Today's Papers

Congress Spends Day on Drugs

The Supreme Court’s end-of-term decisions drive the news. The Washington Post leads with the court’s two abortion decisions: 1) Striking down a Nebraska law that had banned the late-term procedure known to its opponents as “partial birth” abortion; and 2) upholding a Colorado law that requires protesters to maintain a set distance from those trying to enter an abortion clinic. The New York Times lead suppresses the protester-containment ruling until the seventh paragraph and instead focuses high on both 1) and 3) the court’s refusal to hear arguments in the Elián González case, with the upshot that the 6-year-old was able to return to Cuba yesterday in the custody of his father. The USA Today lead combines 1) with 4) the court’s upholding, based on the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of association, of the Boy Scouts’ right to exclude gays; and 5) its upholding of a federal law providing public funds to religious schools for computer and other equipment purchases. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with the “partial birth” and Scout decisions. The Los Angeles Times fronts the principal Supreme Court action, but leads with a hot local story: the resignation of state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush in the face of an almost-certain impeachment and a continuing criminal investigation concerning his mismanagement of the insurance companies on the hook for the extensive damages suffered during the Northridge quake.

Much of the court coverage emphasizes the depth of feeling in the Nebraska abortion case, which was decided by a 5-4 vote. The WP calls the court “bitterly divided,” and the USAT header says it’s “sharply divided.” The coverage makes clear that the majority was discomfited by the law’s vagueness about what exactly was being banned and its failure to consider as relevant the health of the mother.

What to call the procedure banned by the Nebraska law has given journalists fits, and today is no exception. The headline in the NYT, ordinarily the gold standard in journalistic clarity, is, as a result, mired in vacuousness and indeed even flirts with inaccuracy: COURT RULES THAT GOVERNMENTS CAN’T OUTLAW TYPE OF ABORTION. All this because the Times (like many other papers) fears that straight-facedly using the term “partial birth abortion” would make the paper seem sympathetic to the right-to-life point of view. It seems the WP subhead’s use of distancing quotes–“PARTIAL BIRTH” BAN STRUCK DOWN–is preferable. Better still would be to adopt the completely accurate but value-neutral phrase, “partially external” abortion.

The LAT has been detailing for months now Quackenbush’s cozy relations with insurance companies that appears to have resulted in their underpaying Northridge damage claims and in the diversion of some quake settlement money to foundations Quackenbush controlled and benefited from politically. And as proof positive that photos are the last redoubt of blatant opioning on the front page, the LAT lead runs a picture of Quackenbush in major shades, looking like Sam Giancana on his way to a mob hit.

The WP, NYT, and LAT front the House’s narrow (three-vote margin) passage Wednesday of a GOP-endorsed prescription coverage plan for Medicare beneficiaries. The papers spend much more time on the political rancor over the bill than on clearly explaining the substance of the dispute between the parties. The NYT is the lone exception in succinctly stating this: Both sides are for establishing financial subsidies for prescription drugs for seniors, but the Republicans want a larger role in this for private insurers and a smaller role for the federal government, while the Democrats want the opposite. Yesterday, the papers report, President Clinton criticized the House-passed bill as benefiting “the companies who make the prescription drugs, not the older Americans who need to take them.”

The papers report on the press conference held yesterday by Oracle’s Larry Ellison in which he took full responsibility for hiring private investigators to look into Microsoft’s connections to some putatively independent PR efforts against the government’s antitrust case. Ellison is quoted in the NYT as saying that what his company did was a “civic duty” akin to what investigative reporters do. The WSJ adds that yesterday AOL admitted that it too had hired the investigative firm that Oracle had, for its fight in California for open access to cable lines. But a company spokesman tells the Journal the investigation so commissioned involved no garbage searches, only Lexis-Nexis runs. The Journal adds that Microsoft acknowledges that in 1993 it pulled an important document from the trash of another company suspected of pirating its software.

Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the prestigious conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, writes a letter to the NYT to respond to a recent news story about a New York City Council hearing about whether or not left-handed people should be protected by anti-discrimination law. Olson notes that a high-school student testified that putting banisters and handrails on the right side of staircases is discriminatory. And he replies, “But people walk on stairs in both directions. It would seem the same stairwell that oppressively discriminates against lefties on the way up also discriminates against righties on the way down. Can they sue, too?” Guess it’s been a while since any of the MI crowd has seen the inside of a high school. (Not many wine and cheese book parties at P.S. 156.) Big public high schools have traffic patterns on their stairs, with people going up on the right and down on the right, which, as the student asserted, means it’s always the right handrail or no handrail at all.