Back in the ’80s, I was the news editor of the paper in Wichita, Kansas.
Part of my job was deciding what went on the front page every day. I made a practice of checking the wire advisories on what the nation’s largest papers were putting on their pages the next day — particularly The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times — in part to make sure they weren’t sneaking into the paper some scoop that they had withheld from their own wire services, to which we subscribed. I got a few last-minute strong lead national and international stories that way.
Over time, I came to respect the judgment shown by The New York Times in terms of the relative play they gave to stories on their front page. As I studied the decisions they made day after day, I saw them making very smart calls that weren’t immediately obvious — you had to read through the stories and reflect on them, you could see subtleties of judgment that were impressive. L.A. was a little too Pacific Rim-oriented, and The Post was too obsessed with inside the Beltway, to give a really balanced sense of what was important and what wasn’t. This was particularly reflected in their choice of the lead story on the front page. You could rely upon it to be the most important development in the world, once you really thought about it.
So imagine my disappointment this morning, when I saw the Times lead with yet another story about the ongoing culture war over stem cell research, while a certain story out of Ireland was played on the opposite side of the page. (The Times has a very formal and traditional definition of "lead story." It is always the story in upper right-hand corner of the page.)
OK, maybe I’m just less interested in stem cells than most people. But to me, it’s a debate between people who believe (but cannot yet prove) that embryonic stem cells are the cure to everything but global warming, and people who believe (but cannot prove) that the moral imperative of respecting pending human life outweighs the potential health benefits of this research.
And, just like every fight we have over the Supreme Court (and to a great extent, over the presidency), all this really is is a surrogate fight over abortion. In other words, I don’t even believe the controversy is about what it purports to be about, which is largely why I just can’t get into it. Just another way Roe v. Wade has distorted American politics.
Not to mention the way politics distort serious issues. Read the Times story. See the way it’s cast — as yet another course correction by Bill Frist in his marathon quest for the presidency. That’s something I can wait at least another couple of years to start reading about.
Whereas what happened in Ireland was that the IRA…
The headline actually says,
"Vows to Disarm"
Isn’t this what we’ve been waiting for? Isn’t this the concession the lack of which has held up the peace process for the last several years?
I mean, how long has this been going on? Never mind the generation of terrorism that we call "the Troubles." Go back to the Easter Rising. Go back to Wolfe Tone and the Fenians. Go back to Cromwell and William of Orange.
Be skeptical of whether the IRA is serious or not; I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think it’s doubtful the Provos, or whatever the most radical republicans are calling themselves these days, will stand for it.
But Tony Blair’s excited about it. "This is a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland," he said. And as usual, I’m with Tony. This is a major, historic development that goes in the opposite direction of what’s happened in Ireland my entire life — in fact, the entire life of anyone still alive, for that matter.
And that’s just got to beat another skirmish of words in the culture wars. Doesn’t it?