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“Drop Dead”: How Trump Inspired the New York Daily News to Revive Its Most Famous Headline

"It’s to be reserved only for events that are momentous," its editor-in-chief says.
Via Newseum.org

There aren’t that many headlines that people can recall for longer than a few hours, let alone more than four decades. And the most memorable headlines tend to come from New York tabloids, such as the New York Post‘s 1983 screamer “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The next-most-famous “wood” might be “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” which led the New York Daily News on October 30, 1975, after President Gerald Ford refused to authorize federal loans to New York City, then teetering on bankruptcy.

“FORD TO CITY” endures because it’s quick, blunt, and—even though Ford never actually told then Mayor Abe Beame to drop dead—told the essential story. It also might have done the trick: days later, Ford did sign legislation to help New York with its finances.

This isn’t a story about Gerald Ford, however. The most famous headline in the Daily News‘s 97-year history came roaring back Friday when the paper blasted President Trump‘s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, putting the country in the position of reneging on pledges to reduce carbon emissions. But this time, the Daily News‘s editors upped the stakes, going with “TRUMP TO WORLD: DROP DEAD.”

Daily News Editor-in-Chief Arthur Browne says the headline came pretty quickly on Thursday when news broke of Trump’s decision. Daniel Johnson Kim, the paper’s head of production, floated the idea on the workplace messaging app Slack, and other editors agreed pretty quickly.

Still, Browne says updating the Daily News‘s famous headline wasn’t a light decision. “In the atmospherics here and the culture of the place, it was a natural thing to arise,” he tells Washingtonian. “And there have been times through the years where events have taken place where somebody has said, ‘Oh, that’s a someone-to-someone: drop dead headline,’ but it doesn’t actually rise to that level. It’s to be reserved only for events that are momentous. And this one was.”

Though it’s unlikely the President—who has expressed belief that climate change is a “hoax” devised by China—will come about on the issue, as Ford did with New York’s finances, Browne says it captures the impact of Trump’s decision. “This was a historic turning point for the United States and the world, based on the action of the President of the United States,” he says. “And it happened to have the added resonance of ‘Trump to World’ in that he’s talking to world leaders, and also in terms of climate change.”

In that sense, the Daily News‘s approach to Trump’s Paris decision reads much more like some European coverage than that of its American kin. The lefty French tabloid Libération led with the words “Goodbye America” being overrun by an oil spill. Der Spiegel, the German weekly, revealed a cover of a cartoon, golf-club-wielding Trump hacking away at a flaming planet. Another German paper, Berliner Kurier, even borrowed the Daily News‘s classic headline construction to rage back at the US president.

As Browne sees it, while the European newspapers are editorializing, the Daily News is giving it to us straight. “This front page is very powerful, carries attitude about the event but strangely is not editorializing,” he says. “It is factual that Trump told the world leaders to drop dead on their thinking and that he took an action that runs counter efforts to stem climate climate change.”

Granting Browne this codicil, it’s still a strong callback to the role tabloids once played. The Ford cover referenced a local story, but carried a voice that punched beyond the five boroughs. “The Daily News is the voice of New York and that was the paper speaking up for New York,” he says. “In a way this is the paper speaking up for common sense, which is what everyone needs regarding the future of the planet.”

The Daily News‘s relationship with Donald Trump goes back much longer than his political career. Trump’s been a fixture in New York media for nearly 40 years, and is himself the subject of what’s probably the third-most-famous wood in the history the city’s tabloid wars: “Best Sex I Ever Had,” the Post‘s 1990 cover story about his alleged prowess with future second wife Marla Maples. In the years since, the Daily News has mocked Trump for failing to make Forbes’s list of the world’s richest individuals, fisked his business failings, and called him an “ass” when he criticized the city’s $40 million settlement with five men who had been wrongfully convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. (When the case began, Trump took out full-page ads in several New York publications, calling for New York State to reinstate the death penalty; even in 2016, Trump continued to profess his discredited belief that the exonerated men were guilty.)

The Daily News got even punchier when Trump ran for President. When he announced his candidacy, the paper, then under the editorship of Jim Rich (now executive editor of HuffPost), put Trump in clown makeup. Browne has dialed back the more cartoonish woods since taking over last October, but he says the Daily News is still going tough on Trump in his new context.

After he was inaugurated, we’ve kept a very critical eye on him not as a person or candidate,” Browne says. “This is all about what he does as president now, and this was an encapsulation of our understanding of the actual news, the actual fact of what the president has done.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.