Today's Papers

Secrets of the Trade

The Los Angeles Times leads with a possible repercussion of the Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall: an end to the practice of sealing court records in product liability settlements. The practice contributed to the eight-year lag for the tire problems reaching the public sphere. The New York Times leads with congressional Republicans’ turnabout on budget caps. Both the budget surplus and representatives’ eagerness to end the session quickly so they can campaign at home have caused them to relax on matters of spending. The Washington Post goes with the United Nations’ deteriorating peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. Maj. Gen. Vijay Jetley, the head of U.N. forces there, recently penned a blistering letter that accuses his two Nigerian deputies of insubordination and other Nigerian officers of illegally trading in diamonds with the main rebel force. The story’s placement and timing inexplicitly but grimly welcome U.N. leadership back from its Über-summit last week.

Instead of tagging any spending above the 1997 budget caps “emergency,” as it has in the past couple of years, Congress will ignore them outright, feeling cushioned by the surplus, and hoping to showcase beefy programs in their districts before the general election. As added election-year pressure, Republican leaders are threatened by the potential loss of both houses of Congress. The $614 billion budget for discretionary spending marks a 5 percent increase over this year and a $14 billion jump past the self-imposed limit.

Legislators in Washington face growing pressure to write legislation that would make it impossible for companies to seal records in liability settlements if the public would benefit from information about a product’s faults. Generally, companies in such settlements claim they want documents sealed to keep trade secrets safe, the LAT reports. Plaintiffs agree, to avoid costly legal battles. Bridgestone/Firestone’s recent troubles started after the contents of one such settlement leaked during a 1998 liability suit against the company.

The Post broadsides the 106th Congress for cowing before gun-industry lobbyists. Ideally, the editors write, a ban on handguns should be the goal, but given the present political climate, they’d settle for safety standards that at least approach those that toy guns are held to. Garry Wills reviews Arming America, by Michael Bellesiles, in the NYTBook Review. Sort of. He regurgitates the book’s premise that the image of the gun-toting, freedom-loving American isn’t any older than the Civil War and addresses the author only in the last three sentences. Only 14 percent of men owned guns from 1763 to 1790. Private ownership didn’t take off until after the war, when soldiers were allowed to take their guns home.

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor who has sought out undervalued stocks for half a century, writes half-seriously on the NYT op-ed page that he may have found a powerful, unexplored sector: influence-peddling. Buffet remembers a time when less bought more, when with “’$10 million you [could] get the colors of the American flag changed.’” He also sees a future in which bigger wads can buy real reform, sort of. Here’s the dream scheme: Get a campaign reform bill introduced that would allow individuals to contribute $5,000 annually and institutions zip; say you will give $1 billion in soft money to whichever party casts the most votes in favor of the bill–but only if the bill is defeated. Everyone votes for it. It passes. The billionaire keeps the money.

On the NYT “Week in Review” front, Adam Clymer responds to Gov. Bush’s words of kindness about him last week. The reporting veteran quickly recounts four decades of career highlights, showing that he has always been around big news, never in it. The two revelations are his initial reaction to Bush’s remark (“At least I didn’t trade Sammy Sosa.”) and a previous gaffe of his own. In March 1999, Clymer was editing a story about how Bush had been studying up on national issues, when he slipped in a comment about how the governor needed to study more than most. It ran in the story. A clinical “Editors’ Note,” which ran four days later, on March 19, explained that by some technical glitch the comment should only have appeared on the computer screen, not in the paper.

The Post and NYT run an AP story revealing that a federal judge in Boston struck a 1996 state law requiring tobacco companies to list ingredients, saying that such a demand would compromise trade secrets (déjà vu? see above). “Based on this decision,” said the Massachusetts health commissioner, “we know much more about what’s in a box of cereal than in a package of cigarettes.”

The NYT buries a couple of gems in its “Political Briefing” column. Dick Cheney apparently put together Gerald Ford’s battle plan during the president’s 1976 election bid against Jimmy Carter. He wrote a strategy summary after the election, which the Times summarizes: “Erode Mr. Carter’s support by portraying him as not experienced enough to be president. Lure him into debates that leave him appearing ‘fuzzy and indecisive’ and out of his depth when asked for ‘specific views on major national issues.’ ” Sound familiar?