The Week/the Spin

Art-House Sheiks

April’s job-loss rate was the highest in a decade. The country lost 223,000 jobs, the most since February 1991. The unemployment rate rose to 4.5 percent. (It was 3.9 percent in October.) Earlier in the week, government statistics revealed that the gross domestic product grew at a 2 percent annual rate from January to March, double the rate from October to December. (A year ago the economy was growing at a 5.2 percent annual rate.) Wall Street’s double take: 1) We had expected a net job gain, not a record loss. Sell! 2) Actually, when you take the GDP increase into account, we may be bottoming out. Plus, the Fed will probably lower interest rates again. Buy!

The ex-chairmen of Sotheby’s and Christie’s were indicted for price-fixing. Federal antitrust charges allege that Sotheby’s Alfred Taubman, an American shopping mall developer, and Christie’s Sir Anthony Tennant, a British advertising executive, fixed sales commissions charged to 130,000 customers over six years. Both denied the charges, and Tennant refused to stand trial in the United States. The two auction houses, which control 95 percent of the art market, have split a $500 million civil payment to former clients. Sotheby’s also paid a $45 million criminal fine, while Christie’s escaped the fine by cooperating with the Justice Department. Legal spin: Tennant probably can’t be extradited because antitrust is merely a civil offense in Britain. But if he stays abroad, he cannot testify for Taubman—and the DOJ already has Taubman’s former protégé as a prosecuting witness.

A report claimed that bottled water is no healthier than tap water. The study, commissioned by a conservation group, draws on United Nations data to argue that standards for bottled water in the United States and Europe are no higher than—and sometimes worse than—those for tap water. Scientists’ spin: Bottled water may taste better than tap water, but it’s almost never cleaner. Consumers spend billions of dollars for an illusion. Counterspin: No, they spend it for convenience and taste.

President Bush promised to build a missile-defense system. His proposal would scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which forbids such programs. Last year two tests of the developing system failed. Bush’s spin: We need to defend ourselves against rogue nations who will soon have the power to blackmail us with nuclear threats. Europe’s spin: Let’s at least include Russia and Japan under the protective umbrella. Russia and China’s spin: Bush is violating a 40-year legacy of successful nuclear deterrence. Electoral pundits’ spin: Bush will spend nearly $5 billion on the program this year, and most of that will go to Southern California, which might repay him in 2004. (To read “The Earthling” on why we don’t need missile defense, click here.)

A former Klansman was convicted of a 1963 black church bombing. Thomas Blanton Jr. received four life sentences for the Baptist church explosion in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls and rallied support for the civil rights movement. Another Klansman was convicted of the bombing in 1977 and died in jail. A third died without being charged, and a fourth may yet be charged. Blanton’s spin: “I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day.” Victims’ relatives’ spin: Justice delayed is not justice denied. Defense attorney’s spin: The jury was biased by 40 years of media coverage, and the FBI’s wiretap evidence should have been inadmissible.

Marc Rich pledged millions to his ex-wife’s charity before she lobbied for his pardon. Tax fugitive Rich and his partner pledged a million dollars a year to a charity run by Denise Rich shortly before she successfully lobbied President Clinton for their pardons, the New York Times reported. In January a congressional committee investigated whether Denise Rich’s contributions to Clinton’s presidential library influenced his decision. Pundits’ spin: Was everything in this sordid episode bought?

A study suggests that a dolphin can recognize itself in a mirror. Researchers marked dolphins with ink in a place the dolphins could see only by looking in a mirror. The dolphins looked at themselves in the mirror and turned to make the mark more visible. They did not notice marks on other dolphins and did not look at themselves when marked with invisible ink. Dolphins are the first non-primates to pass the “mirror test.” Scientists’ spin: Dolphins evolved separately from primates and lack a frontal lobe. This proves that self-recognition need not rely on our brain structure.

San Francisco will pay for city employees’ sex-change operations. In a 9-2 council vote the city became the first in the nation to add the insurance benefit, which will cover up to $50,000 per patient. Those filing claims would need a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and would pay 15 percent out of pocket. Monthly insurance premiums for all current and former city employees will rise about $1.70. Supporters’ spin: This is not cosmetic surgery; it’s a profound medical condition. Opponents’ spin: In addition to the employee premium increase, taxpayers will have to fork over nearly a million dollars to cover just a handful of operations. Why not cover liposuction for the obese? 

Bob Kerrey’s war buddies backed up his account of a Vietnam War massacre. Six of the seven former Navy SEALs commanded by Kerrey said that they killed civilians in that incident only after being fired upon. The seventh squad member, Gerhard Klann, has said that Kerrey ordered a point-blank execution of the civilians. Kerrey went public with his account shortly before the New York Times Magazine was to break the story. Newsweek killed a similar story in 1998, after Kerrey decided not to run for president. Kerrey’s spin: “I never claimed to be a hero,” but “it’s not My Lai, for God’s sake.”Times Magazine author’s spin: Kerrey’s story has changed. Senate Vietnam vets’ spin: Don’t judge Kerrey unless you fought in the war. Media critics’ spin: Does Newsweek think past wartime atrocities by mere senators aren’t newsworthy? (To read Chatterbox’s take on Kerrey’s admission, click here; to read an “Explainer” on the rules of war, click here.) 

A paying tourist visited the international space station. Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old former NASA aerospace engineer, paid approximately $20 million to ride up with Russian cosmonauts. NASA at first objected to the visit, then relented. Cosmonauts’ spin: ” We are going to prepare everything for you—nice bed and warm food.” Perhaps you and your American girlfriends can help us recruit more rich tourists. Tito’s spin: “I love space!” NASA’s spin: Our professional astronauts will have to baby-sit an amateur. If Tito breaks anything, he buys it, and he can’t sue us if he hurts himself. Cosmonauts’ retort: Too bad the Americans give such a cold welcome to their own countryman.