Ring of Friendly Fire

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 13 2003 7:32 AM

Ring of Friendly Fire

The New York Times and Washington Post lead with, and the Los Angeles Times fronts, a friendly-fire incident in which U.S. soldiers killed eight Iraqi police officers and one Jordanian security guard. The LAT leads with eleventh-hour bills passed by the state legislature as it prepares to adjourn, including a Democrat-backed measure to reduce government payments and business premiums for injured-workers' compensation. 

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The hour-long friendly fire gunfight took place in Falluja, a Sunni stronghold 35 miles west of Baghdad, after a U.S. solder was shot. (The Iraqi police had been chasing a BMW minutes before.) Several wounded police officers attest that two of their three vehicles were marked, that they all wore police uniforms, and that they identified themselves as police repeatedly in Arabic and English. Spent cartridges reveal that the U.S. soldiers were no more than 50 feet away from the police, the NYT reports, although the Post mentions that the battle occurred at night. Only the LAT manages to elicit comment from a U.S. military representative, who says that the victims' families will likely be compensated. (The Post notes that the U.S. previously paid from $500 to $1,500 to the families of 28 Fallujan protesters killed by U.S. solders on April 28, an act the U.S. called self defense.) Everyone reports that two U.S. soldiers were killed, and seven wounded, in an unrelated raid in Ramadi, west of Falluja.

The NYT off-leads an excellent investigation into the causes of last month's blackout, concluding that computer problems and fragmented grid oversight in the Midwest allowed an Ohio problem to become a multiregion failure. The report, based on interviews, telephone transcripts, and government timelines, identifies five problems: 1) The Midwest grid manager, or Independent System Operator, had less sophisticated computers than those of other ISOs; as a result, it could monitor only a fraction of the region's grid and was blind to about two-thirds of the early equipment failures. 2) The Midwest ISO's analytic software program, used to problem-solve in emergencies, was broken, and equipment-monitoring computers at one of the failing utilities were also down. 3) Because Midwest utilities are allowed to choose their own oversight bodies, several Ohio utilities are monitored by a Mid-Atlantic ISO that was blind to many Ohio failures. 4) Because it is new and was formed voluntarily, the Midwest ISO, unlike other ISOs, cannot force utilities to shut down, it must ask them. 5) Managers at the Midwest ISO were distracted by isolated failures in Indiana earlier that day.

The NYT concludes that "in the end … it was not just … a transmission line sagging into a tree that caused the system to fail" without mentioning that its own Aug. 23 story hyped the single-transmission-line theory. For its part, the Post runs a business-section story on the Energy Department's new timeline of Aug. 14 utility failures, which does not examine causes. (This timeline is mentioned briefly in the NYT investigation and given a two-paragraph summary inside the LAT.) The Post's story notes that Congress is about to approve a comprehensive energy bill that temporarily freezes the feds' authority to give the Midwest ISO more power. The NYT business section features a dispatch from the nation's largest trade show for power-transmission equipment, in Dallas. For show vendors, the blackout may turn into an epic marketing windfall.        

All the papers front an obituary of Johnny Cash, who died at 71, and all run appreciations inside. Cash, everyone notes, gave country music new dimension by singing about  conflicted, guilt-ridden souls and the down-and-out. ("I Walk the Line," writes the Post'scritic, is not a love song so much as "a pledge by a guy who is under no illusions about his own capacity to self-destruct.") The NYT calls the Man in Black country music's first "outlaw" and pegs his championing of inmates as an influence on gangsta rap. Cash's popularity peaked in the '60s, when he performed 300 times a year and hosted a network talk show. An early friendship with Bob Dylan gave him crossover appeal, and covers of modern rock songs in the '90s earned him critical accolades and a new generation of fans. (The NYT says Cash is the only person besides Elvis to reside in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame.) The LAT notes that Cash had 14 No. 1 country songs, and the Post says he sold 50 million records. That's obviously a lot of hits, but putting the numbers in perspective would do the reader a service. (For example, what are comparable figures for Willie Nelson and Roy Orbison?)

The Post fronts the unanimous decision of the 35 nations on the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency to set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to prove it has no nuclear-weapons program. Iran's delegation walked out of the meeting and accused the United States of plotting to invade their country. The Post says that evidence collected by U.N. inspectors is so convincing that countries skeptical of U.S. Middle East policy ended up voting for the resolution. The NYT and LAT run wire stories inside.

The LAT fronts, and the Post reefers, the sudden death of actor John Ritter on an ABC television set Thursday. (He had an undiagnosed aortic artery tear.) Ritter, the former Three's Company star, was the centerpiece of one of the network's most popular sitcoms, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Executives at Disney, which owns ABC, viewed the show as crucial to ABC's comeback from the ratings basement—so much so that Michael Eisner had personally edited some scripts, the LAT reports. Both papers note that TV shows tend not to survive long when their star dies. (8 Simple Rules had shot three episodes of the second season.)

A bemused Post reader spots something in a Sept. 7 photo that the paper's caption writers evidently did not: An "unidentified" serviceman whose name and rank is visible on his uniform.  

Michael Brus, a former Slate assistant editor, is a fourth-year psychiatry resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He last wrote for Slate about his career change from journalist to psychiatrist.