Schmealth

Schmealth

Schmealth

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 29 1999 6:55 AM

Schmealth

The war against Yugoslavia not only leads all the majors, but takes up most of their front pages. The coverage has three main strains: 1) The transition to bombing Serbian troops; 2) the reported intense abuse of Kosovar Albanians and the refugee exodus it has created; and 3) more detail on Saturday's shootdown of a F-117 stealth fighter. Some of the pictures coming out of the war zone are extraordinary: The same shot of ineffable suffering on the faces of Albanians on the run at USA Today, the Washington Post, and New York Times, a smiling Serbian woman dancing a jig on that downed F-117's wing at the Los Angeles Times.

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The headline over USAT's lead is the newsiest: "Stealth Was Tracked on Radar." After a day of Pentagon mumbling, the paper reports that The Building says Serb radar had followed the plane and that a missile had been fired in its direction before it crashed. However, the paper says it's unclear whether the missile downed the plane. The story adds that Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained that the loss of the F-117 would not jeopardize the U.S. monopoly on stealth technology. "The aircraft itself," Cohen is quoted, "would be hard to replicate" with the remains of the downed jet. (For that, presumably you need a spy in the laboratory where the planes were built and tested. Impossible.) The WP, the first paper to flatly report that the plane was shot down, today sticks by its story and elaborates, now reporting that the culprit was a Russian-built SA-3 missile. If true, this is rather extraordinary, in that the radar-guided SA-3 is obsolete, having been around since the mid-'60s. It's obvious from even the skimpy details in the coverage about the rescue of the downed pilot that both he and his rescuers, who came in wearing night vision goggles on special helicopters flying without lights, did their jobs very well.

The papers persist in describing the F-117 as costing approximately $45 million a copy. This is a bit simplistic and they ought to dig deeper. First off, the planes were built in the late '70s and early '80s, so at the very least the reader is entitled to inflation adjustment. But also, there's no way that figure includes the very exotic R and D investment behind the plane. One Pentagon trick is to quote as a plane's price the marginal cost of rolling out the next one, but that doesn't include the sunk ramp-up costs, which in the case of new technology like stealth, are considerable.

The NYT, LAT, and Wall Street Journal report that the stepped up air attack on Yugoslav forces--now, according to the NYT, accounting for one-third of all strikes--is, in the words of NATO's secretary-general, required to stop "the humanitarian catastrophe which is taking place on the ground." He's referring to what the papers are full of: long lines of Kosovar Albanians, including children and babies, in cars, on tractors and on foot, streaming toward Albania and Macedonia, many having been robbed of even the few possessions they were able to start out with, and most stripped of their identity papers. It's ominously noted that what's missing from this stream of the dispossessed are young men. Have they taken to the hills to fight? Have they been taken to the hills to die? The world waits for the answer.

In the face of this horror, the papers are slowly moving away from the ridiculous euphemism "ethnic cleansing." (The phrase still appears in quotations quite a bit, but that can't be helped.) The WP dispatch on the refugees doesn't even use it once. The papers should stop altogether doing even this little linguistic bit to make murder respectable.

The WP reports that the refugees want NATO to send ground troops in, and all the papers indicate the notion is also gaining a bit in Washington, but not in the official statements of the Clinton administration. Indeed, the WSJ says not a single Western leader has shown any appetite for this.

The WP previews a Seymour Hersh piece in the new New Yorker in which Hersh claims that U.S. intelligence officials have electronic evidence of an $800,000 bribe Saddam Hussein paid to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an old acquaintance, presumably in return for Russian assistance with Iraq's various programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The story also says the spying done in Iraq via the UN weapons inspection teams resulted in a profoundly deeper level of intelligence on Saddam Hussein. According to the story, "He gets drunk, starts raving like a madman, and his secretary will get on and say he lost his mind--ordering murders."

The WSJ reports that Amazon.com will soon add online auctions to its portfolio. The online bookseller has, the paper says, signed up 117 businesses to run Web auctions at its site, for such goods as collectibles, electronics, photo gear, clothing, and jewelry.

The WP reports that the Baltimore Sun had to admit last week that an obituary it ran recently contained a made-up quote from a made-up friend of the deceased. When the paper discovered the ruse, it fired the reporter, a 20-year veteran. But the Sun could still use a little more backbone. In its letter to readers about the dustup, it never mentions the reporter's name. Can you imagine the Sun running a piece that said, "An unidentified member of Congress stepped down today after it was revealed that he made up quotes in a speech he (or she) gave on the House floor last week"? Of course not. So, to be consistent, the paper should have told its readers that the reporter was Robert Hilson Jr.