Today's Papers

Too Public Relations

Killer tornadoes hitting the Southeast lead at USA Today and the New York Times. The incredible expanding budget surplus leads at the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times goes with the Japanese prime minister’s decision to try countering his country’s sliding economy by offering tax cuts.

The Times has Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, whose forte is Southern atmosphere, on the tornado case. He paints quite a picture of the death (at least 38 victims) and destruction. “A ragged line of storms ripped through one little town after another in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, destroying homes, churches and schools, burying hundreds in rubble, even sucking people out of their damaged houses and leaving one man dead in the branches of a tree.” Bragg notes that the National Weather Service gave the twister the most powerful rating on its storm scale, but all its victims knew was that it “was off the scale of their experience.”

The tornadoes are also top front at the WP. And the WP, NYT, and LAT all feature stunning top-front pictures of the devastation. Oddly though, the LAT puts the story itself deep inside.

The WP lead drives home the point that the folks who for all those years did such a below-average job of estimating budget deficits also stink at estimating budget surpluses. The paper reports that the Federal Reserve now says the surplus will be at least $50 billion for this fiscal year, up from recent official estimates of $10 billion.

The LAT reports that Japanese P.M. Hashimoto has bowed to a “torrent of pressure from the United States, international investors, and elite Japanese business leaders” and swapped his trademark fiscal austerity policies for an economic stimulus package featuring lush tax cuts designed to persuade Japanese consumers to do some spending. The tax cuts are also on the front pages at the NYT and WP. As the LAT explains, Japan’s increasingly high savings rate has only exacerbated the Asian economic crisis, by drying up a big export market for the floundering neighboring economies. And the NYT adds that the U.S. has been advocating some sort of domestic stimulus because of the risk that Japan might try to save itself instead by not only reducing imports but also by dramatically increasing its exports.

“Today’s Papers” is somewhat surprised that none of the Hashimoto reporting mentions the situation in the U.S. in 1993 when the incoming Clinton administration was likewise attempting to address a sluggish economy. Within the new government, there were strong deficit-cutting and economic stimulus factions. But the deficit cutters got the upper hand and it is now widely believed that their course of action has been the key to the current good times here. Isn’t this relevant to the Japan coverage?

A big LAT front-page piece reveals that Microsoft has been secretly planning a massive media campaign that, the paper says, was designed to influence state investigators contemplating further anti-trust action by “creating the appearance of a groundswell of public support” for the company. The plan included “the planting of articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces” to be commissioned by Microsoft but presented as spontaneous local offerings about “how wonderful it is to do business with Microsoft.” When the paper first asked Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw about this yesterday, Shaw said he was unaware of such a plan. But Shaw’s name is on some of the confidential company documents in the LAT’s possession and he later acknowledged the PR plan but said it was “merely a proposal.” The ad campaign per se does not trouble “Today’s Papers,” but the idea of planting stories disguised as independent efforts does. “TP” hopes that the independent stance of the previous sentence is not thought by readers to in fact be part of a coordinated company effort to simulate independence (GREG–Was this what you wanted here?).

The Wall Street Journal “Legal Beat” column reports that for the first time ever the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.’s main legal arm, has intervened in a U.S. criminal case and ordered the U.S. to stay the execution of a Paraguayan citizen convicted of murder in Virginia. The issue here, one that occurs not infrequently in the case of foreign national criminal suspects, is that the cops forgot to tell the man about his right to talk to the Paraguayan consulate.

The NYT op-ed page features a satirical piece by two Harvard Lampoon editors on the trend of luxury compensation packages being used to lure tenured faculty stars from one elite university to another. But the piece is anchored in fact: Columbia recently successfully enticed a Harvard econ prof with a package that included a $300,000 salary, a $55,000-a-year job for his wife and help getting their son admission to a tony prep school.