Today's Papers

Muddle East Reporting?

The New York Times lead is an inside-sourced example of yet another Clinton-administration-conceived program that the Bush administration may abort: a plan for taking tons of plutonium out of American and Russian nuclear weapons and either converting it into reactor fuel or rendering it useless. The story has administration officials denying that the plan is dead, but stressing that its cost, triple the original estimates, has forced it “under review.” The Los Angeles Times’ top national story is President Bush’s warning to Congress, issued in a speech at a veterans’ convention, that as it contends with a shrinking budget surplus it must not squeeze defense and education spending. The headline only mentions Bush’s emphasis on defense. The top nonlocal breaking news at the Washington Post is the abrupt decision by the organizers of the Latin Grammys to pull their Sept. 11 annual awards show out of Miami (decamping to Los Angeles) because of security concerns arising out of protests planned by Florida anti-Castro groups over the show’s inclusion of musicians who currently live and work in Cuba. USA Today leads with Wednesday’s Powerball lottery jackpot on track to top $200 million. The story explains the drawing’s 80-million-to-1 odds this way: If you drive 10 miles to buy a ticket, your chances of winning are only one-sixteenth as good as your chances of dying in a car crash before you get there. With the exception of the Latin Grammys, which the LAT also fronts, none of these stories appears on another major’s front.

The top story in the Wall Street Journal’s front-page business news box is that in an amendment to its annual report supported by its auditor, Excite At Home Corp., which is controlled by and considered crucial to AT&T, warned that it may not survive. The company faces delisting from Nasdaq because its share price is below a $1 and its S&P rating has dropped to triple-C. The paper explains that one big problem is waning demand for its online advertising inventory.

The NYT reefers, and the WP and USAT run insiders on, concerns that the lethal kidney complications found in Bayer’s anti-cholesterol drug Baycol could also be a problem with other drugs of the same type–called statins–still on the market. Yesterday, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group asked the FDA to put clearer warnings on these other drugs and to present them to both doctors and patients. USAT goes high with the group’s claim that the class of drugs is more dangerous than the FDA has acknowledged under the headline, “STATINS MAY HAVE KILLED MORE THAN REPORTED.” The WP story has a similar emphasis. The NYT holds the group’s claims of more statin deaths until the middle and immediately adds that Baycol had a much higher rate of reported problems.

The WSJ runs a front-page primer on the way in which corporations have increasingly redefined what they mean by “earnings” when they report them. “Earnings” should mean and have for much of financial history meant, the story explains, “according to generally accepted accounting principles,” but more recently and especially with the advent of Internet stocks, companies started hiding the ball. The story is accompanied by a listing of seven widely used terms that allow companies to fog their financials. One inference from this terminological vogue the Journal draws: With earnings defined correctly, the stock market actually has a much higher price-to-earnings ratio than is generally thought, suggesting that it “is further from recovery than many suppose.”

The USAT front goes long and interesting on Israel’s assassination campaign versus men it says are key Palestinian terrorists. The story reminds that many countries in the world, including the U.S., condemn the practice, and reports that its own polling shows 68 percent of Americans also disapprove. The paper says that all these assassinations are approved by the Israeli cabinet and most often carried out by an elite “cherry” unit–so-called for delivering the cherry placed on top of a sundae, the finishing touch–whose agents have mastered West Bank Arabic dialects, know the Koran, and are trained to impersonate women, all with an eye toward getting “within yards” of their targets without raising suspicion. The biggest scoop in the story addresses the Palestinian police chief’s comment (quoted in the story) that he doesn’t have evidence against the men Israel wants him to arrest: the admission, apparently made to USAT’s Jack Kelley by one of these wanted Palestinians that yes, he had killed two Israelis eating in a West Bank restaurant in January. Which of course raises the question, “Why can’t the Palestinian cops get that information?”

The NYT front also has a Mideast effort, although one that’s journalistically less satisfying. The story describes the “daily, dirty obstacle course” faced by Palestinians trying to get to work or to do other mundane things on the far side of Israeli security checkpoints. The story focuses on the daily 11-mile trip made by a Palestinian doctor to the hospital where she works, which these days takes up to three hours. The story says high that the Israelis view the checkpoints as an essential security measure and that they have prevented attacks, but mostly it treats the experience of its doctor heroine and other similarly inconvenienced Palestinians as if it were happening in a vacuum. “Few of the Palestinians are terrorists, after all,” intones the NYT, without bothering to suggest a way besides checkpoints for the Israelis to try to find out which ones are. The photo accompanying the story incarnates this fallacy, featuring the bespectacled doctor standing out from a barren background in a gleaming white shirt.

And if the story suggests the checkpoints are too tight, it also suggests they are too loose. It quotes the doctor saying that although Palestinians in cars are interminably delayed, those on foot “just walk through.” Well, which is it? The doctor clearly thinks the whole process has simply been set up to harass Palestinians, and the reporter, Clyde Haberman, seems to pick and choose his observations to underline that point of view. For instance, he writes of the Israeli soldiers checking cars: “Often, the soldiers pause for four or five minutes between cars, chatting and joking among themselves. Only then do they wave the next car to move up. The line grows.” And he ends his piece (remember, the two best places for spinning a news story are the first paragraph and the last one) this way: “None of the doctors seemed to feel a need to point out that Israelis living in the West Bank have almost exclusive use of well-paved, modern roads that bypass Palestinian towns. On those roads, the trip from the outskirts of Ramallah to Jerusalem takes about 15 minutes.” Well, Mr. Haberman, then why did you feel that need?

Just how computerized are newspapers these days? The links provided at the bottom of the WP online version of its piece about Princess Di’s son Prince William include references to several Post stories about Virginia’s Prince William County.