The Week/the Spin

Collision Course  

China allowed a second U.S. visit to the downed spy plane crew. American diplomats reported that the crew is in good health. According to U.S. sources, the Chinese jet flew directly underneath the American surveillance plane (backing up the U.S. claim that the Chinese pilot came too close), but the collision happened after the spy plane banked left (backing up the Chinese claim that the plane moved suddenly). Meanwhile, diplomatic tensions eased slightly. China said that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s expressions of regret about the Chinese pilot’s death were “a step in the right direction.” President Bush also expressed regret, and the White House said that the countries “are heavily engaged in their discussions.” Satellite photos reportedly show that the Chinese military removed equipment from the plane. Sen. Pat Roberts’ spin: “This [Chinese] pilot … flew next to our pilots and showed them his e-mail address, to show you what kind of a hot-dog pilot he was.” Analysts’ spin: Given China’s domestic political squabbles and America’s impending arms sales to Taiwan, the crisis may escalate. (For spy plane FAQs from Slate’s “Explainer,” click here and here; to read about it in “International Papers,” click here.)

Dan Rather apologized for attending a Democratic Party fund-raiser. He claimed that he did not know that the Texas event was a fund-raiser when he was invited. His daughter, an Austin mayoral aspirant, co-hosted the event, according to the Washington Post. Rather’s spin: This was a mistake. But when you socialize with politicians—I had dinner with the Republican governor of Texas the night before the fund-raiser—you’re bound to slip up. Conservatives’ spin: He sounds like Gore after the Buddhist-temple fund-raiser. We already know Rather is a Democrat. By making it official he performs a public service.

Napster’s enemies formed rival Web sites. EMI, Warner Music, and Bertelsmann announced a pay-to-download music deal with RealNetworks, while Universal Music Group and Sony inked a deal with Yahoo! All five companies announced a video-download deal with MTV. Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti told Congress that movie studios would sell movies online within 4-6 months. Meanwhile, free downloads from Napster spiked 25 percent during the last week of March, despite the presence of filtering software to protect copyrights. Valenti’s spin: “Otherwise rational people who would not dream of stealing a videocassette off the shelf of a Blockbuster store are [downloading] movies without permission” 350,000 times a day. Analysts’ spin: This is the way Napster will end—not with an injunction, but with competition.

The Bush administration backed away from lowering salmonella-testing standards for school lunches. Initially, an Agriculture Department Web site announced that the administration would reverse USDA standards imposed by President Clinton to test all federally supplied school-lunch beef for salmonella. After consumer lobbies blasted the change, the administration backed off. Democratic spin: “It makes for a very tough morning when you … find a front-page story that your administration is relaxing standards on the safety of school lunch programs. That’s a hard one to sell.” Meat industry’s spin: It’s hard to sell because demagogues like you prey on irrational fears and ignore science. There’s no reason for expensive, zero-tolerance salmonella testing at the point of sale when onsite sanitation regulations eliminate 95 percent of bacteria and 160-degree cooking eliminates the rest.

A newspaper recount of Florida votes declared George Bush the likely winner. An examination of most of the state’s 61,000 “undervotes”—ballots on which counting machines detected no presidential choice—by the Miami Herald and USA Today concluded that the more lenient the standard for counting votes, the larger Bush’s margin became. But when the papers included undervotes that had already been manually counted by several counties (before the U.S. Supreme Court’s injunction), they discovered errors and concluded that Al Gore would have won by three votes. The Herald and USA Today’s spin: The three-vote Gore margin might be erroneous. Pundits’ hypothetical spins: 1) The ongoing recount of the 110,000 “overvotes”—ballots on which counting machines detected more than one choice—will resolve who really won Florida. 2) Maybe, but the Florida Supreme Court never ordered those votes recounted, so why do we care? 3) True, but it never prohibited overvote recounts. They were done in some counties and could have been done in others. Statisticians’ retort: Every recount will fall within the margin of error. We’ll never know who got more votes. (To read Slate’s William Saletan on how much truth the recounts can ascertain, click here.)  

