The Breakfast Table

Gawande and Williams

Dear Atul:

I never noticed, until I went to work for a newspaper (the Washington Post, in the late ‘80s), how conveniently devoid of news the Monday paper tends to be. It was a new and alarming idea to me: that except for actual events–a plane crash, an earthquake–whose coverage couldn’t be ducked, all other news was essentially voluntary. And Sundays were seen, in the newsroom, to be days agreeably free of developments that required the presence of more than a skeleton staff. This means that Monday papers are huge news holes into which management pours long, theoretically worthy stories that can’t make it into the tight weekday news budgets. Half the time these stories are stinkers, and half the time they’re so much richer than all the obligatory coverage that they make you wonder why you bother to read the “real” news all the other days of the week. I love the anarchy of Mondays.

Today’s stinker is the New York Times’ Page One story “One Precinct, 2 Very Different Murder Cases,” which ponders the public treatment of two recent murders in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct. One, the unsolved stabbing of white graduate student Amy Watkins, got big play in the Times and all the other New York media; the other, the stabbing of Jamaican immigrant Marvin Watson, got no notice at all. Here at my actual breakfast table in majority-black D.C., when we see the Post showing the same egregious double standard the Watkins/Watson story addresses, we sing out, “When Bad Things Happen to White People!” But the Post is at least free of the Times’ disingenuous self-consciousness. The Times story, by Jim Yardley and Garry Pierre-Pierre, does note that Watson’s death “went unreported by the tabloids and the New York Times.” But it presents this as just one of those unfortunate realities, folks–like the alignment of the planets; not as a failure the Times should perhaps be re-examining. Did this silence from the paper of record have anything to do with the fact that the city’s finest assigned two dozen detectives to the first case, while handling the second as a routine homicide? The Times doesn’t speculate. And the story re-commits the moral error it is supposedly exposing, noting, for example, that the white Kansan had an ex-boyfriend who now attends Harvard Law School (who cares?). Worst of all, it closes with a quote from the girlfriend of the dead man, in which the Times somehow gets her to ratify its original, brutal news judgment: “There are a lot of killings in New York, and I don’t think all of them could be covered,” she says. That’s a relief. Whatever twinge of doubt caused some editor at the Times to assign this story is now assuaged.

The Post has a good new twist on one of my favorite hardy perennials, the debate over whether the last remaining samples of smallpox virus should be destroyed. The newest case against destroying our final stores of it, which are locked up at the Centers for Disease Control concerns evidence that the Soviets produced far more smallpox virus than they acknowledged, and that some of this virus remains at unauthorized sites in Russia. Suppose a terrorist used a new variant of smallpox; wouldn’t we want to have samples from which to develop a vaccine? David Brown does his usual great work exploring this debate. (The truth: I like this debate mostly for the chance to say “nitrogen vapor phase freezer.”)

Finally: Don’t you love the term-limits problem? The nine Republicans (and one Democrat) who got elected in Newt’s ‘94 revolution on the promise that they would serve only three terms in Congress are coming to the end of the line next year. Several have discovered (surprise!) the virtues of seniority in Congress, and the vast good they might do their constituents by sticking around. Others are under tremendous pressure from the party to run again, because if they create open seats by resigning, the GOP is more apt to lose its slim majority in the House. The Post fronts this story today, too, in recognition of the intense satisfaction to be had in watching these hypocrites twist slowly in the wind.