Today's Papers

Raising Helix

USA Today, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times lead with the declaration by the leaders of the two competing genome mapping projects, at a White House ceremony presided over by President Clinton, that their work is essentially complete. The Washington Post goes top of the page with the genes, but leads instead with the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision preserving the Miranda warning as a precondition to a legally admissible confession, a story fronted by everybody else.

The LAT lead refers right away to President Clinton’s comparison of the gene project to Lewis and Clark’s mapping of the continent. Everybody makes much of the project’s medical promise. The NYT dwells the most on the stormy competition between the publicly funded consortium and the upstart private firm, Celera, that only began attacking the problem two years ago. The Times spends the most ink trying to sort out the differences between the two resultant maps, but for the lay reader, the LAT’s declaration that the finish of the competition was a “dead heat” is probably sufficient genomenclature. Of all the copy essaying to make common sense of what’s at stake here, the WP’s pass seems the happiest formulation: “The human genome is a twisted strand of biological text that carries all the instructions for making and growing a human being. Errors in that text cause or contribute to the vast majority of human diseases, and the genome has an enormous influence on the quality of each person’s life and the timing and circumstances of each person’s death.”

The WP appropriately flattens the bubbly with its mention that a recent poll finds almost half of all Americans believing comprehensive gene mapping will produce negative consequences. The Post also unsettles with its revelation that the gene race was enabled by a key third party, a Department of Energy official, who got the previously hostile leaders of the public and private efforts to meet with each other. Just don’t let him put the gene maps in his safe, OK?

The WP lead explains that the Miranda case before the Supreme Court this term involved a man charged with bank robbery (who has not yet been tried) who gave a statement to the FBI that he later sought to have suppressed on the grounds that he had not been “Mirandized” first. The appeals court in the case ruled that not only was the Miranda warning not mandated by the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination but also that it was effectively overturned by an obscure provision of an anti-crime bill passed by Congress in 1968. That provision stated that what was key was not that a suspect be warned of his rights, but whether or not a confession was voluntary, a determination the law left to trial judges. Yesterday, the court ruled that given the overall nature of police interrogations, even seemingly voluntary statements are not reliably so unless they are explicitly preceded by Miranda’s warnings and reminders, and that the original Miranda decision was a statement of a constitutional rule and hence could not in any case be overturned by congressional statute (for that, the paper should have said, you need an amendment to the Constitution).

Everybody notes the drama of the court’s decision being read by Chief Justice Rehnquist–widely believed to be among the most pro-police justices–and the vehemence of the dissent from Justice Scalia. There is also much mention (including in the NYT’s lead editorial endorsing the decision) of the court’s reference to the Miranda warnings as having become “part of our national culture.” But the papers don’t seem to notice that such a fact is by itself legally nugatory–after all, it could have been said at one time of the right to own slaves.

The NYT goes inside with some developments in a story first broken last week by the Wall Street Journal and–an attempt to obtain trash generated by a pro-Microsoft trade association in Washington, apparently to get at sensitive internal Microsoft documents. An investigative firm, Investigative Group International, seems linked to the effort, which is particularly interesting, notes the Times, because it has been hired recently by Microsoft to help it track down software pirates and counterfeiters. The paper notes that the firm was also hired by Bill Clinton to do research on Paula Jones. When questioned by the Times, the firm’s chairman, Terry Lenzer, could not recall whether Microsoft is in fact a client. The story adds that a number of other compromises of office security seem associated with the filching of Microsoft internal documents, including a case where internal Microsoft materials appear to have served as the basis for a NYT story–about pro-Microsoft newspaper ads that appeared to be third-party but were actually financed by the company.

By the way, another NYT story, from the AP, reports that a software watchdog group whose members include Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple has reached a settlement with 20 companies found to be illicitly copying programs. Why doesn’t the story identify any of the companies?

USAT reefers its fresh polling that has George W. Bush opening up his lead on Al Gore to 52-39 percent. The paper says its poll finds respondents increasingly negative about Gore’s role in questionable 1996 fund raising.

The WP has a suggestive story about SATs from education reporter Jay Mathews. Seems that last fall, for the first time ever, Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania gave applying students the option of not including their test scores in their applications. As it turned out, the admitted non-reporting group had an average total score of just over 1,000, considerably lower than the 1,200-plus total of the admitted reporting group. But when fall grades came in, the 1,200s were only a tenth of a grade point ahead–2.8 GPA to 2.7.