Citizen Spitzer

The resignation announcement of Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York didn’t make the front page of The News & Observer. It was, after all, an expected story that happened fairly early in the news cycle for the Raleigh paper.

The Spitzer story was all over TV and the Web on Wednesday, and it was on the N&O front page earlier in the week. And lately, the N&O has been busy chasing North Carolina’s governor, and one governor on the front is enough.

The Spitzer story got pretty good play inside the paper, however. The two-story package was the display lead on page 3A, and it included a sidebar with this headline:

Prostitute aimed for career as a singer

This brought to mind one of my favorite newspaper headlines from the movies. It’s from “Citizen Kane,” and it appears as newspaper kingpin Charles Foster Kane is running for governor of New York. A rival newspaper exposes his extramarital affair, leading with this headline:

CANDIDATE KANE CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH ‘SINGER’

The Highly Moral Mr. Kane and his Tame “Songbird”
Entrapped by Wife as Love Pirate Kane Refuses to Quit Race

The headline effectively destroys Kane’s political career, and his personal life suffers as well. On election night, his own paper must choose the latter of these two headlines:

KANE ELECTED

CHARLES FOSTER KANE DEFEATED, FRAUD AT POLLS!

The cinematic technique of using a newspaper front page to move a story forward can come off as cheap and lazy. The headlines on such fictional pages rarely ring true in their wording or presentation. The headlines in “Citizen Kane,” however, work on multiple levels, and they represent another reason why “Kane” is a brilliant movie.

Indeed, the “singer” headline is mentioned later in the film, when Kane tries to transform his mistress, now his wife, into an opera star. Kane radically edits a colleague’s negative review of her performance, a significant violation of his “declaration of principles.” Kane’s motivation for doing so is explained this way by that colleague:

The whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election, “Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote.” He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.

Unlike some Hollywood writers, Orson Welles understood the power of well-worded headlines when he created “Citizen Kane.” The “singer” headline is not just used to move the story forward. It’s an integral part of the plot as another push toward Kane’s downfall. That headline also reads well and has the “sizzle words” that managing editors love the desk to use in display type.

Orson Welles would have been a great copy editor.