Today's Papers

Sic Jokes?

USA Todayand the New York Times lead with the declaration of the Yugoslav government that although Slobodan Milosevic (and three other rivals) had lost last Sunday’s presidential vote to Vojislav Kostunica, there must now be a runoff election because Kostunica did not get a majority. The Wall Street Journal puts this story atop its front-page world-wide news box. The Los Angeles Times fronts Yugoslavia but its top national story is that the paper’s latest poll shows George W. Bush ahead of Al Gore 48 percent to 42 percent among likely voters–a larger spread than in any of this week’s earlier Bush-favoring polls. The paper claims to detect an enormous preference difference between men (said to prefer Bush by a margin of 22 percentage points) and women (said to prefer Gore by 7). The Washington Post off-leads Yugoslavia, going instead with the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a direct appeal of the Microsoft case, meaning that the matter will first be heard by a federal appeals court, the more usual course of action that the company had advocated.

The Yugoslavia leads say the opposition rejects the government’s election figures as fraudulent. The NYT and LAT say Kostunica’s faction believes he actually got 55 percent of the vote. The coverage says that the opposition rejects participation in the runoff, although the WSJ reports that in a meeting before this stance was announced some participants strongly urged Kostunica to run again. The LAT has some good detail about how some key military allies of Milosevic’s are thinking about switching sides. Everybody has President Clinton’s promise that economic sanctions in force against Yugoslavia would be lifted if the original voting results were honored. The NYT has an otherwise unnoticed fact about the situation: Despite the opposition’s strong showing, Milosevic’s party will still control both houses of parliament.

Despite the usual dueling expert quotes, the overall impression left by the Microsoft coverage is that the Supremes’ decision could be a plus for the company because it gives it more time to operate without being subject to the stringent remedies fashioned by the trial court in its adverse ruling, and because it puts the case in an appeals court out of which a panel was formed that previously issued a ruling favorable to the company’s practice of including its browser in its Windows operating system, one of the chief issues of the case. The company is certainly widely depicted as being pleased. The coverage notes that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, as part of yesterday’s decision, explained that he is not going to recuse himself from the case even though his son is a partner in a law firm that represents Microsoft, on the grounds that neither his son nor the firm has worked on the antitrust case.

The LAT is alone in fronting a new Census Bureau study saying that poverty is now at its lowest level since 1979, and median household income–$40,800–is now the highest it’s been since the bureau first started calculating it in 1967. Is that comparison adjusted for inflation? None of the papers say.

The papers carry word inside that the federal government yesterday filed a $120 million lawsuit against two Harvard University professors and the university itself in connection with their work in the mid-1990s as market-economy-transition advisers to Russia. The prosecutors allege that the two misused their government-funded positions in pursuit of gain for themselves and their wives, as well as that HU failed to adequately supervise them.

A damn good WP editorial observes that through July of this year, the 13 local stations owned by NBC’s parent, GE, took in $23.5 million from political ads and that Fox’s local stations took in $9.2 million. And yet, the paper continues, neither network will be airing the first presidential debate. In fact, Fox’s broadcast channel isn’t going to air any of them. The editorial says that in exchange for free use of the airwaves, broadcast TV should serve the public interest. Today’s Papers would only add that as things stand right now, the incentive structure isn’t just too weak, it’s actually perverse: the nets’ decision not to play ball actually puts more money in their pockets. That’s because the fewer opportunities candidates have to get their message across via free media, the more they have to buy ads to do so.

The papers continue to cover the investigation into how those Bush campaign materials and video found their way to the mailbox of a key Gore debate adviser. The NYT passes along a Dallas Morning News online report that FBI agents are focusing on an employee of the ad agency hired by the Bush campaign, a woman who can be seen on a Postal Service videotape mailing a package (presumably from the suspect post office branch, although the NYT doesn’t make this clear) at about the time the materials would have been sent. The DMN says her explanation is that she was merely returning by mail a pair of pants her boss had bought. The Times then confuses by saying that her boss showed the DMN reporter the pants. How would this help? If she was returning them, why would the boss still have them?

The WP story on this investigation quotes George W. Bush as saying, “Someone working for me did not send the material. … I look forward to finding out the facts, but someone is sweating bullets right now. They’re beginning to hone [sic] in on it.” For all the journalism about George W.’s “Bushisms”–a growth industry of which Slate is the undisputed leader–there has been virtually no discussion about the responsibilities newspapers have when it comes to cleaning up public figures’ quotes. No person speaks sans ums and ohs and mispronunciations. So which oral unlovelies get airbrushed and which do not? If a candidate makes the same hones-for-homes mistake as 90 percent of the adult population, should he be sicmatized? If he mispronounces “syllable” not because he doesn’t know how to pronounce it but because he’s tired, should the editors set his misspeaking in cold type? Today’s Papers doesn’t pretend to have all the answers here, but would ask editors and reporters to look within themselves on this matter a bit to make sure they aren’t shaping a story–or an election–via an inconsistent application of style rules.