Today's Papers

Thought for Food

The New York Times leads with news that the Bush Administration is negotiating a $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, as part of a major effort to counter Iran by arming its regional rivals. The Washington Post also fronts the proposed arms deal but leads with an American initiative to create and arm “local protection forces” in Sunni areas of Iraq. The Wall Street Journaltops its world-wide newsbox with word that the House of Representatives passed a $286 billion agriculture bill yesterday, a story the WP off-leads. The Los Angeles Times gives top billing to a local story, an outrageous bid-rigging scandal at the city housing authority.

At the request of Saudi officials, who hope to avoid a repeat of the controversy that surrounded its efforts to buy fighter jets during the Reagan administration, Pentagon and State Department officials have been briefing Congress on the as-yet uncompleted deal for sophisticated weaponry, including satellite guided bombs. Now, as in the 1980s, the main opposition is expected to come from Israel’s supporters in Congress. To mollify them, the administration is proposing $30 billion in additional military aid to Israel. Egypt would also receive $13 billion in similar assistance. If consummated, the arms deals would be the “largest negotiated by this administration,” the WP says.

The NYT says the Pentagon and State Department are trying hard to avoid creating the “impression that the United States was starting an arms race in the region.” All the countries receiving arms have a common enemy, they say: Shiite-led Iran. But the politics of the arms deal is complicated, to say the least, by the assistance Saudi Arabia is giving to anti-American Sunni groups in Iraq—the subject of a (probably not coincidentally timed) front-page story in yesterday’s NYT.

In the WP lead, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, calls the new “irregular” forces, intended to protect Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, a “very, very important component of reconciliation.” But the new forces, which are recruited from the civilian population with little training provided and few questions asked, sound an awful lot like sectarian militias. The goal is for the irregulars to eventually be integrated into the national police force, but some American officers are privately worried that the Shiite-led government will simply kill them instead.

The LAT’s top nonlocal story offers a chilling insight into just how routine sectarian killings have become in Baghdad. The feature tells the story of a Sunni man who was kidnapped by armed Shiites but managed to miraculously escape. He arrived home to find that his family was already planning his memorial service.

The passage of the farm bill was seen as a major victory for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had to balance the demands of some Democrats that farm subsidies be reduced with the electoral needs of vulnerable farm-state freshmen, the WP says. Almost all House Republicans voted against the bill, claiming it contains a tax increase, though Democrats just say they closed a corporate loophole. Though the bill slightly tightens the requirements to qualify for subsidies and includes more money for food stamps and overseas aid, the NYT’s piece points out in its lede that federal support to farmers remains “generous … at a time of record crop prices.”

As it happens, the rising cost of food is a theme that runs through a pair of excellent front-page features today. The LAT visits a noodle shop in the city of Lanzhou, in western China, where the cost of a meal has risen from around 33 cents to around 40 cents—more than 20 percent—since last month. It’s symptomatic of a worldwide trend: The IMF says food prices have risen 23 percent in the last 18 months, the story says. Partly, that’s because the high price of ethanol is encouraging farmers to grow corn instead of other staple crops, such as wheat or soybeans. Because the cost of animal feed is rising, products such as meat and eggs have also become more expensive. The cost of milk has risen 10 percent in the United States since the beginning of the year.

The WSJ, meanwhile, takes a look at rice, which has risen in price by around 70 percent since 2001. Environmental factors such as soil exhaustion are to blame, the paper says. Now scientists are trying to engineer hardier strains of rice plants that can be grown in drier soil.

Rounding out the farming coverage, another front-page Journal feature looks at a Texas state subsidy that allows corporations to use an “agricultural exemption” to dramatically reduce their real estate tax bills. In one case, a Fidelity Investments office in Fort Worth has 24 longhorn cattle roaming the property; Samsung hung 10 birdhouses around its Austin semiconductor plant in order to qualify.

The NYT (at least in its national edition) off-leads an analysis of another fretful day on Wall Street, as the stock market closed out its worst week in five years. The WSJ’s front-pager says that despite some positive signs, such as low unemployment, many economic indicators “cast a darkening shadow over the rest of the year.”

Democratic leaders in the House reached an agreement on a bill to overhaul ethics rules, the NYT reports. Among other things, the bill would require greater disclosure about “bundlers” of campaign contributions and create “new public databases” to replace the present system for tracking lobbying activities, which is truly pathetic.

The WP fronts a feature about Barack Obama and race, casting him as a leader of a new generation of African-American politicians who “attended elite schools, built coalitions of white and black supporters, and cast themselves as agents of change.” Other members of the group include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and former Tennessee House member Harold Ford. It’s a decent enough story, but to see a truly fascinating examination of the challenges faced by members of the “new generation,” check out this recent NYT piece on Booker (regrettably, it’s now behind the TimesSelect wall).

The WP fronts, and everyone mentions, the NASA report on drunken astronauts. It suggests that hard drinking is just part of the astronaut culture, dating back to the Right Stuff days.

Gay athletes are finding themselves increasingly accepted by their peers, the LAT reports.

The NYT and the WSJ both have exhaustive reports on jockeying and feuding within the Bancroft family, which owns Dow Jones, as Monday’s deadline to vote on Rupert Murdoch’s takeover offer looms. The NYT says a crucial family member switched sides to favor a sale yesterday, while the WSJ reprints an “extraordinary” letter from a family member who says accepting the Murdoch offer is a “no-brainer.”

Barry Bonds went 1-1 with four walks and one hit, his 754th career home run, leaving him one short of Hank Aaron’s major league record.