Today's Papers

Java Witch Project

The Washington Post   and Los Angeles Times lead with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s meeting with President Clinton today. (This story is off-led by the New York Times, placed atop the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide news box, and fronted by USA Today.) The NYT leads with new federal standards for the treatment of illegal aliens in detention centers, a story fronted by no other paper. USAT leads with the boom in mortgage refinancing caused by the lowest interest rates in 19 months. (The rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage is 7.13 percent, versus 8.64 percent last May.) The low rates result from an infusion of money into the bond market as investors flee stocks. No other paper fronts this story. Every paper (save the Journal) reefers the results of the major college football bowl games.

Arafat and Clinton will meet to discuss the president’s framework for 11th-hour negotiations between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Barak has tentatively accepted the framework; Arafat is undecided.) All the papers note that Barak is increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for an agreement in the next few weeks–that is, before 1) Clinton leaves office; and 2) Barak faces an election. The NYT reports that Israeli officials will travel to Russia and Europe this week in “an international public relations campaign” to portray Arafat as the barrier to peace; the Journal reports that Israel has “started building a 45-mile fence between its territory and the West Bank.” All the papers report yesterday’s car bomb in an Israeli town, which injured at least 30; the Post, LAT, and USAT also report four Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers and civilians. The long LAT article  says that Israeli intelligence now fears 1) an all-out war with the Palestinians triggered by the collapse of peace talks; and 2) a spate of terrorism by right-wing Israelis against Palestinians and even against Israeli officials. In his NYT column, Thomas Friedman calls Clinton’s “creative compromise” the “only realistic final deal” but warns that it is probably doomed anyway.

USAT reefers the news that in November sales of midsize cars declined 13 percent while sales of small cars jumped 7 percent. The NYT fronts another sour economic indicator: To hold down costs, Frito Lay recently decreased the weight of its snack packages by 7 percent without reducing their price. 

The NYT reports on Indonesian investigations into witch hunts on Java. Over 100 people a year are beheaded and dismembered by angry mobs claiming to detect witchcraft. But officials have discovered that crime syndicates often foment the witch hysteria, using gullible citizens as unwitting hit men.

On the bottom left of the front page, USAT’s daily statistical-graphical “snapshot” reports that “pedestrian fatalities” have “dropp[ed] below 5,000.” Included is a bar graph showing a 10-year decline in the “number of pedestrians killed annually” (from 6,500 in 1989). “WALK” and “DON’T WALK” icons superimposed over the graph indicate that the pedestrians were killed by cars. TP is all in favor of encouraging numerical and graphical literacy among newspaper readers, but this “snapshot” only confuses. Why have pedestrian fatalities declined? Are people more careful crossing the street now than 10 years ago? Are drivers less aggressive? Do drivers face stiffer penalties for hitting pedestrians? How many cars hit pedestrians before 1989? USAT’s graphic suggests a great idea for a feature story on traffic safety. Too bad USAT didn’t bother to write it.

On Monday the NYT published a retrospective of the brief political career of Binyamin Kahane, the leader of an Israeli terrorist group who was assassinated by Palestinians Dec. 31. The Times describes Kahane, the son of Brooklyn’s racist rabbi Meir Kahane (himself assassinated in 1990), as a “radical right-wing settler” who was “soft-spoken and introverted” and an “unlikely heir” to his father’s “anti-Arab legacy.” (The Associated Press gives a similar gloss, calling Kahane a “quiet, introverted son” who “sought to keep his late father’s radical message alive.”) Now, why don’t the Times and the AP simply call Kahane a racist who advocated murder? This would hardly constitute the intrusion of opinion into the news. Both the U.S. and Israel consider Kahane’s group to be terrorist, and in 1994 one of his followers gunned down 29 Arabs in a Hebron mosque. In its own article  on Kahane’s assassination, the Times quotes one of Kahane’s followers thusly: “An Arab is like his donkey. Both understand only force.” It also reports that at Kahane’s funeral, mourners “chanted ‘Death to the Arabs!’” and “sought out Palestinians to attack.” Would the Times or AP ever publish a post-mortem fluff piece on, say, a “shy, anti-black” KKK leader “who sought to keep the Confederacy’s radical message alive”? Of course not. That’s because everyone knows that “anti-black” is a euphemism for “racist.” Not everyone knows that “anti-Arab” is the same thing.

R.I.P. Mr. Veeblefetzer

The first paragraph of the NYT’s obituary  of “Al Gross, Inventor of Gizmos With Potential”:

Al Gross, also known as Phineas Thaddeus Veeblefetzer, granddaddy of citizens’ band radio, who tinkered with all manner of electronic gear before people just had to have them, died on Dec. 21 at a hospice in Sun City, Ariz., his hometown. He was 82.