Today's Papers

Want Spoiled Fries With That?

Bad burger meat dominates, leading at USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal heads up its top-of-the-page “World-Wide” news box with another pretty important health story, the admission by the CEO of the nation’s largest cigarette maker that his product may have killed 100,000 people. The Los Angeles Times leads with state charges being filed in the Ruby Ridge case.

Everybody has the same basic details on the recall of 25 million pounds of burger meat: It was produced at a Hudson Foods plant in Nebraska. It was the largest meat recall in history, prompted by 16 people in Colorado getting food poisoning from a strain of E. coli bacteria that can lead to kidney failure and death. And the Dept. of Agriculture doesn’t have the legal power to close a suspect food plant or unilaterally recall its product, but gets its way on these matters by threatening to pull out its inspectors. It is widely reported that because of this episode, the Secretary of Agriculture now intends to ask Congress for that closing power.

The NYT goes a little further than the others in describing the meat regulatory system, pointing out that, concerned by problems of contamination, Agriculture officials have recently approved a new more stringent system of controls, but adding that the new system is not scheduled to be in place anywhere until early next year, and not at the Hudson plant until 1999. Also, the NYT is alone in explicitly stating that the Colorado victims survived. On the other hand, the Times puts the relevant consumer information–the lot number of the suspect meat and the company and government 800 numbers–at the very bottom of the story, where, editors know from long experience, most readers will never see it. The Post mentions the various places in the Washington area where the meat might have ended up, including the Pentagon food system, but is mum on whether any got near the burger lover in the White House. (But don’t bet against an eventual presidential connection. Hudson Foods is headquartered in Rogers, Arkansas. Can a political payoff or Rose Law Firm connection be far behind?)

Today’s papers provide vivid examples of how much headlines and placement can vary, leading to widely different impressions about what’s important. Why is it, for instance, that the LAT puts California’s biggest social impact story in a generation, the upholding by a federal court of the proposition that overturns virtually all of the state’s affirmative action programs, in a tiny box nearly at the bottom of the front page? (Especially curious given that the LAT has given previous, less-definitive court decisions concerning this proposition huge splashes.) And why is it that no one but the Journal has that tobacco CEO’s confession on the front page?

And why does the Post headline its inside story about what he said, “Smoking May Have Killed Thousands” when the man said “100,000”? And why, even though the Ruby Ridge development involves the highly unusual event of homicide charges being brought against an FBI agent, is that story left inside the WP? (It’s on the front at USAT, the NYT, and the LAT.) And the headlines over that story tend to befog rather than clarify. The Post tags the story this way: “FBI Sniper Charged.” USAT runs it under “FBI Sharpshooter charged in Ruby Ridge.” The Times heads it with “Two Men Charged in ‘92 Idaho Shootout.” These are all unnecessarily off, kind of like running “Man Bites Something” without mentioning that the bitee was a dog. The FBI should definitely be mentioned in the headline, and so should the fact that a second man, a survivalist, was also charged. Only the LAT gets it right: “Idaho Charges FBI Agent, Activist in Ruby Ridge Deaths.”