The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post lead with yesterday's skirmish between an Iraqi anti-air missile battery and several American combat aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. The New York Times fronts Iraq, but goes instead with the decision by Cambodia's prime minister to defy international pressure by not putting on trial two top Khmer Rouge leaders who just defected into his custody last Saturday. At USA Today, the Iraq combat is on the front below the fold, Cambodia is nowhere in sight and the lead is the real possibility that the NBA season will be canceled combined with a warning from the head of the players' union that if so, the players might start their own league. It's not just USAT that puts such a high premium on sports--according to a story the Nation's Newspaper runs inside, in the annual AP poll of U.S. newspaper editors and broadcasters, the runaway number one story of the year was You Know What, but number two was the McGwire-Sosa home run race.
The papers report that yesterday's action in Iraq began when an Iraqi battery fired three missiles at U.S. planes. U.S. aircraft then fired radar-seeking missiles and laser-guided bombs at the battery, destroying it. The Iraqis claim that four Iraqis were killed and that one U.S. plane was almost certainly shot down. The U.S. doesn't dispute the death toll but dismisses the shootdown claim as groundless. Everybody quotes President Clinton's defense of the U.S. pilots' response and his support for continuing to control much of Iraq's airspace. The LAT and NYT explain that the no-fly zones were not explicitly established by the U.N., but are rather a U.S. creation. The WP mentions that the Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. made this complaint, but doesn't address the fact of the matter. Clinton's adamance about the zones fits well with the NYT's claim that many in the know in Washington believe yet another military confrontation with Iraq is inevitable in the weeks ahead.
The WP has the most tactical detail on the incident, saying that the Iraqis fired three missiles without providing radar guidance until the last possible instant, to deny U.S. planes counter-targeting, a technique, the paper points out, that bagged an Air Force pilot over Bosnia in 1995. The papers note that the incident came after much belligerent talk from the Iraqis and after they directed ineffectual anti-aircraft fire toward a British aircraft over the weekend, giving rise to theories that Iraq is trying to undermine the U.S. policy of containment among U.S. allies. The WP has a senior U.S. officer suggesting a more prosaic explanation: "I think what he's trying to do is shoot down one of our airplanes."
The LAT top front quotes Bill Clinton's assertion that the Social Security computer system is "now 100 compliant" with standards and safeguards protecting against Y2K problems. Even so, the paper says some experts say it would be premature to declare that the problem has been beaten throughout the federal computer world. The WP and NYT carry the story inside.
A USAT front page story reveals that three of the five most crowded U.S. commercial airline routes (and eight of the top twenty) have one thing in common: they go to Orlando. The Dallas/Orlando flight, for instance, averages 87 percent occupancy. Overall, says the paper, U.S. flights are departing on average 71 percent full.
The NYT goes top-front with an update on a media story it has broken ground on before: the increasingly pronounced split between the races when it comes to the popularity of TV shows. Last year, for instance, the paper reports, "Seinfeld" finished but 50th in blacks' homes, while the number one comedy among blacks was "Between Brothers," which finished 112th among whites. The preference trend, the Times explains, influences the way the shows look. Since, for instance, whites rarely watch shows with mostly black casts, and since advertisers focus on the more numerous and generally more affluent white viewers, network shows on in prime time with black or even integrated casts have become relatively rare, reversing a trend towards cast integration that was big in the 70s and 80s. One producer sums up the situation by saying there's now a "chitlin circuit" on TV.
The NYT front reports that preliminary figures suggest that Internet commerce really arrived this Christmas season, finally exceeding the hype. And the Wall Street Journal has a stat about non-holiday Web activity that drives home the point that some sort of benchmark has been passed: the total worth of the investment firm Charles Schwab has just surpassed that of Merrill Lynch. The significance of this is, explains the Journal, that Schwab does 54 percent of its trading online. So, the biggest online brokerage house is now just the biggest brokerage house.
A WP business section story claiming that Bill Gates has been deeply stung by the accusations against him and his company opens with an anecdote that's evidently supposed to humanize him but which will probably have the opposite effect. It seems that last summer Gates and his wife took several dozen friends on a vacation trip out West, and at one point they stopped at a restaurant for dinner. During the meal, a couple of strangers eating nearby joined the group and proceeded to mercilessly tease Gates, amazing all of his guests. But in fact, says the Post, the "strangers" were actors, hired by Gates and coached by him in detail.