Today's Papers

In a Newsless Land, the Feature is King

The New York Timesleads with signals from Sunni leaders in Iraq that some insurgents may be willing to lay down their weapons in return for a more central place in the development of the country’s government, including the writing of the constitution. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post lead local stories: The LAT details the last days of L.A.’s mayoral race, and the Post looks at possible negative effects of the Pentagon’s plan to move thousands of Washington, D.C., personnel to bases outside of town. Neither paper fronts much in the way of national news—but there are plenty of features, so stay tuned.

The hopeful title of the NYT lead—”Some Sunnis Hint at Peace Terms in Iraq, U.S. Says,”—hasn’t much to do with the article itself. Never in the 1,800-word story is the reader told what the hints at peace are, or who or where they’re coming from, or how much of the insurgency they represent. Further muddling the article is that no named government sources are quoted on the issue, and the only quote from an anonymous source—”an American official in Baghdad”—doesn’t arrive until the end of the article, perhaps because it’s so vague: “What I’m seeing is a new willingness of people who used to be [opposed] to join the process.” The article, it turns out, is mostly about how difficult it would be to negotiate with the insurgents, since we don’t know who they are, and the only people who do are probably untrustworthy.

By contrast, everyone ought to read the NYT’s feature on class in America—the first in a three-week series on the subject. This “overviews” installment grapples with definition of class: “Classes are groups of people of similar economic and social position; people who, for that reason, may share political attitudes, lifestyles, consumption patterns, cultural interests and opportunities to get ahead.” Then it goes on to update old ideas of class hierarchy: “As some sociologists and marketing consultants see it, the commonly accepted big three—the upper, middle and working classes—have broken down into dozens of microclasses, defined by occupations or lifestyles.” Among many other things, the article notes that inter-class mobility has been decreasing for 30 years—the poor tend to stay poor and the rich, rich.

The Post’s off-lead is a lengthy and somewhat drab feature on the decades-long erosion of American retirement security. It focuses on the family of 80-year-old Junior K. Paugh, a retired airplane builder who, after working at the same company for 41 years, has a comfortable pension, lifetime health insurance, and a home he’s owned for decades. But his children and grandchildren can’t depend on the kind of stability he has—long-term pensions are a thing of the past, as is lifetime employer-provided health insurance. Add to that the questionable future of social security, and you have an anxious bunch of Paughs.

The LAT fronts a Column One feature on the strange immigration politics confronting the European Union. In 1995, the original 15 E.U. member states signed a treaty that essentially erased shared borders—meaning E.U. citizens could cross freely from one state to the next and live in whichever country they liked. However, the side effect has been that illegal immigrants can also cross unimpeded—and now tend to travel en masse to the state with the most lenient immigration laws. When Spain announced a legalization program for immigrants, hundreds of thousands of people, many from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Balkans, streamed across Europe in hopes of being granted amnesty—and 700,000 eventually were. France, which is trying to crack down on immigration, was not happy about Spain’s program. Said its Interior Minister: “We think it’s good to discuss ahead of time so we can verify that the decisions of each will not have consequences on the others.”

Another Post feature charts the history of the Settlement, a 383-acre area in Gainesville, Virginia, that, until recently, was owned almost exclusively by the descendents of African-American slaves who bought the land after the Civil War, sometimes for $10 per acre. One hundred and thirty years later, * the land is fetching as much as $300,000 per acre, making rich any owner who decides to sell her land to housing developers. But selling has caused guilt to the Settlement residents, whose families have lived on the land for generations.

Another LAT front-page feature looks at the street gang Mara Salvatrucha–or MS-13. The gang was started in Los Angeles in the mid-80s and has now spread to 33 states and a half-dozen Latin American countries, boasting a membership of 30,000. The group is so large and violent that an FBI task force was created to address it, and last month four Central American presidents met to discuss the “destabilizing influence” of international gangs like MS-13, which in the past has targeted government officials and heads of police organizations.

Correctio n, May 16, 2005: This article originally and incorrectly stated that “two hundred and thirty years” after freed slaves established a community called the Settlement in Northern Virginia, the land is now worth as much as $300,000 per acre. In fact, it’s only been 140 years; the Washington Post story says that the freed slaves started renting the land in 1865. (Return to corrected sentence.)