With little news breaking on Christmas, the papers lead with dependably worrisome issues. The Los Angeles Times sets off on a whirlwind tour of trouble spots all over the planet (potential violence in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, economic crisis in Asia and Russia) and frets about the impact of impeachment on American stewardship of global stability. The Washington Post reviews weather-induced havoc in the South. The New York Times lead describes the easy end run that insurance providers have found around the legally mandated minimum coverage for mental illness. The 1996 Mental Health Parity Act only requires that dollar limits on mental health coverage equal those for general medical services. So providers and employers simply mete out treatments in non-monetary denominations, like number of visits and days in the hospital. Congress is expected to close the loopholes next year.
The LAT fronts a four-day-old interview in which Vice President Gore prevaricates about how to handle his role in an impeachment trial. Yes, the Constitution requires him only to preside over the Senate and to break any tied vote on verdict or procedure. But can he lobby Senators to vote against impeachment? Gore opines that it would be "inappropriate" for him to "buttonhole" Senators, but hedges--if he's asked, he will "feel free to communicate with them in full." In this spirit of indecision, the interview was conducted Tuesday, "downplayed" by his aides on Wednesday, and then "embargoed" until the safety of the Christmas news lull. Meanwhile, the piece doesn't articulate the stickiest and most obvious of the Vice President's conflicts of interest: how Gore's own presidential ambitions could influence his performance as referee.
The NYT and the LAT front the agreement between Russia and Belarus to merge their currencies, synchronize trade, and relax political barriers. The LAT describes the deal as the first step of a full-on merger, but the NYT points out that a) it's not really a merger, because the plans are just too vague and b) the Belarussians are considerably more gung-ho about it than their Russian counterparts. The deal brings Russia the chance to flex its slackened superpower muscles, but at the cost of providing shelter to Belarus' destitute population, bankrupt government, and bone-dry economy. In addition, the LAT notes Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's dubious record: he extended his term in a dummy referendum, and has been known to gag the opposition press and imprison dissidents.
The NYT reports inside that U.S. officials have been able to protect an eggshell-fragile cease-fire in Kosovo. An AP story inside the WP reports that Western monitoring forces will continue to saturate the area in order to prevent more fighting. However, ethnic Albanian rebels seem eager to shatter it at any minute: "We will win or we will turn to dust," says one young commander to the Times.
A survey by the WP suggests that Americans tolerate but do not condone homosexuality. A front-page feature, one in a series on "American Values", maps out the ambivalence many Americans feel about the issue: 72% of respondents call "gay sex" unacceptable, but a robust 87% say that homosexuals should have equal rights and opportunities in the workplace. The piece suggests that gay rights may become the same kind of ideological litmus test for electoral candidates as abortion. However, the ideological confusion reported in the survey is complicated by unclear statistical reporting: although the credentials of the pollsters are described at length, the size and nature of the sample is not.
The WP front page also reports that PBS stations are no longer relying on simple tote-bag-giveaways to raise viewer contributions. Instead, stations are scrapping their fusty regulars for fitness experts and self-help gurus who capture minds and pocketbooks with lectures on "spiritual healing" and "de-toxifying your negative emotions." Reaction within the public television community has ranged from sheepishness to horror. But perhaps these stations are banking on very, very long-term loyalty. The title of one videotape sent to thank viewers for their pledges by "scholar, author, lecturer, environmentalist, scientist, investigative reporter, journalist" Gary Null: "How to Live Forever."