Barbed Prose

Barbed Prose

Barbed Prose

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Jan. 17 2000 7:06 AM

Barbed Prose

The New York Times leads with the election victory in Chile of a socialist--the first of that political persuasion to lead Chile since Salvador Allende. The Wall Street Journal puts the story atop its front-page news index box, and the Los Angeles Times fronts it, going instead with how as few as two dozen seats will determine if the Republicans hold on to the House this fall. The Washington Post goes with a State Department internal audit showing rampant lax security. The USA Today lead is a follow-on to a story the NYT had last week: the emergence of the possibility that the government and drug companies might agree on some form of Medicare coverage for prescription drugs. The latest: Pharmaceutical execs will meet on the topic this week with the White House chief of staff. Also, the paper says, a new industry ad campaign will, unlike previously adversarial spots, be conciliatory on the subject.

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The two Times explain that the Chilean election marks not only the resuscitation of socialism in the country but also of the dormant right--the margin of victory was slim over a former Pinochet aide. Another significant development the two papers note: The rightist candidate went to the winner's headquarters to personally congratulate him.

The LAT lead says the Republican grip on the House is "especially tenuous" because the party has the slimmest majority either party's had there since 1954, Democratic fund raising is more effective than it's historically been, and more than three times as many Republican incumbents as Democrats are vacating their seats.

The Post lead says that the security audit showed that State Department officials failed to sweep 140 offices where classified intelligence reports of the utmost sensitivity were handled and that in one time-frame studied, more than 10 percent of those reports were not returned to their proper storage place. The paper also reports that the audit was completed before the discovery of a listening device (and a Russian spy nearby) at State headquarters late last year, but after a 1998 incident in which a man came in, took some classified materials, and left. The paper reveals the man was never identified and the materials were never recovered.

The WP off-lead on the anti-missile shield system being tested by the Pentagon says that the system could defend against at most 25 or 30 missiles and explains that this limitation is being stressed to the Russians, who have some 5,000 nuclear missiles, as a reason for them not to worry about it. Even if it passes the important tests in the months ahead and gets full funding, the system won't be ready until 2005.

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USAT's front-page "snapshot" is a sober-up for Martin Luther King Day from the U.S. Census Bureau. When it comes to educational attainment, blacks still lag substantially behind whites: 84 percent of whites over 25 are high-school graduates, but only 55 percent of blacks over 25 are.

Sunday's LAT runs a column in the metro section by Robert Scheer siding with Barbra Streisand in a zoning dispute she's having with the Malibu government over construction plans at her new house. Is Scheer's friendship with Streisand clouding his judgment? Well, in his column he describes her as "the hardest working taxpayer" and says her body of work is "widely recognized as a national treasure."

The WP reports that a business editor at the Idaho Statesman in Boise has quit over his paper's practice of submitting stories about Micron Technology, a major local employer, to the company for review before publishing them. A heavy at the paper is quoted as defending the practice as a method of fact-checking. Today's Papers sides with the departed editor, but would add that there is nothing wrong with showing copy to a story source or subject for fact-checking purposes. What is wrong is surrendering control of that copy to such persons. But a reporter doesn't have to do that if he's willing to fight against powerful local interests and his bosses for what he knows is right. In other words, the traditional view against advance peeks sacrifices fact-checking primarily to take the easy way out. But journalism should almost always take the hard way out.

Another reminder of how shoddy small-time journalism can be comes with the NYT's report on the sudden departure of The Oklahoman's executive editor, apparently for displeasing local behemoth the Kerr-McGee Corp. with a story about the death of Karen Silkwood, a would-be whistleblower against the company.

Of course, not all shoddiness is local. Both the NYT and WP run follow-on stories to last week's revelation that the government's drug office had a program of financial incentives for networks incorporating anti-drug themes into their shows. Today's coverage focuses mostly on ABC's claim that it stopped trying to get the financial credits after the government asked to see scripts before broadcast. Disappointingly, neither paper mentions the organization that broke the story--Salon magazine. On the other hand, Walter Shapiro's column in USAT touching on the controversy does properly credit Salon. Not doing so is bush league and cheats the reader out of being able to look at more facts. Another nagging question: How is it that the TV networks, which were parties to the deal, failed to break the story?