Today's Papers

General Suspicion

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with the Census Bureau’s recommendation that the actual head count it recently obtained be used for the final 2000 census figures, rather than adjusting it based on details derived from a selected sample of households, even though probably some 3.3 million heads weren’t counted. The reason: the CB’s professional statisticians were not confident that the sampling would be more accurate. As the papers explain, because it is widely believed that any head count tends to underrepresent minorities and city residents, with congressional redistricting and the apportionment of certain federal funds at stake, Democrats have long urged the sampling adjustment, and Republicans have resisted. And so this decision is widely viewed as a big win for the Bush administration. Under the headline “REPORT: HEALTH SYSTEM BROKEN,” USA Today leads with something nobody else fronts: the Institute of Medicine’s report that the information systems available to patients and doctors must be “reinvented.” The Institute, which made headlines in 1999 when it claimed that medical mistakes result in up to 98,000 deaths per year, is now calling for such reforms as more patient access (especially via the Internet) to their own medical records and to data about doctor and hospital performance. The Washington Post, which fronts the census, leads with the straight party-line passage yesterday in the key House tax committee of President George W. Bush’s income tax reduction plan, which the NYT also fronts. The Post says that Republicans justified the rather fast action–before an actual budget has been produced–as a boost to the faltering economy, but adds that it was also designed to put pressure on holdouts in both parties. The Wall Street Journal puts the committee’s action atop its front-page worldwide news box and observes that the “haste” of the proceedings was apparent in the lack of answers forthcoming from the House’s normally well-prepared staff tax experts.

The LAT and WP front congressional testimony yesterday about former President Clinton’s foot-out-the-door pardon wave. They report that three ex-Clinton aides testified they’d argued against pardoning Marc Rich and were convinced their arguments had prevailed. They cited a call Clinton received from Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on behalf of Rich as decisive in the turnaround. The papers also report that at the hearing, Democratic fund-raiser and Rich pardon advocate Beth Dozoretz asserted her right not to answer questions, citing an ongoing federal probe of the pardon. The WP notes the hearing revealed that at one point former White House lawyer Cheryl Mills, then already returned to private practice, was apparently at the White House for a pardon discussion and that committee members noted that Mills is on the board of the Clinton library. The LAT reports that it was suggested by remarks of the hearing’s chairman that before a convicted drug dealer received a Clinton sentence commutation, he was known by White House officials to have lied to minimize the extent of his criminal record. Charles Krauthammer, in his WP column, cites the two basic justifications for the irreversible presidential pardoning power, mercy for the unjustly punished and for those whose reinclusion in society would help heal some national rift, and notes that none of the leading Clinton pardons fits either bill.

Working some inside sources, the WP fronts word that the Pentagon’s investigation into possible safety mismanagement of its experimental Osprey vertical lift aircraft has shifted from the operational level up into the Pentagon itself. The paper says the DOD inspector general has now seized data from the computers of two Marine generals overseeing the program. The paper also reports it has notes from two different meetings showing two different generals’ interest in figuring out a way to make the plane’s performance look better than its maintenance records suggest.

The NYT fronts the outbreak of a new front in the Middle East struggle between Palestinians and Israelis: the picture of the year contest at A photograph showing a terrified Palestinian boy huddling next to his father as the two are trapped in an Israeli-Palestinian firefight, taken moments before the son was shot to death, had been comfortably ahead in the online voting from the contest’s beginning in mid-December until sometime in early January, when pictures featuring adorable animals suddenly soared ahead. The story quotes by name at least one participant in an attempt to rouse Web surfers to vote for any other photo besides the one of the doomed boy: an officer at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, who sent out an e-mail encouraging such alternative votes, an e-mail that the paper says has “rippled across the country.” Question: How come the story doesn’t mention that the contest doesn’t include that picture of the Palestinian killer showing off his bloody hands?

The NYT business section reports that earlier this week a day trader, spotting what he took to be an irrational and momentary rise in a stock, sold plenty of it short, all of it on market orders–that is, at the price the market was assigning the stock at the time. The reason the stock was moving, unbeknownst to him, the paper reports, was that a hedge fund trader had made a mistake in writing buy orders, probably because of the new decimal price system, that wildly goosed the price available for sellers. Eventually, that day trading short-seller was able to buy stock to close out his position, pocketing more than $145,000. But not so fast, said Nasdaq, which it turns out had canceled most of his sell orders on the grounds that the prices they were fetching were “clearly erroneous.” The day trader was left with his more sensible-sounding buy orders, saddling him instead with a loss of just over $130,000. The story quotes Nasdaq’s president saying, “What we did is absolutely fair” and passes along some unattributed Wall Street contempt for day traders like the guy who got burned. Good on the NYT’s reporter Floyd Norris for clearly responding: “That should not be the attitude. …Wall Street should find a way to compensate [this trader and others who had the same experience]. Otherwise, Nasdaq looks a lot like a casino that values a customer’s business only until he starts winning.”

And the Times runs a Bloomberg report on the SEC’s latest Internet fraud sweep, which the agency calls “a sobering reminder for investors.” Problem is, it’s not much of a sobering reminder for the con artists. The story cites one case from those turned up, in which a company jacked up its price by touting itself on the Net as on the verge of “reaching significant market share in the $400-million-plus study aids market” at a time when its own internal documents indicated it would take a year to garner at most 5 percent of the $160 million that market actually was thought to be worth, and at a time when its gross sales for the previous 14 months were $30. SEC punishment? Without admitting wrongdoing, the founder agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty with–you’ll love this–the company “agreeing to be subject to stiffer penalties if they committed similar violations in the future.”

The NYT goes inside to report that yesterday the Pentagon unveiled “the rubber bullet of the 21st century”–a crowd dispersal device that uses an electromagnetic pulse to create a burning sensation on the skin at a distance of up to 700 yards, but supposedly without causing any actual burns. The story quotes a couple of think-tank doubters, but strangely misses a big reporting opportunity. It describes a Pentagon briefer “encouraging reporters” to “stick a finger under the invisible ray and feel the heat” from a demonstration model of the weapon. And yet as far as the story indicates, the Times guy didn’t take him up on it (there is a passing reference to a “balky reporter”), settling instead for the official Pentagon description of the weapon’s effects. Chicken Times policy, or merely chicken Times reporter?