Power to the People

Power to the People

Power to the People

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 16 2003 6:38 AM

Power to the People

The papers' front pages are all dominated for a second straight day by the aftermath of Thursday's massive blackout, which left 50 million people without electrical power and is now considered the worst in U.S. history. The Washington Post and New York Times both lead with roundups on the restoration of power to people across the Northeast and southeastern Canada, replete with uplifting quotes on how everyone helped each other out and how there was almost no looting. The Los Angeles Times' lead story focuses on news that the NYT off-leads and the WP runs inside: The cascading blackout probably began in the Midwest, although no one really knows precisely why or where.

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According to early morning wire reports, power companies have reknit most of the affected areas into the electrical grid, and almost all of New York City's subway system is back up and running. But many problems still persist: As of 6 a.m., residents of Cleveland are still boiling their water, and a quarter of Detroit's populace has been in the dark and without water for two straight nights of sweltering August heat. "I view it as a wake-up call," President Bush said yesterday, promising to modernize the country's electrical grid. (Prognostication on coming political wrangles over electrical transmission lands on the front page of the WP and inside the NYT and LAT.)

Despite continuing uncertainties, engineers are getting a better idea of how it all literally went down. A nine-second reversal of electrical flow in the upper Midwest overloaded transmission lines there, causing cascading failures along the "Lake Erie loop," through Canada, back into New York, and down along the coast. The whole process took five minutes and moved too quickly for each successive shutdown to stop the surge from taking down the next portion of the grid. The papers all report that there were problems with transmission lines in Ohio (low voltage, which the NYT likens to low water pressure) at least two hours before the blackout, and they hint that the outage might have begun there, although engineers are not sure how.

"It is not a banner moment for the experts. They seem to know very little. Perhaps there is an extremely fried squirrel somewhere, sizzling in the weeds beneath a shorted-out transformer," writes the WP in an essay inside. Even the head of the ironically named North American Electric Reliability Council, which was founded after the 1965 blackout to create and coordinate a system to stop such a thing from happening again, told hundreds of reporters on a national conference call that he is personally embarrassed. The LAT snatched the juiciest mea culpa: "My job is to see that this doesn't happen, and you could say that I failed in my job."

To their credit, the WP and NYT both front pieces on the scene in the Midwest (where the blackout hit hardest) in stark contrast to the television myopia—remarked upon inside the WP—that made it seem as though the story was only really taking place in Manhattan. Still, the papers all front NYC scene pieces with plenty of opportunities for correspondents to flex their rhetorical muscles. The Post writes, "It was also a night in which much of the city seemed brushed by a stroke of romance, with apartments lighted by candles, a sky filled with stars and the usually rushing masses slowed to a stroll." The LAT notes that by 4 p.m. yesterday, 24 hours after the blackout began, "Manhattan was a city transformed. Its skyscrapers winking again, its streets blaring with life, the island was pulsing with Friday Night Fever—even if its energy was still slightly sapped." And the NYT sums up yesterday with a metaphor as mixed as the mood: "It was a day for telling stories, weaving the first draft of personal histories."

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The NYT fronts, the LAT reefers and the WP stuffs a Reuters wire piece on Israel's agreement to hand over two more cities to Palestinian control in a move that may jump-start stalled progress along the "road map" to peace. While the NYT devotes space befitting the front-page placement to describing the rosy relationship between the Palestinian security chief and his Israeli counterpart, the LAT is alone in noting that the gesture may be empty. One town in question, Jericho, is barely occupied by Israelis as it is, and the other, Kalkilya, is almost entirely walled off by the Israelis' controversial security fence. "We don't want it, because we don't want it with the wall," an anonymous Palestinian official told the LAT. "Israel has built a prison, and it wants the Palestinian Authority to be the guards."

The LAT, alone among papers, fronts news that a U.S. District Court judge may postpone the ballot on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis in California. The judge ruled that four delinquent counties must complete a Justice Dept. pre-certification required of them by the Voting Rights Act because of past evidence of discrimination. If they do not complete it, the entire state's election would have to wait—only a total recall is constitutional. The judge set judgment day in two weeks.

In other recall news, the WP goes inside with the first poll showing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante leading Arnold Schwarzenegger among candidates vying to succeed Davis in Sacramento.

After almost 15 years, and as expected, Libya officially accepted responsibility yesterday for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which disintegrated over Lockerbie, Scotland. The WP off-leads the news, the NYT teases it on the front page, and the LAT stuffs it.

Yesterday, TP expressed displeasure that none of the papers made cheap comparisons to ongoing blackouts in Iraq, a remark that may or may not have had anything to do with an inspired dispatch from an Associated Press reporter in Baghdad yesterday, "IRAQIS' TOP TEN TIPS FOR ENDURING BLACKOUT IN THE HEAT." Exhibiting more than a little schadenfreude, one Iraqi suggested Americans bring in Iraqi specialists. "Our experts have a lot of experience in these matters." The number 1 tip, though, was to protest in the streets, an approach with which a Baghdad resident said Iraqis had had some success: "I'd suggest Americans go out and demonstrate." Power to the people, indeed.