Today's Papers

Democratic Party Poopers

USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times lead with Bridgestone/Firestone’s recall of some 6.5 million tires, because of a feared connection to hundreds of crashes and 46 deaths. The story also tops the Wall Street Journal ‘s business and finance news box and is the subject of a separate front-page feature about why the company didn’t catch the problem long before now. That story is the only one in the coverage that credits last week’s USAT front-pager for catalyzing the recall. The USAT and LAT tire stories are the only ones that play high and in detail information about how to tell if your tires are among those needing to be replaced. The New York Times fronts Firestone but goes instead with a sign of possible political dissonance regarding the Democratic convention: Although Al Gore has for months been planning to use the convention as an opportunity to step out from President Clinton’s shadow, both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton plan to spend twice as much time in L.A. as Gore and will each host mega-fund-raisers for their own political projects (his presidential library and her Senate race). The paper says some in the Gore camp are angry about the anticipated diversion of attention and money away from their man.

The tire coverage says that full replacement of all the suspect models will take about a year, and report that a run on existing stocks of suitable tires is apparently already underway. One obvious question none of the papers answer: What do people who, understandably, don’t want more Firestones do?

The coverage suggests that heat is somehow implicated in the tires’ tendency to fling off their tread, which in SUVs tends to produce rollovers. But what is causing the excessive heat is less clear. Other companies’ counterpart tires operating in hot ambient temps are not blowing up. Bridgestone/Firestone, looking at a huge potential loss in liability suits, is suggesting that underinflated tires are the key. The WSJ and the NYT note something that might keep the under-inflation argument from shifting responsibility onto drivers: The tire pressure recommended by Ford (whose vehicles dominate the crashes) is several pounds less that that recommended by Firestone. The WP quotes one Dick Baumgardner, a tire expert who’s all over the papers today, as saying sarcastically in response to the underinflation idea, “People just don’t know how to inflate Firestone tires as well.”

The Journal and the LAT seize on another angle too: All the problematic tires seem to have come from the same manufacturing plant (in Decatur, Ill.). The NYT quotes consumer advocate Joan Claybrook’s charge that the companies involved have known about the problems for years, and that they “settle them with gag orders,” meaning non-disclosure agreements incorporated into legal settlements. And the WSJ says some Ford officials have said they’d been looking into tread separation on some of the affected models for some time. All this reminds of the dilemma Firestone and Ford face, one that none of the papers quite spell out: If the companies knew of trouble for a long time, they’re callous. If they didn’t, they’re stupid.

An inside WP piece by John Mintz reports that Joseph Lieberman says his erstwhile interest in partially privatizing Social Security, a position endorsed by George W. Bush but condemned as risky by Al Gore, has passed. The chief evidence cited by Lieberman for this change is a proposed op-ed he wrote in June, but which hasn’t been in the public record before now because it was rejected by several newspapers. Mintz doesn’t question Lieberman’s story, but a WSJ editorial raises an eyebrow and William Safire’s column raises both, describing the explanation as “too clever by half.” But all three pieces fail to do the obvious journalistic legwork here: ask Lieberman for the names of the editors he dealt with at the newspapers where he submitted the piece, and then call those folks up.

The LAT is alone in fronting news that the Dallas NAACP official who two days ago made anti-Semitic comments about the Lieberman choice has been jettisoned.

Everybody reports yesterday’s federal court ruling stripping away nearly three years’ of patent protection from Eli Lilly’s Prozac, dramatically affecting (oh, what the hell, depressing) the company’s earnings projections. As a result, the stock price couldn’t get out of bed, wash up, go to work, or give a damn–it fell 31 percent.

The NYT off-leads a new highly classified report (not so highly classified, however, to preclude being on the front page of the NYT) stating that deploying a U.S. national missile defense system could prompt China to expand its nuclear force tenfold and lead Russia to put multiple warheads on ICBMs now only carrying singletons, and quite generally could lead to a new arms race. This is official confirmation of one of the chief arguments being made against such a system–it will destabilize the mutually assured destruction status quo. The WP story on the report runs inside and says the same thing except that it runs high with the news that the report says North Korea could have the means to attack the U.S. with ballistic missiles within a few years–one of the chief arguments being made for the system. The papers don’t observe that this highlights the kitchen sink feature of highly classified intelligence reports that makes them generally worthless.

USAT reefers and the WP carries inside a WorldNetDaily report that an outside consultant hired to do Y2K security upgrades on the White House computer network discovered that there had been large video downloads into the system of pornos, featuring, says the Post, homosexual, farm animal, and teen sex acts. Some of the material was traced back to officials in the West Wing (the HMFIC part of the WH), but none were named. As a result, blocking filters were put in place. In responding to a Post reporter, a White House spokesman coins the administration’s working motto: “We’ve had occasional transgressions by some people here.” The reporter failed to follow up with the obvious question, but some Republican won’t: Did any of the names of those West Wing officials rhyme with Schmill Blinton?

Doesn’t the following headline from the NYT (online at least) seem just a tad obtuse: “Number in Prison Population Grows Despite Crime Reduction”?

The WSJ and the WP report that Al Gore, already displeased about the Playboy Mansion fund-raiser Rep. Loretta Sanchez has scheduled for next week, has upped the ante. Now, say the papers, Gore has let Sanchez know through intermediaries that if she doesn’t back out, she will lose her speaking spot at the convention and even her basic credentials. Since the papers report that there would be no Playboy bunnies at the party (Earth to Newsrooms: there haven’t been any bunnies since the last Playboy Club closed umpteen years ago), the key question, which none of the papers ask, is this: How is this reviled revel different from the many fund-raisers Gore’s attended at the homes of industry execs whose movie studios have made gazillions from nudity and sexploitation?