BOEING, BOEING, GONE: When the St. Louis area's second-largest private employer is facing a business deal in which 5,000 local jobs are at stake, it's a big story. And when the only daily newspaper in town, in covering the story, takes provincialism to new depths, it deserves some ink as well.
Told through dozens of stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this year was the saga of Boeing Co.'s attempts to sell 40 of its made-in-St. Louis F-15 Eagle jet fighters to Greece and another 30 to Israel, two deals totaling $5.5 billion in business for the Seattle-based company. Boeing employs 20,000 workers locally at its Military Aircraft and Missile Systems division (ne McDonnell Douglas Corp.), and 5,000 of them work on the F-15 line. This was clearly a jobs story, as the Post saw it, and Washington bureau reporters Phil Dine and Kyung M. Song stayed on top of it. The Missouri delegation's heavy hitters -- House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and U.S. Rep. Jim Talent among them -- acted virtually as paid lobbyists, holding meetings and press briefings, firing off letters, even traveling to Greece and Israel to hustle those nations' defense ministers in an effort to sell the hometown plane.
As the story evolved, the news went from bad to worse. By May 1, the Greeks had decided they fancied Lockheed Martin Corp.'s much cheaper F-16 version, and a few European planes as well, over Boeing's F-15. More hand-wringing and feverish lobbying ensued, and the P-D continued to report the politicians' "strong support" for Boeing. One story quoted, with a straight face, Boeing spokesman Tom Downey saying: "The delegation has served us well."
Last Thursday, the Israeli air force recommended that the defense minister pick Lockheed's F-16, citing that plane's $30 million price tag, over Boeing's $55 million F-15. The same day, Boeing announced it would lay off not 5,000 but 7,000 workers by 2001 ("Boeing Will Cut Up to 7,000 Jobs Here" screamed last Friday's front-page banner in the P-D). More teeth-gnashing was reported, and then the Missouri delegation came up with a novel idea: If the Greeks and the Israelis won't buy the damn planes, we'll get our own taxpayers to buy them! Bond and Ashcroft "said the key to saving the F-15 line is convincing the White House that the matter is so important that the Air Force should order planes until foreign buyers can be found," reported a straight-faced P-D. Never mind that the Air Force didn't want the plane. And in an amazing show of bipartisanship, "the Republican and Democratic House and Senate members from Missouri and Illinois gathered in the office of House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, along with Mike Sears, president of Boeing's (St. Louis division), to discuss how to save the F-15 line," the paper said.
By Saturday, the P-D was reporting that St. Louis County and Missouri officials were asking the feds for $5 million "to help match laid-off Boeing workers with new jobs." By this Tuesday, the paper had moved on to the "human interest" angle, profiling the woes of a laid-off worker and his family.
The price of provincialism is that journalistic myopia sets in. Consider what the P-D failed to see as part of the ongoing story:
* In light of the brazen hustling by the politicians on behalf of Boeing, was it not newsworthy to let readers know, by the way, just how much cash Boeing had plowed into their campaign coffers? For the record, Boeing (and McDonnell Douglas) have given the Republican Party $303,200 and the Democratic Party $225,800 since 1997, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. More specifically, here's what the Missourians got from Boeing (and McDonnell Douglas): Bond, who traveled to Greece and Israel to push the F-15 sale and tried to tack an F-15 Air Force purchase onto the Kosovo spending bill, has gotten $43,200 since '93; Gephardt, "the self-described 'biggest cheerleader' of the local aerospace industry" who went to Israel "to press for F-15 sales," according to the P-D, has gotten $18,000 since '95; Talent, "a member of the Armed Services Committee who fiercely defends Boeing's jet-fighter programs," has gotten $48,500 since '95. Not one Boeing story in the P-D this year raised the issue of campaign contributions, let alone mention the amounts.
* No P-D story this year reported on what Greece or Israel's purchase of F-15s -- or Lockheed's F-16s -- would do to the balance of power in those regions. Is Israel buying the planes because Saudi Arabia already has 77 of them, and would Israel's purchase make its neighbors buy more arms? If Greece bought the planes, would Turkey look the other way? And who's paying for Bond's and Gephardt's trips abroad to lobby for the F-15 sale -- Boeing or the taxpayers? Chris Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, says the big story is about foreign arms sales. Since the end of the Cold War, Hellman says, the defense industry has been downsized as a result of fewer orders from the U.S. military and "because of that, all defense contractors are looking for new markets." And, he says, "the government has actually become an active lobbyist for the U.S. defense industry overseas, trying to sell these planes and weapons. It's part and parcel of U.S. policy to promote military arms sales." But the U.S. doesn't much care for the consequences. "While they purport to take into account the effect that these sales are going to have on a regional basis, the reality is that they don't. And in the case of Israel and Saudi Arabia, one of the reasons they don't is that they arm both sides. Same again in Turkey and Greece."
* Hardly ever did the P-D quote critics of Boeing's plane or, conversely, any advocates of Lockheed's plane. Fourth, never the did the paper think of asking the lobbyist/politicians why, if they cared so much about layoffs, had they never pushed for federal money to retrain defense-industry workers to take civilian jobs.
Tim Poor, who, as national editor, has overseen the Washington-bureau coverage of the F-15 tale, says the paper has seen the story in recent months as primarily a story about the loss of jobs. "Certainly our focus has been the jobs, there's no doubt about that," says Poor. "As far as the news value of the story, that was the main thing to St. Louis." And he says the P-D routinely reports campaign donations but saw no reason to report them in the recent Boeing stories. Poor also says that perhaps it's time for the paper to look at the broader questions of why foreign governments want to buy the fighters and what such sales do to the particular regions of the world. "It hasn't been a question of 'Are they going to have fighters or are they not going to have fighters?' It's just 'Are they going to be Boeing or are they going to be Lockheed?'" says Poor, referring to the ongoing story. "And as far as the larger question, 'Do they need fighters at all?' -- I guess that's a good question -- and that's something that we should maybe get into." (SA)
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: Is money all that matters? Next question. On KSDK (Channel 5) Sunday night, Dan Gray did a "Cover Story" about college graduation that, per usual, didn't cover much of a story. Gray told how much a Washington University graduate with a four-year business degree would earn ($38,000) and how much an M.B.A. degreeholder would rake in ($91,300). There were a few quotes from graduates about how fast they found jobs, and "Chan Dan" William Danforth, the commencement speaker, was reduced to a sound bite: "You got a running start on the competition ... " Gray said parents are "willing to spend $120,000" on such an education. Nary a word was uttered about any other reason to go to college other than making big bucks. Of course, that might have added 30 seconds to the "Cover Story" and exceeded the viewers' gnatlike attention spans.... Tune in CNN or any similar national newscast on Saturday morning and there's usually talk, though not much, of what President Bill Clinton said in his weekly radio address. Often they use audio from the speech, with a mug shot of Wild Bill. To the uninitiated, the image might be that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a fireside chat with families huddled around the wireless. But FDR is dead, and there are many more attractive diversions for a Saturday morning than tuning in Slick Willie -- sleeping, for one. But say you're desperate. Where would you tune the dial? A call to the White House reveals that in the St. Louis metroplex, the only options are the 1,000 red-hot watts of KJFF (1400 AM) in Festus at 9:30 a.m. and its sister station, KREI (800 AM) in Farmington, at 10:25 a.m. In Illinois, only two stations in the whole state broadcast Billy, and they're both in Chicago. (DJW)
Contributors: Safir Ahmed, D.J. Wilson
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