Got MLK?

The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 10 1999 3:32 AM

Got MLK?

A Russian diplomat was accused of spying on the U.S. The low-level embassy official was allegedly caught monitoring a listening device planted inside the State Department. Though diplomatic immunity prevents him from being prosecuted, he was ordered to leave the country within 10 days. One week ago, Russian authorities expelled an American diplomat for spying. The Kremlin deemed it " an eye for an eye" approach reminiscent of the Cold War. But the U.S. said the timing was coincidental and that the diplomat's actions posed a serious threat to national security.

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A jury determined that there was a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr. The King family had filed a wrongful-death suit against Memphis cafe owner Loyd Jowers, who said six years ago that he hired King's assassin on behalf of many others. The King family's attorneys argued that the FBI, CIA, mafia, and media conspired to kill King because of his political views. Observers debated whether the decision vindicated James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the assassination, or implicated him in a larger plot. The King family's spin: This is the first step toward correcting the history books. Law enforcement's spin: The theory's so ludicrous no one else will buy it.

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NASA failed to communicate with the Mars Polar Lander. The $165 million craft and its two $29 million probes have not been heard from since they descended to the planet's south pole Friday. Scientists said the prospects for the mission--which had aimed to gather information on the Martian climate and determine whether it ever sustained life-- were dim. In September, NASA lost the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter. Observers said the latest loss would yield a "total reassessment" of NASA's programs and delay future missions. Congressional critics' spin: If they can't do it right, let's cut the agency's budget. NASA's spin: Inadequate funding is what caused this in the first place.

The White House is threatening more lawsuits against gun-makers. The class-action suits, which would be brought by local public-housing authorities and coordinated by the Clinton administration, would demand reimbursement for security and other costs of handgun violence. The White House said it would drop the lawsuits if gun-makers accepted safety provisions demanded by 29 cities currently suing the industry. Gun controllers' spin: Since Congress wouldn't act, a lawsuit is the next best thing. The gun lobby's spin: The lawsuits are baseless and won't hold up in court. Newspapers' spin: They'll never get that far, since gun-makers can't withstand the federal onslaught.

Cuba is demanding the return of a 6-year-old boy. Elián González was one of three people who survived the sinking of a 17-foot aluminum boat carrying Cuban refugees to the United States. His mother perished in the shipwreck. Thousands of Cubans have demonstrated, and Fidel Castro has threatened retribution if González is not returned to his father in Cuba. After insisting that Gonzalez's fate would be decided in Florida courts, the Clinton administration now says it will follow the wishes of the father. Cuban-Americans' spin: Clinton is capitulating to Castro. The Clinton administration's spin: No, we're putting the child's and father's needs first. Cuban-Americans' counterspin: How do we know what the father wants when Castro is speaking for him? The consensus: The sooner González is out of the spotlight, the better.

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Republican presidential candidates held their second debate in a week. The Arizona date was hastily scheduled in response to a request from George W. Bush, who missed the first three debates. Pundits deemed it a "courteous" and "chummy" affair, with "policy agreements … much more conspicuous than disputes." Analysts differed as to whether Bush's subdued performance was likable and confident or tepid and formulaic; but they agreed that this cautious approach would keep him ahead. Some pundits said John McCain needs to be more aggressive in differentiating himself from Bush; others said McCain needs to remain subtle to avoid drawing fire for his temper. (Slate's Jacob Weisberg assesses the candidate's performances in Arizona, and "Pundit Central" rounds up the opinions on last week's debate.)

A maintenance company was convicted of mishandling hazardous material linked to the ValuJet crash. SabreTech, a Florida contractor, was found guilty on nine of 24 counts related to the 1996 accident that killed 110 people. Two employees were acquitted of lying on repair records. The company, which is out of business but not bankrupt, could be fined $2.25 million. SabreTech called the acquittals a vindication of its view that the crash "was a tragedy. It wasn't a crime." Victims' families debated whether the convictions showed that 1) "corporations cannot put the almighty dollar before safety"; or 2) they can do just that.

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The World Trade Organization's Seattle meeting ended with no new accord. Previous WTO rules will remain in effect since negotiators failed to agree on how to reduce trade barriers further. The meetings were disrupted by protests, which resulted in more than 500 arrests and sometimes violent clashes with police. Seattle's police chief announced that he would resign and "takes full responsibility for the riots." Clinton critics called the talks "an embarrassment" and accused the administration of failing to make a clear case for free trade. Protesters hailed it as a victory for their movement, which they claimed had turned public opinion against the WTO. But delegates chalked up the collapse to "the complexity and novelty of the issues, [which] strained the capacity of delegations to make decisions." (In "Frame Game," William Saletan dissects the debate between the WTO's critics and defenders, and in "The Dismal Science," Paul Krugman argues that the WTO's opponents have it all wrong. " Pundit Central" sums up analysts' reactions to the hubbub.)

Florida State will play Virginia Tech for the national collegiate football championship. For the second year, a computer ranking system, instead of coaches' and sportswriters' polls, determined the matchup. Both teams are undefeated. Florida State is seeded 1st, and Virginia Tech is 2nd, in all major rankings. The rosy spin: The computer method is working. The gloomy spin: Playoffs would be better.

Four students were shot at an Oklahoma middle school. A 7th-grade male student apparently used a gun purchased by his father to open fire on students outside Fort Gibson School just before the start of classes. All four victims are expected to survive. The suspected shooter was described as a well-liked honor student with no disciplinary record. When asked why he did it, he reportedly said, "I'm crazy." The police spin: The crime was random, not " a hate thing." Parents' spin: That's all the more frightening.

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