Today's Papers

Generals and Their Privates

The  Washington Post leads with a report that cocaine and marijuana seizures in the southwestern U.S. and along Mexico’s Pacific coast have escalated dramatically in the past two years. The story states that the increase reflects more smuggling into this country and also increased drug production in Mexico and Colombia. The New York Times reports that President Clinton will sign a bill today permitting the U.S. to provide food to Christian rebels in Sudan who’ve been fighting Moslem authorities there for 16 years. This would be, the paper says, a reversal of current U.S. law that prohibits food assistance to combatants before they demobilize. The move is stirring up fears in and out of government that the U.S. is becoming more interventionist and that it is violating a fundamental principle of international humanitarian assistance–that food should not be a weapon. The story makes it clear that there is heartfelt disagreement about this within the administration by quoting by name government officials on both sides. The Los Angeles Times leads with the uncovering by state and FBI investigators of “a giant rip-off” of California’s state-federal program providing health care to the poor. The scam involved phony storefront medical supply businesses being reimbursed by the state for providing supplies that never were purchased for patients who didn’t exist. The paper says the false claims paid may total more than $1 billion. So far, 35 supply business owners have pleaded guilty. Most of those charged, says the LAT, have Armenian surnames. USA Today leads with a bullish report on retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend. The Internet sales figures the paper passes along for the period include: Yahoo–orders up 5 times over last year, Amazon–3 times. None of the leads is even fronted by anybody else.

The WP story about drugs is consistently buttressed by appeal to U.S. law enforcement sources, but it could sorely use some independent expert voices, because it never really comes to grip with the seeming indeterminism of its data. In other words, the piece suggests that more seizures equals more production. But it’s just as easy to imagine that more seizures equals better law enforcement vs. the same level of production. And indeed, the WP further confuses on this point by also claiming that Mexican opium and heroin production are way up while seizures of Mexican opium and heroin are way down.

And does the NYT lead really have the current law about food aid right? If so, the paper should have explained how it squares with past U.S. support for Afghanistan forces against the Soviets and for contras against the Nicaraguan government, or for Israel against various Arab countries, etc. Are we to understand that these aid packages didn’t include food? And is it really true that guns are OK, but not butter? When did this law go into effect?

Both the LAT and NYT front stories about women in the military, but look at the topic differently. The LAT emphasizes that women consistently leave the service at higher rates than men. The NYT focuses on the difficulties mothers have getting to the highest rank–general and admiral. The closest the LAT comes to mentioning the latter is its 26th paragraph, about the special obstacles for women’s’ military careers posed by their “family issues.” And the NYT doesn’t get to the problem of asymmetrical attrition until its 21st graph.

It seems that the LAT has got hold of a national problem, while the NYT story, while interesting, is more of a curio. After all, according to the LAT, in the Army the difference in the attrition rates for men and women is 19 percent, while by the NYT’s own lights, there are only 37 women generals or admirals. But the LAT story still has some problems. It waits till its seventh paragraph to notice that across the services, the gender difference in attrition is only 5 percent and till the 24th paragraph to mention that unmarried women can get pregnant and still get out of the service with an honorable discharge, and even then never pauses to wonder how closing this loophole might change the situation.

Challenge to all papers doing stories about trends in the military: Try doing your next one without quoting Charles Moskos, military sociologist of Northwestern University. This is apparently impossible.

An editorial in last Saturday’s WP about the Taliban’s harboring of Osama bin Laden exemplifies some of the pointlessness of this hidebound genre. The editorial wraps up thus: “Now that they control most of the national territory and are responsible for affairs of state, the Afghan authorities have to take more seriously their responsibility to rein in terrorism. The new Pakistani government has to reevaluate, too. Pakistan has supported the Taliban as part of its military’s longtime reach for an active regional foreign policy. But Pakistan needs a quiet policy that will allow it to rebuild at home. So does Afghanistan.” Who exactly is this editorial directed at? Does anyone at the Post think Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or perhaps bin Laden himself will just put down this sterling prose and change?

The WP reports that the Baltimore Sun has fired a music critic for lifting a paragraph from a music reference book. Today’s Papers recalls that the Sun also fired an obituary writer last summer for making up quotes. Which makes Today’s Papers wonder–Why no official reaction to its item last week noticing an identical paragraph in WP and NYT obituaries of the same man? Why are these two papers willing to let the Sun be the most ethical paper in America?