) kinder, gentler version of Lhota's ads. Its stated concerns were crime and education, but under the editorial's civic stance lay the agenda that has led some segments of the city's elite to push the panic button: higher taxes for the rich, an end to subsidies for luxury condos, an insistence that developers build affordable housing. "De Blasio has played with fire," the News opined. They were talking about his opposition to stop-and-frisk police tactics, but the class that writes such editorials has a remarkable tendency to confuse its own prosperity with public safety. Their self-interest hides behind a scrim of social concern, which often translates into fear-mongering. At the tabloids, that's as predictable as a bikini-clad babe on the front page.

This is what de Blasio will have to contend with if he tries to put his progressive ideas to work, challenging the free-market version of liberalism, with its trickle-down assumptions, that prevailed under Bloomberg. Anyone who holds wealthy citizens to account will face a wave of disguised backlash, some of it, inevitably, racial. Fortunately for de Blasio, the city's demographics favor a far more inclusive view of reality. Unfortunately for the tabloids, they don't represent this future. The fact that an overwhelming number of voters ignored their shock-horror message shows how archaic these papers are. People still read them for entertainment, but no one takes them seriously. The untold media story is what this election said about the Post and the News. It revealed their irrelevance.