Today's Papers

Unreasonable Dowd

USA Today

and the Washington Post lead with Linda Tripp’s grand jury appearance, a story that also makes the others’ fronts. The New York Times goes with new data indicating that the birth rate for unmarried black women is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. The Los Angeles Times’s top non-local story is the decision by 19 countries to form an alliance aimed at resisting the immersion of their indigenous cultures in a rising worldwide tide of U.S.-made movies, television and music.

For all the drama of Tripp’s appearance at the federal courthouse, since for a change there were no leaks of testimony, the story has one shortcoming that should have thumbnailed it inside next to the corset ads: it produced no news. In a nice bit of subversion, the Tripp reporters off-load a good deal of the ink unaccountably granted to them on copious descriptions of non-events. The Times’ James Bennet describes a British tv reporter taping a Fox News tv reporter taping his spot. And the WP’s Bill Miller and Susan Schmidt report that the AP reported that Tripp was carrying a Chanel handbag, then add that others in the media thought the stitching wasn’t up to Chanel standards. Hope their editors got the point.

The NYT reports that new numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics show a 1996 birth rate among unmarried black women of 74.4 births per 1,000, down significantly from the 90.7 per 1,000 recorded in 1989. This is an important story and the Times is to be saluted for stepping over Tripp wires to run it where it belongs, but one still has the feeling the piece somewhat mishandles the information. Several times high up, the drop is credited to increased sex education and condom use among blacks. All this in a newspaper that in recent days has reported that although blacks make up but 13 percent of the population, they account for 57 percent of all new HIV cases. And the piece waits until its fifteenth paragraph to mention welfare reform, which removed a financial incentive for having children out of wedlock–and then, claiming that the drop has been steady long before welfare reform was passed, says that “according to some people who monitor fertility rates” it was not a significant factor. If this is indeed true, then the piece should have made that point high up and supported it with more year-by-year birthrate stats.

Overplaying stories like Tripp means underplaying stories like yesterday’s U.S. aircraft missile launch against an Iraqi anti-aircraft battery that was radar-illuminating a British aircraft–just above the fold at the LAT, bottom of the front at the WP and only in a reefer box on the USAT front. Or like the U.N.’s conclusion yesterday that Congolese soldiers and their Rwandan allies massacred unarmed Hutu refugees in 1996-1997 and that the current Congolese government of Laurent Kabila blocked the U.N.’s investigation. No death total is given but the stories mention that according to the U.N., 180,000 Hutus are still missing. The NYT runs this story on page 8 of its early national edition. It’s all too easy to discount the lives of people in other cultures, because they are people we don’t know, but it’s wrongheaded to play to that bias. Instead, journalism should strive to make us know them. On its front page today, the WP effectively acquaints us with four middle-class Americans who died in a head-on collision, but it runs its version of the Congo massacre on page 27.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Learning Channel was all set to run a thirty-minute show about beer, paid for by Anheuser-Busch, until the paper began making inquiries. The Journal implies a Joe Camelesque angle, noting that the show was scheduled to appear during the early afternoon of Saturday July 11 and Sunday July 12, when kids were likely to be channel surfing.

Yesterday’s papers brought the news that U.S. News & World Report owner Mort Zuckerman had fired his editor-in-chief James Fallows. “Today’s Papers” thought this a bit too parochial for inclusion, but the Times’ Maureen Dowd thinks otherwise: she devotes today’s column to an anti-Fallows jeremiad, which ends up saying much more about her than him. Dowd describes Fallows’ excellent book on the wrongheaded culture of political journalism, Breaking the News as a “pompous screed” and says he has “a problem recognizing a news story.” But who has bad news judgment? Dowd says she would rather read a piece by Bianca Jagger than one about health care and scoffs at Fallows for not wanting to chase old news about Gianni Versace and Princess Di. And who’s pompous? Dowd laughs at the idea that Hugh Downs might have something to say about Proust and as usual wields her high school French–the column is called “Le Tout Swivet.”