Today's Papers

Just Say Wen

The Washington Post and the New York Times lead with a federal judge’s decision that Wen Ho Lee, in solitary confinement the last eight months, could be freed on bail next week. It will be probably be $1 million, and Lee will be subject to virtual house arrest, but nonetheless the papers point out that the move represents a reversal in the judge’s attitude toward the government’s case. USA Today leads with the visit to Washington of Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox, who yesterday met with President Clinton and Al Gore and tomorrow will meet with George W. Bush. USAT focuses on Fox’s emphasis on opening up the U.S.-Mexican border, a topic neither Clinton nor the two presidential contenders greeted very enthusiastically in their statements to the paper. In his NYT op-ed, Fox envisions an open Mexico-U.S. border within 25 years.

The NYT calls the Lee bail decision a “humiliating blow” for government prosecutors and a suggestion that their case appears to be “unraveling.” The coverage cites two factors as the primary influences on the trial judge’s change of mind: 1) The material in the computer tapes Lee allegedly copied lost its crown jewel status after two Los Alamos techies testified that for the most part this stuff was already available in the public domain and would be of no use to a hostile country; 2) an FBI agent told the court that he was mistaken in his prior description of Lee’s handing of computer downloads as deceptive.

The Los Angeles Times fronts the release yesterday of the latest federal test scores in reading, math, and science for students aged 9, 13, and 17. These indicate, says the paper, that reading and science scores stagnated in the 1990s and that the achievement gap between blacks and whites widened, although the one between Hispanics and whites has narrowed. The worst achievement divide was between blacks and whites in science. The results are flagged in the Wall Street Journal front-page news box and carried inside elsewhere. The NYT report on the scores anchors its first paragraph with the test result that the average black 17-year-old reads only about as well as the average white 13-year-old. Biggest mystery of the coverage: no breakouts for Asians. None of the papers ask why.

The NYT fronts a follow-up to yesterday’s WP story about how the Republican Party pulled a never-seen ad using 6-year-old footage of Al Gore claiming that Bill Clinton had never lied: The episode, says the Times, reveals a split in the Bush camp between those who want to go negative against Gore and those who don’t. The story has the reporter asking a Bush spokeswoman if the campaign had ready to go a commercial featuring that Buddhist temple fund-raiser that has so dogged Gore. The spokeswoman tipped her hand by replying, “I don’t want to tip our hand.” The story doesn’t raise a question in all this that cries out for reporting and analysis: “Since it was George W. Bush who got this Republican Party ad pulled, doesn’t that give away the game about the supposed independence of soft-money-fueled party ads?”

A letter-writer to the WP points out that the paper’s mid-July nearly full-page Page 3 coverage of that arrest in Philadelphia in which a mob of cops was videotaped kicking and punching a car-jacking suspect said that the suspect “reportedly” shot a police officer. And then he goes on to observe that the Post ran as a small Page 5 item the news that the suspect was cleared of this shooting charge and that the cop was in fact shot by a fellow officer. Here again the papers are violating what should be an ironclad principle for them: parity of placement for corrections. If the original story ran on Page 3, then that’s where the corrections go. Note that this principle implies that a permanently situated corrections box, like that at the NYT, is a bad idea.

The WP and NYT report inside that to dramatize their bill killing the estate tax, congressional Republicans impressed a Montana rancher to drive the bill over to the White House on a bright red tractor. Dick Gephardt was not impressed–he quipped that if the Republicans were being honest about the beneficiaries of the repeal, it would have been delivered by “Donald Trump in a stretch limo.”