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Media experts on NY tabloid San Bernardino covers: 'This is what they're known for'

This undated photo provided by the California Department of Motor Vehicles shows Syed Rizwan Farook who has been named as the suspect in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings. Farook communicated with individuals who were under FBI scrutiny in connection with a terrorism investigation. But the official said the contact was with "people who weren't significant players on our radar," dated back some time, and there was no immediate indication of any "surge" in communication ahead of the shooting. (California Department of Motor Vehicles via AP)

Following a controversial cover story declaring that "God isn't fixing this" after the San Bernardino shootings, the New York Daily News Friday used its front page to equate the head of the NRA with terrorists.

"He's a terrorist," the cover states next to the face of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook. Beneath, it says, "But so are these guys," with photos of four white men accused of committing mass shooting attacks, "And this guy" with a picture of the NRA's Wayne LaPierre.

The paper claims that all of the gunmen were "enabled by NRA's sick gun jihad against America in the name of profit."

LaPierre has not responded specifically to the newspaper's allegations, but Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action rejected the suggestion that the organization bears any responsibility for these shootings.

"The National Rifle Association is not to blame," he wrote in a USA Today op-ed before Friday's Daily News cover was released. "Neither is our Second Amendment freedom. An act of evil unfolded in California. President Obama used it not as a moment to inform or calm the American people; rather, he exploited it to push his gun control agenda."

The Daily News and its competitor on Manhattan newsstands, the New York Post, both faced heavy criticism for their front pages Thursday. Some accused to Daily News of "prayer-shaming" with a cover that criticized politicians who offered "thoughts and prayers" for victims of mass shootings but oppose gun control measures.

An early edition of the Post used the headline "Murder Mission," but the final version called Farook and his wife "Muslim Killers." At the time, little was known about the couple's motive and authorities were not calling the shooting an act of terrorism, so critics saw the headline as inciting Islamophobia.

Both newspapers have been criticized many times in the past for offensive front page headlines that have included images of people seconds before their deaths and prison rape jokes. The Daily News, in particular, caused controversy by showing a series of stills on its cover from video that gunman Vester Flanagan recorded while shooting two former co-workers in Virginia earlier this year. The Post sparked slightly less outrage by using an image of the same video from before Flanagan fired.

The Post was blasted after the Boston Marathon bombing, and faced a lawsuit that was later settled, for a front page featuring two men who turned out to have nothing to do with the attack under the headline "Bag Men."

The Daily News has been pushing for changes to gun laws since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, and Thursday and Friday's headlines were the latest in a series of provocative covers devoted to the issue. They have also taken aim at LaPierre in the past.

The papers' San Bernardino shooting covers were not out of the ordinary, according to Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor and a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. They reflect the specific business model of New York City tabloids.

"This is all part and parcel," he said. "These headlines are meant to attract attention, to get people like you and me talking about them," and ultimately to buy them.

"Every day, they're trying to come up with a headline that's catchy, that's memorable, that's provocative," he said.

Whether a given cover is offensive is in the eye of the beholder, according to Mutter. Some argued the Daily News cover was anti-prayer--Sen. Rand Paul called it "deplorable"--but Mutter saw it as simply a criticism of politicians whose prayers are not accompanied by support for gun control policies the paper favors.

"This all has to do with how these words and images resonate with a particular person's political point of view and emotional state," he said.

Daniel Hallin, professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California San Diego, agreed that the covers were typical for these publications.

"None of this sounds to me particularly out of line for what the tabloids do," he said. "They live by being provocative, partly."

Hallin noted that there is no clear consensus on what "crossing the line" means at this point, given the political polarization of the public and the growth of partisan media. Things that used to only be seen in the tabloids now turn up on talk radio and Fox News, he said.

"I think that probably the core audiences will applaud this kind of strong political posturing."

The criticism lobbed at both papers has been largely partisan, with conservatives blasting the Daily News for "prayer-shaming" and liberals attacking the Post for being anti-Islam.

"It's an interesting and sort of characteristic contrast between the two," said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University.

Friday's Daily News cover evoked similar mixed reactions online.

Carroll observed that the New York tabloids have a business model that differs from many other newspapers and places an emphasis on striking front page images.

"The tabloids, and this is true of tabloids in general, they live and die off of newsstand sales."

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers rely on subscribers for the bulk of their circulation, but for the tabloids, "it's still every day a newsstand battle to be the one that people pick up."

"They're in a war of attrition where one tabloid hopes to be the last tabloid standing in New York," Mutter said. He described the competing covers as "a form of journalistic trench warfare" between the publications.

"They've done that since you and I were lads...This is a long-standing tradition among competitive newspapers," he added.

The experts say it is unlikely either paper is concerned about offending social media users or violating traditional standards of objective journalism.

"Everything offends people on social media...Anything anybody can say, people can take offense at," Mutter said.

"This is what they're known for," Hallin said. "They have always been outside of the mainstream ethical standards of journalism."

"Their journalistic reputations are pretty much set in stone at this point, so I don't think they worry about that at all," Carroll said.

These front pages helped reinforce the tabloids' individual brands and their viewpoints on issues they have a history of covering. The blowback will probably not bring any changes from either publication.

"They'll keep doing it until one or both of them drops...This is just business," Mutter said.

If anything, the controversy may encourage their editors to push boundaries of taste even further because they have been successful in generating public interest.

"I think they're operating under the theory that the more publicity, the better," Carroll said. "People who might not pay attention at all to these tabloids, all of a sudden those two papers are on their radar screen."

"It might have helped sell newspapers," Mutter said, "and that, at the end, is all they're trying to do."

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