The Reactor Factor

The Reactor Factor

The Reactor Factor

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 13 2002 5:16 AM

The Reactor Factor

The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox (online), and Los Angeles Times, with a near banner headline, all lead with North Korea's announcement that it will restart nuclear reactors capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea had mothballed the reactors under a now all-but-abandoned 1994 agreement with the U.S. The New York Times, which reefers the reactors, leads with something the LAT had yesterday: The CIA has done a quick read-through of Iraq's humongo weapons declaration and concluded that the report is mostly a rehash of previously discredited reports. USA Today, which has a remarkably unappealing front-page layout this morning (three headlines of equal width, each stacked on top of the other), leads with news that everybody, including USAT, had yesterday: President Bush plans to order smallpox inoculations for 500,000 troops and 500,000 medical workers.

The Koreans said they decided to fire up the reactors as a result of the U.S.'s decision to suspend oil deliveries to the country. That move was prompted by North Korea's recent admission that it has been secretly developing nukes. The White House had a relatively mellow reaction to the reactor news: Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the U.S. won't negotiate but added, "We seek a peaceful resolution to the situation. As the president has said, we have no intention of invading North Korea."

In other impending Armageddon news, everybody stuffs word that newly released commercial satellite photos suggest that Iran has been building two nuclear plants capable of producing plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency has requested Iran's permission to visit the sites and twice been put off.

The LAT fronts a must-read deflating some of the hysteria around the threat of a smallpox attack: It's very unlikely terrorists would be able to cause a big outbreak. The simplest way to do it would be to have a suicide infector try to spread the disease by walking around Times Square or some such. But anybody infected with smallpox would probably be bedside and delirious. Even if they were walking, carriers are covered with grody pustules for all but one day that they're contagious, making it unlikely anybody would want to get close to the terrorists. The other delivery method is to try to spread it mechanically: say, through a bomb. But that's a big task and probably beyond the expertise of AQ. 

Meanwhile, the NYT fronts state health officials' complaints that the administration's proposed timetable for starting vaccinations is too ambitious. The officials say they need extra time to work out appropriate safety procedures.

The NYT's lead mentions down low that senior administration officials "discounted" yesterday's report in the Post that Saddam may have given nerve gas to AQ. The Journal also follows up on the WP's story and hints as to its genesis: A few months ago, Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq told the CIA they had captured an Islamic militant carrying a vial of cyanide, which is more common and less deadly than nerve gas. The WSJ quotes officials saying they haven't heard anything about AQ having nerve gas. The Journal adds, "Intelligence analysts don't believe Iraq supplied the poison." The Post's (flimsy) story was headlined, "U.S. SUSPECTS AL QAEDA GOT NERVE AGENT FROM IRAQIS." Doesn't that now seem doubly disingenuous? By the way, this isn't an example of a story that happened to be off-base. The WPknowingly misled its readers in order to hype a "scoop."

Trent Lott's troubles get their biggest play so far, with the NYT and WP each giving the issue two front-page articles: President Bush decided to rebuke Lott's comments supporting Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential run. "Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," said Bush. "He has apologized, and rightly so." Bush did not call for Lott to resign. The Post's second Lott piece headlines, "LOTT HAS MOVED LITTLE ON CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUES." But it's the subhead that really sends a message: "Senator's Record Consistent With Remarks."

The NYT notes inside that Gen. Ralph Eberhart, the Pentagon's head of domestic defense, said during an interview with the paper that he doesn't have any information that al-Qaida is about to hit the U.S: "I am not aware of a significant threat to this nation." The Times contrasts that with Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent warning that al-Qaida maintains an "active presence in the United States and is waiting to strike again."

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The NYT reports, "KISSINGER WILL DISCLOSE HIS CLIENTS TO FAMILIES OF 9/11 VICTIMS." The Post says, "KISSINGER TO WITHHOLD CLIENT LIST." The upshot: Kissinger will disclose his client list to 9/11 families but won't make it public. The LAT isn't into that: "STEP DOWN, MR. KISSINGER."

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.