The papers' front pages are devoid of breaking news on this sleepy holiday weekend. The New York Times leads with a U.N. report on a sharp increase in opium production in Afghanistan because of the Taliban's resurgence, a story the other papers barely note. The Washington Post goes with a piece detailing education experts' calls for national school-testing standards, while the Los Angeles Times puts an update on GOP woes ahead of upcoming congressional elections in the lead spot.
The NYT's opium story is based on an analysis from the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime that says there has been a 49 percent increase in the opium crop from last year. The increases have come mostly in the south, the paper says, where Taliban rebels, who benefit from opium sales, have reasserted themselves and pushed farmers to grow poppy in exchange for protection. The Times also quotes the director of the U.N. office saying the Taliban may be using a provocation strategy, hoping the Afghan government will react somehow to the increase in cultivation and anger residents by doing so.
The numbers are impressive—a record crop of 6,100 metric tons of opium, accounting for 92 percent of global supply—but how the United Nations comes up with these figures is a bit hazy. The NYT says investigators use satellite imagery and "teams on the ground, who have even worked in Taliban-controlled areas." Interviews are also conducted with farmers. Seems, at best, to be experienced guesswork.
According to the WP, education experts say some states are dumbing down student test standards and that a nationwide measurement should be put in place. This, of course, has little chance of actually happening, the story notes, but, hey, it's a slow news day.
Nevertheless, the examples the story gives are telling. Maryland says that 82 percent of its fourth-graders are proficient or better in reading, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows only 32 percent at that level. In Virginia, the state claims 86 percent, while the NAEP says 37 percent. One possible solution, the story notes, is for Washington to finance a voluntary national testing program, which would be more palatable politically.
The LAT's lead spells out trouble for Republicans, as do similar stories fronted by the NYT and WP. Republican candidates are in some cases doing what they can to distance themselves from President Bush, while Democrats plan to pound the economy and rely on a general feeling of pessimism among voters. That may be a good idea, considering, as the LAT points out, their position on Iraq is … um, what is their position again?
The papers agree that the House will be easier for Democrats to take control of than the Senate, but they warn not to underestimate Republicans' turnout capabilities and their willingness to spend plenty dough as the campaign intensifies. But even Republican strategists sound defeatist, with two telling the WP it seems likely the House will change hands.
Meanwhile, Karl Rove doesn't have the sway he once did over his fellow Republicans in this year's campaign, the NYT reports.
The LAT fronts and the other papers stuff word that four soldiers accused of murdering three detainees in Iraq could face the death penalty if convicted. Investigators allege the men killed the Iraqis then attempted to cover it up by concocting a story that the detainees tried to escape. A lawyer for the soldiers says one of them was cut with a knife and another was hit by the Iraqis. Investigators are also looking into whether Col. Michael Steele, commander of the soldiers' brigade, encouraged unnecessary violence, the LAT reports. Steele, who the paper notes was featured in Black Hawk Down, says he did nothing wrong.
The papers also weigh in with Sept. 11 anniversary stories, with the NYT fronting a feature on 9/11 widows and widowers who are also illegal immigrants. They've collected between $875,000 and $4.1 million as compensation for the deaths of their wives or husbands, but they live shadowy lives, afraid they and their children will be deported if they keep too high a profile.
In another Sept. 11-related story, the NYT takes a look at the continued follies of the Transportation Security Administration, which has decided to suspend installations of the so-called "puffer," a device designed to detect residue from explosives on would-be airplane passengers. Apparently, the machines have broken down frequently and don't do much to detect liquid explosives.
The WP looks at the government's hardball tactics in prosecuting potential terrorists in its Sept. 11 piece, questioning whether some suspects have been unfairly targeted, while the LAT updates the FBI's continued search for Adnan Gulshair Muhammad el Shukrijumah, the former South Florida resident now suspected of being a major player in the terrorist world.
The LAT reports on the drought from Texas, where farmers are selling off cattle because all grass has dried up and they can't afford to feed them.
And, in a solid piece, the NYT looks at the pluses and minuses of a new trend in parenting: using a form of in vitro fertilization to ensure babies are born without gene defects that make them susceptible to cancer. While the procedure offers parents the potential to keep their kids from suffering later in life, ethicists wonder whether it will lead to a greater health divide among the rich and poor. There's also the worrying prospect of babies being selected based on factors that have nothing to do with health, such as their gender or sexual preference, the story notes.