M.I.T. will offer its entire curriculum on the Internet for free. The university’s 10-year, $100-million program will publish lecture notes, syllabuses, problem sets, exams, and sometimes video lectures for every class. (Professor participation is voluntary.) It will not charge for access but will not award credit either. Skeptics’ spin: Students pay $26,000 a year for this access, and now the university will just give it away? M.I.T.’s spin: This is our gift to the less fortunate. It will force teachers to interact with students rather than lecture them, and it will make teaching—as opposed to just research—more prestigious.

Duke won the college basketball championship. The Blue Devils’$2 82-72 victory over Arizona was their third national championship in 10 years. (They won in ‘91 and ‘92 and have reached the Final Four in nine of the last 16 years.) Senior Shane Battier was named outstanding player of the tournament. Spins: 1) Duke is now the dominant NCAA team—the Yankees of college basketball. 2) Sophomore Mike Dunleavy scored the most points and made crucial three-pointers, but Battier gets the accolades because he’s an unselfish player, a scholar, and a role model. Notre Dame won the women’s NCAA title on a pair of clutch free throws by star player Ruth Riley with five seconds left. (To read a Slate“Sports Nut” about the obsolescence of the college basketball coach, click here; to find out why the Blue Devils aren’t angels, click here.)

The Senate approved its first major campaign-reform legislation in a quarter century. The bill passed 59-41 after years of GOP filibusters. The House, which passed similar bills in 1998 and 1999, will now take it up. The bill 1) bans all “soft-money” donations to national political parties and prohibits state parties from funding federal races; 2) doubles the “hard-money” donation limit to $2,000 per candidate per election cycle, triples the cumulative limit to $75,000 per donor, and indexes both for inflation (the limits are relaxed for candidates facing self-financed challengers); and 3) bans candidate-specific ads by independent interest groups 30 days before a primary and 60 days before an election. GOP leadership’s spin: The ban on interest-group ads is unconstitutional, and the ban on soft money weakens parties. We’ll fight this in the House. Democrats’ spin: Raising the hard-money limit and banning soft money gives the GOP an advantage, but it may be better than no reform. Analysts’ spin: If Americans want more hard money in politics, they’d better get used to junk mail and phone solicitations. (For a Slate campaign-reform roundup, click here.)

Yugoslavia will not extradite Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. President Vojislav Kostunica, who arrested the former dictator last weekend, promised that his own nation, rather than an international war crimes tribunal, would try him. After the arrest, the United States promised economic assistance and urged Milosevic’s transfer to U.N. authorities. United Nations’ spin: As a U.N. member, Yugoslavia is obliged to turn over Milosevic. Kostunica’s nationalist spin: We care about war crimes too, but the United Nations is biased against Serbs. When they indict more Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Albanians, perhaps we’ll play. Besides, international pressure only prolonged Milosevic’s reign; the Yugoslav people threw him out. Kostunica’s Aristotelian spin: “If we speak of the need for social catharsis, then the most important [trial] is this [local] one.”

A San Francisco husband and wife were indicted for letting their dogs maul their neighbor to death. Robert Noel was charged with involuntary manslaughter—and Marjorie Knoller was charged with second-degree murder—after their dogs allegedly attacked neighbor Diane Whipple in their apartment hallway. Authorities said that the couple operated a dog-breeding business for prisoners (Noel, a left-wing lawyer who represents convicts, recently adopted a convicted felon as his son) and may have had sex with their dogs. Noel and Knoller’s spin: It’s not our fault Whipple wore the wrong perfume and didn’t escape when she had the chance. The sex is none of your business. San Francisco press’ spin: They knew the dogs were dangerous, since the dogs had bitten other neighbors. Noel is a former Justice Department official who turned into a paranoid prison attorney after he lost his biological son to drugs. Felons manipulated him into doing their bidding.