Today's Papers

Hurl Britannia

The Washington Post leads with details of Al Gore’s to-be-unveiled-today campaign platform, which the paper describes as brushing aside liberal concerns to affirm centrist stands on trade, education reform, debt reduction, and foreign intervention. USA Today leads with details on George W. Bush’s convention plans, which apparently include an appearance but no speech from his father; prime-time speeches not just from the previously announced Colin Powell and John McCain, but also from Elizabeth Dole, advisor Condoleezza Rice, and GWB’s wife, Laura. While speakers will contrast Bush’s positions with Al Gore’s, Bush has determined there will be no “attack night.” The New York Times leads with the Clinton administration’s plans to postpone the first federal execution in nearly 40 years so that clemency procedures for the federally condemned can be completed and so that the Department of Justice can complete a report on whether minorities or defendants in certain parts of the country are inordinately sentenced to death in the federal system, something President Clinton admitted last week was a concern of his. The Los Angeles Times leads with a dispatch from the paper’s Balkan correspondent Paul Watson detailing how on Thursday, within a matter of hours, Slobodan Milosevic managed to get the Yugoslav federal parliament to rewrite the constitution to allow him to run for re-election. His current term of office expires next summer. Also, the paper explains, the new law provides for a presidential election based on the popular vote rather than the current parliamentary one. The WP runs Watson’s story inside. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with word that Mexico’s president-elect is planning to push the U.S. to greatly increase the number of entrance visas for Mexicans.

The NYT lead has a few holes. It doesn’t explain why, although the federal death penalty was re-established in 1988, there haven’t been any federal clemency procedures written to go along with it until now. The story makes a good prima facie case that the implementation of the federal death penalty reflects geographical bias, stating that almost half of all the death penalty cases submitted to the DOJ for review in the past five years have been in five judicial districts (tops: Puerto Rico). But not so with the issue of racial bias. The story states that since the 1988 reinstatement, of the 199 defendants the attorney general has authorized the death penalty for, 103 have been black. But this doesn’t establish bias. If, for instance, the proportion of blacks in the total pool of federal convicts being considered for death is around ½ or higher, the above condemnation rate suggests instead colorblindness. And the Times doesn’t say what that total pool racial proportion is.

The WP goes right below the fold with a story that gets a lot of attention today: tonight’s $100 million test to see if an interceptor can hit a pretend incoming warhead 140 miles above the South Pacific. This will be the third test of this kind and, the story explains, the track record is one hit, one miss. Tonight’s tie-breaker will probably dictate whether or not President Clinton presses ahead with national missile defense. The story explains that critics think the test is rigged in favor of success and hence in favor of funding, because it involves only one decoy besides the nominal warhead, whereas it is claimed that a real attack of the sort the system would have to defend against could and would include many more.

This is the point elaborated on in the NYT op-ed by Theodore Postol and George Lewis, who advocate creating a non-Pentagon entity to design tests of the missile defense system before Congress writes any checks for it. If Postol and Lewis are calling for a civilian review board, over on the WSJ op-ed page, Frederick Seitz, a missile defense adviser to the Heritage Foundation (who knew Heritage was under missile attack?) is Dirty Harry. His answer to Postol and company: “The science behind missile defense is solid, and we certainly do possess the capabilities to defend ourselves. The only things holding us back are outdated treaties and a lack of political will.” Seitz, in describing extant military systems that he alleges already possess the kind of capability required for a national missile defense, makes some interesting choices. There’s the Patriot PAC-3, which he claims is the descendant of the weapon that “helped protect U.S. troops against Iraqi Scud missiles in the Gulf War,” even though post-Gulf analyses have been unable to conclusively document any Scud intercepts. And there’s his citation of the Navy’s Aegis air defense system. That’s the one that protected the U.S. fleet from an Iranian airliner.

The LAT and USAT front the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the crash that killed JFK Jr. The others carry the story inside. The bottom line is that the board found that JFK Jr. was not experienced enough to avoid and/or overcome becoming disoriented in the dark during his night flight over water. There’s some interesting variety in the headlines. The LAT flags the story with “INSTRUCTOR OFFERED TO FLY WITH JFK JR., REPORT SAYS,” and the WP goes with “NTSB SAYS DISORIENTATION LIKELY CAUSED JFK JR. CRASH.” The NYT puts the point much more plainly: “SAFETY BOARD BLAMES PILOT ERROR IN CRASH OF KENNEDY PLANE,” as does USAT: “PROBE PINS BLAME FOR AIR CRASH ON JFK JR.”

The WP and NYT report that state manslaughter charges have been filed against a Lord & Taylor security guard apparently involved in the death of a man allegedly interfering with the shoplifting arrest of his stepdaughter. The Times article stresses that congressman John Conyers of Michigan has asked Janet Reno to investigate whether or not the matter, involving as it did a black man struggling with authorities, involved racial profiling. Since the guard charged yesterday is black, the case raises an interesting issue: Can profiling of blacks be racist if blacks do it? It’s curious, however, that the NYT, while mentioning the race of the dead man in the first sentence, waits until the 10th paragraph to reveal the race of the guard charged.

How flaccid is journalism’s once-rigid ardor for matters Lewinsky? Well, nobody fronts the news that the former spokesman for Ken Starr, Charles Bakaly, has been ordered to stand trial for criminal contempt. The case apparently has to do with Bakaly’s quoted claim in a NYT article that no one in the Starr office discussed prosecution plans with the press. The story was followed by the special prosecutor’s internal investigation of the sourcing of the story, which was then followed by Bakaly’s resignation. Of course, there’s another reason the papers may not be keen on the story: they probably all know whether or not Bakaly leaked to them, but to cover the trial they will have to pretend otherwise.

The WSJ’s “Washington Wire” says that Bill Bradley will appear alongside Al Gore next week. USAT has this too and passes along this news from the Gore camp: Gore aides “believe Bradley has been one of several factors in Gore’s failure to command stronger support among Democratic voters.” ???????????????????????????????????????????????

It has come to Today’s Paper’s attention that yesterday’s NYT story about how the Clinton administration is pressuring Colombia to field-test an anti-coca herbicide as part of the proposed $1.3 billion U.S.-funded war on drugs in that country is not quite the scoop it seemed. Turns out substantially the same story (with a few additional wonky details) ran on the Mother Jones online site, Mojo Wire two months ago. Congrats to the authors Sharon Stevenson and Jeremy Bigwood. The question remains: Did the Times know about this piece or not? If so, it should have informed the reader, who is entitled to a further independent look at any worthwhile topic. If not, why not? Insufficient Web research? Snobbery about the alternative press?

Both the WP and NYT report that Tony Blair’s 16-year-old son was arrested Wednesday night in downtown London (where the drinking age is 18) for public drunkenness. He was found by police after vomiting and collapsing during a celebration of the end of his exams. At first, say the papers, he gave a false name to police. They also note the incident comes just days after Tony Blair called for sterner measures to be taken against drunken hooligans.