The zoo story bakeoff in the local dailies has reinforced two eternal truths of news coverage: 1. When it comes to budget cuts, kids and animals always get the best play; and 2. It's good to live in a two-newspaper town.
Start with the fallout over the $4 million cut in state funding for local zoos. The front-page Boston Globe story was headlined, "Franklin Park Zoo May Have to Close." Subhead: "Some animals might have to be euthanized."
The Boston Herald, much more graphically, featured a photo of Little Joe, the gadabout gorilla from Franklin Park, alongside the headline, "Please Don't Kill Me."
Round One of the bakeoff to the Herald.
By the next day, the Globe had dropped the story to the front page of the Metro section, with the headline, "News of zoos' financial woes stuns."
The Herald stuck with page one, which showed two children holding signs and the headline, "Hub kids plead . . . SAVE THE ZOO" — all caps.
There you have the daily double of budget-cut coverage, namely kids and animals. So Round Two of the bakeoff also went to the Herald.
The next day Gov. Patrick fought back, saying no animals would be killed in the production of his budget cuts. The Globe headline said, "Patrick accuses zoo officials of scare tactics." The Herald was, predictably, more emphatic: "No animals will be killed," the front-page blared. It also included a photo of baby gorilla Kiki, who presumably would live to follow in Little Joe's peripatetic pawsteps.
Of course, with a story like this, local newspaper columnists were bound to enter the fray. The Herald's Peter Gelzinis compared Little Joe to Edward G. Robinson in the gangster classic "Little Caesar," whose dying words were, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
Globe columnist Adrian Walker, though, was having none of it. Walker said the whole kerfuffle was, well, Zoodoo — "a mass panic," he wrote, "fueled by public manipulation by the outfit that runs the zoos."
That led zoo chief John Linehan to tell the Globe, seriously, the two zoos in Greater Boston would be shut down if the Legislature failed to restore funding, and yes, more than 20 percent of the animals may indeed have to be euthanized. Indeed.
All the while this Animal House drama played out, other victims of the governor's budget vetoes -- from senior care to education to services for children and families -- were virtually ignored.
Which brings us to the third eternal truth of budget-cut coverage: It's a zero-sum game. Every photo of Little Joe displaces an image of elderly hardship or shuttered libraries.
That's guerrilla warfare of an entirely different kind.
John Carroll is senior media analyst for WBUR and a mass communication professor at Boston University.
This program aired on July 21, 2009.