Today's Papers

New York Women–Hosed?

The Washington Post and New York Times lead with the Senate’s passage of a bill making it harder for people declaring bankruptcy to simply walk away from their debts, a bill that also would raise the minimum wage $1 an hour over the next three years while cushioning the impact this would have on businesses by cutting a number of their taxes. (Of course, the papers note, none of this is law until reconciled with the House bankruptcy bill.) The Los Angeles Times leads with the Fed’s quarter-point nudge of short-term interest rates, which the WP and NYT front and the Wall Street Journal puts at the top of its financial news box. USA Today puts the Fed on its financial section front and leads instead with upcoming Senate hearings on the Defense Department’s carelessness in awarding security clearances, a problem the paper has been paying a lot of attention to lately.

The WP and NYT explain the basic developments behind the bankruptcy bill: Consumer bankruptcies have escalated wildly in the past decade. Banks and credit-card companies look at this and see lost revenues created by a too-loose safety valve. Consumer groups instead view the culprit as card issuers’ hidden charges and their encouragement of paying off only a minimum portion of any outstanding debt so that compound interest can run wild on the rest. The new bill attends not just to assets but to earnings, saying that if a person has a certain level of income he/she still must pay back the debt. The NYT delivers more of the details here, even pointing out ways in which the bill and its House counterpart still persist in allowing income shielding. And it’s worth comparing the two papers’ headlines. The Post headline gives no inkling that the bill would make it harder to avoid repaying debt.

The papers also show how the basic thrust of the bill has become politicized. Democrats tried to get it to extend to preventing violent anti-abortion protesters as well as gun manufacturers from declaring bankruptcy to protect themselves from legal judgments. Al Gore came back from New Hampshire ready to vote if needed on the abortion measure, but the papers say the Republicans gave on that one in order to deny Gore the campaign grist of a tie-breaker. The Democrats lost on the gun rider.

The NYT off-leads and the WSJ front-indexes the decision by the Federal Trade Commission to block BP Amoco’s proposed acquisition of Atlantic Richfield on the grounds that the deal would result in one company controlling 70 percent of Alaska’s North Slope oil, which could significantly raise West Coast oil and gasoline prices. This is the largest merger ever challenged by the government.

The LAT fronts the latest on the Alaska Airlines crash, reporting that the Navy has recovered the plane’s cockpit voice recorder from 700 feet down and that at least three pilots in the vicinity at the time saw the plane go in. The other dailies have this inside. In its inside story, the WP reports that after an initial abrupt loss of some 7,000 feet, the plane momentarily regained control before falling into its fatal plunge and that investigators are wondering if this might have been the result of implementing the standard wing and stabilizer settings for an emergency landing. The papers report that yesterday an American Airlines plane experienced stabilizer problems like those implicated in the Alaska Airlines crash but landed safely.

The NYT runs a story inside about how few women passed the recent initial battery of New York Fire Department exams, primarily because they didn’t do well enough on the physical component. The story dedicates most of its top half to discussing the low number of women in the department and various concerned reactions to the test results, but waits until the 14th paragraph to describe the tests at all and until the 15th to describe in detail the very relevant-sounding test that women have so much trouble with, which measures an applicant’s ability to quickly feed hose to other firefighters and apparently takes bigger, stronger hands and forearms than all but a few women have. And the story waits until the second-to-last paragraph to quote a woman who took the test (and passed) saying that she thought it was fair. The story further misleads with the headline (over the online version at least): “PHYSICAL TEST FOR FIRE DEPT. BARS MOST NEW YORK WOMEN.” That makes it sound as if there’s something unfair about the test. The headline should read: “MOST NEW YORK WOMEN APPLICANTS CAN’T PASS PHYSICAL TEST FOR FIRE DEPT.”

Dubious placement also plagues a WP front-pager reporting that the proposed Clinton budget includes a 3.7 percent raise for federal employees. The story waits until the seventh paragraph to mention that just last year these folks got a 4.8 percent raise.

One of the signs that a politico has truly arrived as a national figure is the advent of journalism about “interesting” (read: “wacky”) family members. In the case of John McCain, the WP’s “Style” section obliges. Or rather McCain’s brother Joe obliges. According to the story, headings on Joe’s résumé include: Naval Academy dropout, Vietnam service as a Navy enlisted man, cub reporter, pro-POW activist, medical school dropout, drama school and then community theater actor, and struggling playwright.

Another “Style” offering dwells on the piece in Salon by free-lancer Dan Savage in which Savage infiltrates the Gary Bauer campaign in Iowa and tries to give the candidate the flu. Savage, feverish himself, says he licked doorknobs, telephones, and coffee cups, and even handed the candidate a pen he’d just had in his mouth. Along the way, the Post reveals Salon editor David Talbot’s less-than-strict publication standards, reporting that he is “not certain which elements of the story might be less than truthful.” Hmmm … maybe Salon should make that its motto.