Wiretrap

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 17 2005 7:00 AM

Wiretrap

The Washington Post and New York Times lead with the Senate's failure to renew the Patriot Act (parts of which are set to expire on Dec. 31). Four Republicans—Chuck Hagel, Lisa Murkowski, John Sununu, and Larry Craig—backed the Democratic filibuster, leaving the GOP seven votes short of the 60 needed to end debate. The Senate leadership promised more filibuster votes in the two days remaining before Congress recesses (the House has already approved the act's extension), but senators from both parties predicted that few votes will change. (Two Democrats voted with the GOP; click here for a full breakdown.) The Wall Street Journal—which places this story atop its news box—reminds that even if the Patriot Act expires, the feds may still invoke it for investigations already begun or for new investigations of crimes committed before the law expired. On the NYT Op-Ed page, Rudy Giuliani argues that the bill to extend the act adequately guards civil liberties and should be passed.

In defending their votes, eight Democratic senators cited yesterday's NYT story revealing that the National Security Agency has been wiretapping hundreds of Americans without obtaining warrants. (President Bush authorized the surveillance with a secret executive order in 2002.) The Post, Journal, and LAT—which fronts the story—all refer to the impact of their competitor's article. In today's NYT article on the Patriot Act, a "government official" tells the paper that Bush has been revising and reviewing the surveillance program every few months to ensure that the authority is not abused. Vice President Dick Cheney defended the program in a closed-door session with lawmakers at the Capitol. The Post, in a top-front item devoted to the story's aftermath, reports that NSA snooping began even before Bush signed the executive order. (In this Post story, the NYT executive editor explains—sort of—what changed during the year in which the paper deferred publication of its scoop.)

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The NYT and WP both go below the fold with reports on the Dec. 6 government massacre of peasants in the rural Chinese village of Dongzhou. The NYT notes that "the official account of last week's violence widely diverges from the account of almost every villager interviewed." The villagers say that authorities shot to death about 20 people, and many more are missing. The government has been trying to bribe families into saying that their relatives were killed by their own gasoline bombs instead of by government bullets. Those who don't take the money are beaten. The Post focuses on the creative methods that some Chinese have employed to spread the truth on the Internet. When Chinese Web site administrators, fearful of government reprisals, deleted posts referring to Dongzhou, users began posting veiled references to the event on bulletin boards ostensibly commemorating dissident martyrs from the past.  

Google has reached a tentative deal to buy 5 percent of AOL. (The Post fronts this, and the NYT teases.) AOL is already Google's biggest advertiser, and this deal ensures AOL a chunk of free advertising on Google, $1 billion in cash, and exclusive rights to sell Google's banner ads (it will keep a 20 percent commission on all sales). In exchange, Google will remain AOL's primary search engine for at least five years (MSN had been vying to take its place). Although it has been losing users rapidly, AOL is still the largest ISP in the country, with 20 million paid subscribers. An expert quoted in the NYT says that this is the first time Google has made an explicitly strategic move to block a rival (Microsoft); until yesterday, it had pretended to ignore the competition. In its lead story, the Journal notes that Time Warner (AOL's parent) will become the first company capable of selling ads across all media—TV, print, and Web.

The Post fronts Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's executive order to prohibit discrimination against gays in state hiring. Warner, a moderate, is considering a run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Phizer defeated a generic-drug producer in court to secure patent protection for Lipitor until 2011, the Journal reports. Lipitor, which lowers cholesterol, is the world's best-selling legal drug.

Novelist Orhan Pamuk appeared in an Istanbul courtroom to face charges that he insulted his country when speaking about Turkish genocide to a journalist, the Post reports inside. The judge delayed the trial, and nationalists chucked eggs at the author as he left the courthouse.

The Journalist and the Politician. When Jim Lehrer interviewed President Bush yesterday, he tried to overcome the president's reluctance to talk about the NYT government-eavesdropping story:

JIM LEHRER: I mean, [the wiretapping story is] on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, every newspaper in America today, and it's going—it's the main story of the day. So—

PRESIDENT BUSH: It's not the main story of the day.

JIM LEHRER: Well, but I mean in terms of the way it's being covered—

PRESIDENT BUSH: The main story of the day is the Iraqi election.

JIM LEHRER: Right, and I'm going to get to that.

What interests TP about this exchange is that Jim Lehrer is not really saying what he means. President Bush is certainly right about the Iraq election being the biggest story of the day. The NYT, which broke the domestic-spying story, gave the election a four-column lead on the same day. Even Lehrer would probably admit that a 70-percent voter turnout in a country just emerging from 40 years of totalitarian rule means more, in historical terms, than a revelation of domestic civil-liberties abuses. What Lehrer really means is something akin to this: "The Iraqi election may be the biggest story of the day, but it's not my job as a journalist to let you bask in a policy victory. It's my job to hold your feet to the fire, so I'm going to hammer you on domestic wiretapping." This is a perfectly respectable position for a newsman to take, of course; TP might act the same if he were in Lehrer's shoes. But it's worth noting that journalists, like politicians, sometimes feel the need to rationalize their agenda.

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