The Los Angeles Times and New York Times lead with RJR Nabisco’s announcement yesterday that it is splitting its food and tobacco businesses into separate companies and selling its foreign tobacco operation to a Japanese firm. The story is also the top non-local effort at the Washington Post. USA Today puts RJR on its business front but leads with word that the federal account that supplies matching funds to presidential candidates is running out of money. The paper reports that a representative of the Federal Election Commission, manager of the fund, testified before Congress yesterday that only about 40 percent of the monies earmarked for presidential primary participants will be available at the start of next year. Therefore there will be increased pressure to opt out of the matching funds altogether, something gazillionaire Steve Forbes did last go-round and that George W. Bush is contemplating this time. Causes for the shortfall cited by the paper are: inflation driving up the payments to candidates (inflation?), waning public support for the tax form check off that funds the system (only 13 percent of filers checked off in 1996, half the rate in the 80s), and a crowded field of candidates.
The papers explain that the RJR Nabisco move will help the company shrink its debt and perhaps appease shareholders concerned about exposure to the legal and marketplace problems of the tobacco biz. The WP dramatizes the company’s troubles, putting in its second paragraph the bulletoid that in this raging stock market, it has lost half its value. The move is also supposed to symbolize the piper coming to call for the sins of the Greed Decade, because RJR Nabisco’s combine status was achieved ten years ago by a junk-bond-fueled leveraged buyout. But this is a little glib–didn’t RJR buyout king Henry Kravis make out like a bandit? The barbarians went through the gates. Then they shut them. The LAT goes high with the point that yesterday’s move is yet another example–like breast implant makers, like nuclear power suppliers–of social and legal forces altering the shape of a major corporation. The LAT and Wall Street Journal most squarely address an issue that naturally puzzles non-Wall Streeters: How can the move help RJR since the company admits it will not protect it from lawsuits arising from its tobacco products anyway? The papers’ answer: nobody really knows.
The NYT front reports that a struggle has been going on since December between Republicans on a special House committee and the White House over how much information to release to the general public about the committee’s findings that China has illicitly acquired sensitive American military technology. The White House position is that too much detail will compromise American intelligence-gathering methods. The Republican position is that the problem is being soft-pedaled to avoid upsetting U.S.-China diplomacy. The issue has become more loaded as some committee details have come to light, such as the determination that China stole nuclear weaponeering secrets from the Los Alamos lab. The story notes Al Gore’s stance, issued in a CNN interview: “That happened during the previous administration. That happened back in the 1980s. And as soon as the investigation identified targets of that investigation, then the law enforcement community handled that very aggressively….” An LAT front pager also features the Gore quote and notes that the issue is spilling over into presidential campaign politics, noting that Steve Forbes says the Clinton administration China policy is “appeasement.”
The WSJ breaks a Microsoft exclusive, reporting that during the trial stand-down, the company is quietly working on a strategy for an appeal, in which the company would argue that copyright law gives it the right to keep its products from being altered by distributors. And the NYT reports that Microsoft, whose MSN Expedia is a web-based travel services enterprise, is about to join three travel agency associations in filing a complaint asking the Justice Dept. to see if the airlines’ online ticket sales practices are anti-competitive. The complaint will finally land on the desk of Joel Klein, the government lawyer who masterminded the antitrust case against Microsoft.
A very good LAT “Column One” points out a little-noticed effect of the booming economy: prospects for job seekers with baggage have never been better. The paper quotes a headhunter on the 90’s definition of employability: “Anything short of murder.” Even, he says, a manslaughter conviction won’t keep you from working in this economy. But there are a few things that are still employment showstoppers. Like getting caught lying on your application or suing a past employer.
The business sections report that USAT has picked Karen Jurgensen to be its next editor. The WP goes high with the observation that this makes her the first woman to run a national newspaper. The NYT says the change at the top was unexpected. Nobody else says this.
Both the LAT and NYT front a picture of President Clinton in Honduras with U.S. troops, where he praised their humanitarian efforts in helping Central America recover from the ravages of last fall’s Hurricane Mitch. The picture, of a sunglassed Clinton, exemplifies a recent newspaper trend. Pols used to worry that dark glasses made them look shifty. Perhaps Clinton’s thinking is, Hey they already think I’m shifty, so I might as well save my retinas.