The New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsboxlead with, and everyone else fronts, Afghanistan's presidential election, which was marred by low turnout and scattered violence. A steady campaign of intimidation by the Taliban over the past week kept many inside their homes. Officials were quick to declare that the vote had been a success, but the papers say it's far too early to tell "whether bombs or ballots would ultimately emerge the day's victor," as the WSJ puts it. Declaring a winner could take at least two weeks, and a runoff seems likely. The Washington Postgoes across the top of Page One with an investigation into the medical-helicopter business, which is now a competitive $2.5 billion industry that is lightly regulated. It is also one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, with 113 deaths for every 100,000 employees, a rate surpassed only by working on a fishing boat. Since 1980, 211 crew members and 27 patients have been killed in crashes that many experts say were largely predictable and avoidable.
The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how the growing ranks of the unemployed are increasing foreclosure rates among those with good credit scores and conventional home loans. According to one trade group, more than 13 percent of mortgage holders in the country were behind on their mortgage or in the process of having their homes repossessed during the second quarter of the year. It's the highest figure since 1972. Experts worry that the increasing number of foreclosures could threaten the economic recovery. USA Todayleads with a warning that all those hoping to take advantage of the Cash for Clunkers program only have until Monday evening to make a deal. The $3 billion program has been more successful than expected and many dealerships have run out of the fuel-efficient cars that qualify for the program. Dealers are also a little miffed because it has taken a while for them to get their money back from the government, but the program has certainly helped boost demand for vehicles.
There were no major episodes of violence in Afghanistan yesterday, as many had feared there would be, but the WSJ points out that the Taliban did manage to carry out 73 attacks across the country. According to official reports, election-day violence killed eight Afghan soldiers, nine police officers, nine civilians, a U.S. soldier, and a British soldier. The LAT specifies that early turnout estimates were below 50 percent, considerably lower than the 70 percent who voted in 2004. Many voters stayed away from the polls, particularly in southern and eastern provinces. The NYT highlights that in some areas of the South there were almost no women voters. But the low turnout was hardly limited to the extremely volatile areas. The WP notes that even in Kabul, where thousands of security officers were on duty, some polling places reported low turnout. It seems more voters showed up in the north, which should theoretically benefit President Hamid Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and increase the chances of a runoff. Early-morning wire stories report that both Karzai and Abdullah claimed victory today.
While it's easy and obvious to blame low turnout on the Taliban threats, the WP points out that some residents simply had no interest in voting. Some were simply disenchanted with politics, while others didn't think there was anyone worthwhile on a ballot that contained dozens of names or saw it as a pointless exercise, since they were certain that Karzai would win. Counting the votes "in a vast country where donkeys were used to deliver ballot boxes to many remote villages," as USAT puts it, will probably take a while. Although preliminary results were expected Saturday, the LAT says the first results won't be available until early next week.
The WP reports that even as crashes in the medical helicopter business have increased—2008 was the deadliest year—federal regulators "have acted as partners with the industry." Helicopters aren't required to have many of the very basic safety features of commercial airplanes. Meanwhile, the business, which is dominated by for-profit companies, has exploded. There are now around 830 medical helicopters competing for patients, and in some states the saturation is astounding. Kentucky, for example, has 26 medical helicopters for a population of 4.2 million, while all of Canada has only 20. This competition leads many pilots to take unnecessary risks to get a piece of the action. And while the government contends that leaving the industry lightly regulated increases competition and decreases prices, that has hardly been the case, as costs keep rising. Medicare spends $220 million a year to transport patients.
The NYT fronts word that Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater, plays a pivotal role in the CIA program that uses unmanned drones to kill al-Qaida leaders. The private contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on the Predator, work that was previously done by agency employees. The Predators are launched from a remote base in Pakistan, and, the paper reveals, a second site in Afghanistan. On occasion, agency employees have accused contractors of doing their job poorly, particularly if the drone misses its target. In one case, a 500-pound bomb dropped too early, leading to a frantic search for the unexploded bomb that was ultimately found 100 yards from the original target. This is a reminder of how the CIA "now depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency's most important assignments," says the paper.
The WP reports that the Justice Department is looking into allegations that military defense attorneys in Guantanamo unlawfully showed detainees photographs of CIA personnel. Apparently, the lawyers were trying to determine who the officers and contractors who carried out harsh interrogations in the so-called black sites outside the United States were. Researchers trying to shed light on the interrogation program took the photographs, sometimes outside the home of CIA officers. If true, this illustrates just how aggressively lawyers and human rights groups are pursuing this information. But defense attorneys say it's just an attempt to intimidate them and change the subject away from the CIA's interrogation tactics.
The WP reports on a new poll that shows public confidence in Obama is slipping. Less than 50 percent of Americans are confident that he will make the right decisions for the country, which is down from 60 percent when his presidency hit the first 100 days. His overall approval rating stands at 57 percent, 12 points lower than in April, while his disapproval hit an all-time high of 40 percent. A full 42 percent disapprove of how he's dealing with health care, and 52 percent back a government-run health insurance plan, also known as the "public option," which marks a decline from 62 percent in June. The decrease in support for the public option is particularly notable among independents and seniors. One bright spot for Obama is the economy, as more Americans are optimistic the recession will be over within the next year.
The NYT says that while many proclaimed the return of multimillion-dollar bonuses is just another example of how the rich always end up winning, "a significant change may in fact be under way. The rich, as a group, are no longer getting richer." They've become poorer over the last two years, and may not get back to their old levels of wealth anytime in the near future. Of course, it's difficult to feel sympathy for someone who still has $4 million, even if he did once have more than $100 million, but some economists think this trend could elicit some broad new trends. One of the more interesting ones is whether the fact that there will be fewer obscenely wealthy people will mean that the average middle-class worker will be a little better off. Or, as the NYT puts it, "the question is whether the better metaphor for the economy is a rising tide that can lift all boats—or a zero-sum game."
Meanwhile, the question of whether runner Caster Semenya is really a woman has raised interest across the world, but, in South Africa, many have taken up her cause and are outraged by the question, particularly the idea that Westerners are judging an African woman based on appearance alone, reports the LAT's Robyn Dixon. Semenya became an instant worldwide sensation Wedneday, when she beat her nearest rival in the 800-meter race by 2.45 seconds. But many immediately questioned whether she was really a woman and she was asked to undergo a variety of complex gender tests. For many in South Africa, it quickly became another example of how Westerners attempt to minimize the achievements of a black African woman. But the request should have hardly surprised the 18-year-old, who has been teased about looking like a man since she was a little girl. "They're jealous of my daughter," her mother said. "It's the first girl in the black people doing such things. That's why they say those things."
Will this be the year that kills the A-list movie stars? Well, it's a trick question because the biggest movie star in the world—Will Smith—didn't open a movie this season. But so far, everyone below him hasn't fared too well, notes the NYT. Films starring the likes of Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Adam Sandler, and Tom Hanks, to name a few, have failed to deliver, giving more ammo to the studios' eternal quest to cut down on the $20 million paychecks. Needless to say, agents and actors are biting their fingernails and thinking up excuses. Now the question is whether Bradd Pitt will be the next to fall with Inglourious Basterds. "Stars will always be important," the chairman of Universal Pictures said, "but the industry is definitely seeing a transformation in their ability to open movies."