Today's Papers

California’s Electric Shock

USA Today, the Washington Post, and New York Times lead with yesterday’s expulsion by the U.S. government of a number of Russian diplomats suspected of spying and the likelihood (based on official sources) that as many as 50 in all will soon be sent packing on such grounds. The Los Angeles Times fronts the story, but leads instead with something nobody else fronts: Claims made by the California state electrical power operator that from May through last month, wholesale electricity suppliers have overcharged California by about $5.5 billion. Included are allegations that last August the average markup during peak usage hours was 100 percent. The suppliers deny the allegations. The state organization says taxpayers and utility companies should get refunds.

The leads view expelling the Russians–the WP says they include the handlers of recently arrested spy suspect Robert Hanssen–as in part a reaction to Hanssen’s activities. And the stories anticipate that Russia will counterexpel some U.S. spies-in-pinstripes, observing that this is all something of a spy scandal ritual. But the papers note that the numbers of those rejected far exceed those kicked out after the arrest of Aldrich Ames. They see something larger also afoot. Both the WP and USAT report a longstanding concern among U.S. intelligence types that the number of Russian intelligence officers operating in the U.S. has just grown unmanageably large, with the Post saying there are even more in the U.S. now than during the Cold War. USAT, the LAT, and NYT see the move as representing the Bush administration’s taking a sterner tone than its predecessor toward Russia. The NYT detects “a sharp souring,” the LAT a “sharp decline” in Russo-American relations. The WP, mindful of President Bush’s recent tough stance on negotiating missile policy with North Korea, and his push for a missile defense shield that’s ruffling not just Russia, but also China and some European countries, states that the expulsions reflect a “pattern of hard-line foreign policy choices by the Bush administration.”

Despite the leads’ suggestion that in large part the expulsion of the Russian diplomats is an attempt to control their numbers, none of the papers address the process involved in their admission in the first place, leaving the reader wondering why the U.S. has to wait for a spy scandal to thin the herd.

Both the NYT and WP front the Senate’s rejection of a proposed amendment to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill, one that would have required both unions and corporations to get permission from members and shareholders respectively before using their funds for political purposes, a provision President Bush supported last week. The Times explains best why the defeat was viewed as crucial by McCain-Feingold supporters: The amendment would have served as a “poison pill” that would have driven Democrats, so often allied with organized labor, to oppose the bill.

The WP and USAT front the Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday that non-union employees can be required by their employers to waive their right to file job-related lawsuits and submit to arbitration instead, an increasingly widespread condition of employment. The NYT fronts another Supreme Court ruling that held hospital workers cannot test pregnant patients for illegal drug use without their consent if their purpose is to alert the police to a crime. The Times says the decision was foreshadowed by one handed down by the court four months ago that held a roadblock program designed to detect drugs in cars was unconstitutional. But the story doesn’t mention that the court has previously upheld police sobriety checkpoints, which leaves the reader with a bit of a puzzle: How is the protection of innocent drivers from the dangerous consequences of alcohol use legally different from the protection of innocent fetuses from the dangerous consequences of drug use?

The Wall Street Journal tops its front-page business news box with, and the LAT fronts, Boeing’s decision to move its corporate HQ out of Seattle, where it’s been for 85 years. The papers report the company will locate to one of Chicago, Denver, or Dallas. They say the move reflects the diversification of the company from its old mainstay of airliners, into the likes of military aircraft, satellites, aircraft servicing, and Internet services. But neither really explains what difference it makes where a company has its corporate headquarters.

The WP runs a piece on an up-and-coming Chinese business magazine giving it an approving pat on the head for testing “the rules of journalism in a nation where authorities remain ambivalent about the notion of an independent press.” The story describes how an editor who wanted an interview with China’s minister of information and industry didn’t bother appealing through official channels, but rather figured out his travel schedule and booked a ticket on his next flight and then ambushed him with her questions. Hey, when was the last time anybody in the “independent” U.S. business press did an ambush interview?

Congrats to Rick Bragg of the NYT for his ability to use compelling narrative structure and strong prose to make his point. No, Today’s Papers doesn’t mean his fronter today on being a Las Vegas showgirl, for which he spent his time interviewing topless dancers and taking in their performances. Today’s Papers means the memo Bragg used to convince his editors to pay for this assignment, which delivers the earth-shattering news that the shows are “more a tease than anything else,” that dancers often feel like objects and they have sore feet.