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Following Strauss-Kahn story, wherever it leads

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On Saturday morning, scores of local and foreign reporters set up cameras, lights and umbrellas on the sunny stretch of sidewalk they had dubbed “DSK beach,” opposite Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Tribeca townhouse in Manhattan. As they waited for the former chief of the International Monetary Fund to emerge on his first day of freedom from house arrest, the journalists occasionally updated their viewers by holding up the New York Post’s front page, which blared, “DSK MAID A HOOKER / Exclusive: ‘Took Care’ of Guests on the Side.”

“In New York, we laugh at the headline about the maid today, but we don’t necessarily believe it,” Nathan King, a half-French correspondent for channel France 24 who has lived in New York for a decade, explained as he accepted a spritz of sun block from a colleague calling herself the “cabana girl.” Back in France, King said, “they don’t understand.”

France is not entirely naive to tabloid culture, (France Soir, anyone?) but theirs is nothing like the tabloid wars in New York. In the story of Strauss-Kahn — a French player in global monetary policy and politics accused of raping a chambermaid in a luxury hotel — the competition was so fierce that it conflagrated into much of the broader coverage, destroying and then reviving the fortunes of the past and potential future French presidential contender along the way.

When police removed Strauss-Kahn from a plane at Kennedy airport, New York won ownership of the season’s biggest tabloid story. And the papers ran with it. As opposed to the French media’s frequent assertions of innocence and complaints about the incivility of the American police state, the gleefully francophobic tabloids here rushed to judgment in the opposite direction, casting the powerful, rich and randy politician as “Le Perv,” per the New York Daily News, or “Pepe le Pew,” as the New York Post preferred. Simply put, Strauss-Kahn was a gift from the tabloid gods, and he was sacrificed accordingly. Details of his alleged rape of the chambermaid, speculative stories about the accuser having HIV, and photos of the power broker’s perp walk, prison jumpsuit and $50,000-a-month house-arrest manse filled the front pages. The tabloids were fulfilling their primary mission of selling copies on the newsstand by providing eye-popping headlines and answers to the questions the broadsheets usually won’t touch. And they were doing a particularly fine job of it.

What made the Strauss-Kahn coverage so different to the Manhattan district attorney’s office was that the tabloids did what the always to, but their readership changed to include a foreign press corps decidedly not in on the joke: The city’s tabloids are most concerned delivering news that gets a rise out of their readers. The foreign press cited the New York Post as if it were the New York Times, and then the traditionally reserved business press and broadsheets, with their own stake in a highly competitive story, proved unwilling to forfeit the juicier details about semen samples and sex acts to the tabs. Add to that the frequent television appearances by the accuser’s lawyer, some indiscreet remarks by District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who characterized the alleged crime as “extremely serious,” leaks from the police department and the press tents erected outside the courthouse. The result was an unusually furious summertime media maelstrom.

Now that the district attorney’s investigation has yielded information about their star witness’s past that deeply erodes her credibility and seems likely to kill the case, Strauss-Kahn’s camp would like to see the New York media display some compunction.

That is not how it works.

“Hairpin turns are part of the whole drama of these stories — we sympathized with the maid, now we might be ready to sympathize with the accused,” said Tom McGeveran, co-founder of a Web site about politics and culture in New York called Capital New York. He authors a daily deconstruction of the tabloid front pages. “New Yorkers are willing to ride the roller coaster.”

Sympathy in France

For all of Strauss-Kahn’s hard feelings about the coverage of his still-unexplained sexual encounter with the chambermaid, his victimization by the New York media has earned him the politically valuable sympathy of his countrymen.

“In France, people didn’t like the extreme way he was treated by the press,” Amandine Atalaya, a political analyst and correspondent for France’s leading news channel, TF1, said as she lingered around DSK Beach. “This helps him” — and the New York Post, in particular, “played a role,” she said.

Now that Strauss-Kahn seems unlikely to face any trial, his associates are more willing to express their displeasure with his persecutors in the press.

“He was particularly upset with the pictures of himself in handcuffs, the coverage of his living situations, prying into his wife’s personal economic situation,” said William Taylor, an attorney for Strauss-Kahn based in Washington.

He said he advised his client not to read the coverage. “I think I even saw words like ‘Frog’ in some of the headlines.”

Don’t forget “Chez Perv,” “French Whine!” and “No Merci!”

“Did most people assume he was guilty? I don’t think there is any question that they did,” said Taylor. Strauss-Kahn’s supporters “think he was treated unfairly” and would like to see some of the city’s news outlets “eat a little crow,” he added.

Col Allan, the editor of the New York Post, apparently had no such appetite.

“The paper speaks for itself,” Allan said.

And the Post has also made the most noise, setting the tone for coverage by the local and foreign press and putting pressure on the district attorney’s office, which ultimately bears responsibility for rushing to judgment.

On the day of Strauss-Kahn’s indictment, District Attorney Vance stood on the steps of the courthouse saying that the evidence against Strauss-Kahn “supports the commission of nonconsensual, forced sexual acts.” The statement was less than two minutes in duration, but that was enough to feed the tabloid frenzy.

After that initial indiscretion, the district attorney’s office sought to discourage excessive media attention, according to an official in the office. Vance, who is fluent in French, purposefully avoided the limelight, declining to give any statements or grant any of the hundreds of interview requests that flowed into his office.

Not everyone stayed quiet. The office received a letter from the defense counsel complaining about leaks coming from the police department, which was boasting about the speed and efficiency of the police investigation. The district attorney’s office asked the police to refrain from commenting in the press, according to the official. The office also asked the chambermaid’s attorneys to cease and desist their tour of New York television studios out of fear that they were undermining their client’s case. The usually quiet Office of Court Administration also seemed caught up in the excitement, turning a section of its Web site over to details about Strauss-Kahn court appearances.

The official also said the extreme competition for the story resulted in the conflation of the usual roles of tabloid and more reserved broadsheet papers, which all printed similar, unconfirmed details of the evidence being collected in the case and chased elaborate rumors of a mysterious hotel video. For all the district attorney’s efforts to lower the volume, the media raised the expectations of a conviction. The collapse of the case has thus resulted in a new villain: “Black-eye Cy.”

Busy day at DSK beach

Back at DSK beach, NBC reporter Ron Allen held up the front page of the Post for the camera while, a few feet away, a France 2 cameraman panned its pages. At 11 a.m., the shade moved to the other side of the street, and all the reporters followed. At 1 p.m., a suited security guard emerged from the townhouse to set up a perimeter. “I’ll keep him inside all day if you get any closer!” he warned reporters. Fifteen minutes later, police arrived and gabbed with Kevin Sheehan, a New York Post reporter who held a notepad in one hand and a motorcycle helmet in the other. At 1:30, police told everyone to get behind the railings.

Half an hour later, a black Mercedes sedan pulled up, and Strauss-Kahn, wearing a blue shirt and jacket, walked out of the townhouse with his arm draped over his wife. “Dominique!” the photographers yelled from across the street. He grinned at his audience, climbed into the car and rode off. Right behind him, a motorcycle driven by Sheehan, the Post reporter, was in hot pursuit.

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