The New York Timesleads with a look at how the number of hours worked by people in the United States has been on a downward spiral lately. Although attention is usually paid to the official unemployment number, which has remained pretty constant, the truth is that many are having trouble making ends meet because they're being forced to work fewer hours and there's less overtime to go around. In addition, the number of people being forced to pursue part-time employment is on the rise. USA Today leads with an interesting in-house analysis that shows flights are taking longer than 20 years ago. In 2007, the average flight traveled at about 342 mph, while in 1998 the number was 358 mph. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with word that U.S. commanders in Iraq have already begun releasing detainees. It's all part of a process to clean house that could set more than half of the 23,000 prisoners free.
The Washington Posthas its second pope-related lead in as many days and focuses on how Pope Benedict XVI met with a small group of people who were sexually abused by priests. The unannounced meeting was held after the pope's huge Mass at Nationals Park, where almost 50,000 people gathered, and the pope, for the third time this week, talked about the sexual abuse scandals. The Los Angeles Timesleads with news that the California government will review health insurance policies that were canceled in order to determine whether companies acted inappropriately. The practice is particularly controversial because companies usually carry it out after a patient falls ill and submits medical bills. If an independent arbiter finds that the policy was canceled unfairly, then the patient would have to be reinstanted, and the insurer would be responsible for the medical bills during the time that a patient was without insurance.
A decline in the number of hours worked "is a critical indicator that the nation may well be on the verge of a recession, if not already in one," says the NYT. The last time there's been a decline in the total hours worked it was right before the 2001 recession. Meanwhile, earnings are also decreasing and are not making up for the increases in the cost of food and fuel. Of course, this is all a vicious cycle, because as people have less money to spend, they have to give up certain purchases they might have made before (restaurant meals, piano lessons), which, in turn, means these providers also start facing economic hardship. Adding to the hardship is that credit, which would have been a natural response to make ends meet in previous years, is much more difficult to obtain.
The United States is trying to reshape its detention facilities and policies in Iraq, and as part of this redo, it's releasing thousands of prisoners. Some estimate the number of prisoners remaining after this process will be as small as 2,500, which, of course, raises the question of why the other 20,000 have remained incarcerated for so long. The detention facilities have helped stir up anti-American sentiment, particularly since a suspected insurgent could be held for years without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. The paper says the U.S. military hopes these mass releases will encourage Sunnis to be more active in the Iraqi political process.
The NYT goes inside with a look at how the United States is building a concrete wall that would divide Sadr City. The idea is that the side of Sadr City closest to the Green Zone would be turned into a protected area so reconstruction projects can take place. The paper reminds readers that concrete barriers have been used in other parts of Iraq, and they "have often proved to be an effective tool in blunting insurgent attacks."
Everyone points out that a suicide bomber killed more than 50 people in a village that is about 90 miles north of Baghdad. It was the second major bombing this week in a northern province that supposedly had been pacified by U.S. troops. The LAT says the bombing was "the latest strike in an internal war among Sunni Arabs, some of whom have aligned themselves with the Americans and others with the group al-Qaida in Iraq."
The Post goes inside with a report by the Defense Department's inspector general that says officers in the Air Force lobbied for an unknown company, SMS, to receive a $50 million contract, even though its price was more than double what a competitor had bid. The whole contracting process seems to have been full of improper favoritism. But the most shocking part comes in the story's fifth paragraph when the Post reveals that a high-ranking Air Force officer, who is now vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, even included President Bush in his efforts, and he apparently played along. The officer arranged for the commander in chief "to record a video testimonial in the White House Map Room that was included in the SMS contract proposal, demonstrating the company's credibility and access."
USAT contacted "dozens" of uncommitted superdelegates and says most aren't going to make up their minds after Pennsylvania. Although they all recognize that Pennsylvania is an important state, they seem to be emphasizing that it's hardly the only one that matters from now on. But they say they won't be undecided forever and will have chosen their candidate by July 1 to try to prevent the fight from reaching the convention. The NYT also contacted superdelegates (15), and most of them said they haven't been swayed by Clinton's attacks on Obama and his qualifications for office. In addition, these superdelegates say they don't think his gaffes and personal relationships that came up in this week's debate are really that important.
Speaking of the debate, the LAT fronts, and almost everyone has a piece on, the intense criticism of the performance by ABC's moderators that was evident in the blogosphere yesterday. The main complaint was that the first half of the debate was almost exclusively devoted to targeting controversies surrounding Obama's personal associations and gaffes rather than substantive issues. George Stephanopoulos, one of the moderators, seems to concede that point but says that it's because Obama is the front-runner. Despite all the valid questions that can be raised about the debate (particularly those stupidly frequent commercials), TP can't help but think there's something else here besides media criticism. For example, everyone cites the WP's Tom Shales, who called the debate "despicable," but he had already come out as a certified Obama backer when he swooned over the Illinois senator's performance after the NBC debate in February (TP joked then that Shales was angling for the job of Obama Girl). There was also much criticism from the Huffington Post, which is pretty much pro-Obama all the time, and a column by Will Bunch ("the utter phoniness of the Clinton campaign is kind of old news right now"). Here's what troubles TP: Almost by definition, Obama's core base consists of highly educated people who'd be more willing, and have the interest, to express their opinions online, right? So is this a case of people really complaining about the debate? Or just complaining because their candidate did poorly (even some of his most fierce cheerleaders seem to agree with this), and they're hoping that complaining about the debate itself will hide the news of his performance? Yes, it's possible to hide behind the whole "We want more policy" argument, but didn't many of these same people (Tom Shales included!) complain that there was too much health care discussion in the last debate? Ultimately, is there really a lot of outrage or is the outrage louder because it's being done by those with the megaphones?