On Monday, August 18, the day that the New York Times jacked up the price of its daily edition from $1.25 to $1.50, I shelled out the cash for the grey old lady of American journalism to see which, if any, of my nominations for irrepressible news stories of the year would be contained in its pages.
I have four of these stories in mind — four stories that I am sure we have not yet heard the end of, even though many of us have heard about them ad nauseum. A perceptive Interchange column by Richard Lee of the Trenton-based Hall Institute on page 4 of this issue helps explain why the media functions like a wolfpack when it captures the scent of certain subjects. Here are four carcasses that the wolves have sunk their teeth into — including a few with Princeton connections.
The case against Bruce Ivins. We haven’t heard much recently about the FBI’s decision to close the anthrax investigation and lay the blame solely at the hands of Ivins, the 62-year-old bio-researcher who worked with anthrax at the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland. Ivins committed suicide on July 29, as the FBI was preparing to make an arrest.
So what was the overwhelming case against Ivins? The DNA, or so it seems. The FBI claimed to have used new scientific techniques to determine that the DNA of the anthrax in the attacks was the same as the anthrax under Ivins’s control at the military lab. (Never mind that samples of the anthrax were brought into Ivins’ lab after the attack by the FBI, which enlisted the help of Ivins in attempting to analyze it.)
Beyond that were other, supposedly damning pieces of circumstantial evidence. Ivins kept late hours at the lab before and after the attacks and couldn’t offer a satisfactory explanation of why. Ivins had a research ax to grind — his research focus was on developing a better vaccine for anthrax.
And then the Princeton connection: One of the anthrax-laced letters was mailed from a postal box on Nassau Street, at the corner of Bank Street and just a few feet from 20 Nassau Street, where the Princeton chapter of the Kappa Kappa Gamma college sorority has an office. And the importance of that? The women of Kappa Kappa Gamma, FBI officials stated, were an obsession of Ivins ever since his college days at the University of Cincinnati, from which he graduated in 1968.
So the implication was that Ivins figured that a trip to Princeton would kill two birds with one stone — he could drop some anthrax in the mail and he could stalk a few college sorority girls. Hmmm. But how about another Princeton connection? Maybe Ivins dropped the anthrax into the box across the street from the college campus in order to put Princeton University into the hot spot — payback for him not going to Princeton to follow in the footsteps of his father, Class of 1928. I have no idea if Ivins even applied to his father’s alma mater but you can bet the wolfpack is pursuing every morsel of this story.
John Edwards’ affair and its coverup. Edwards’ career may be over, but this distasteful story, which preempted the anthrax story from the news parade, isn’t over yet — not by a long shot, I predict. (In fact, this newly minted $1.50 edition of the New York Times has yet another follow-up to the Edwards story.) This combination of story lines — “who’s your daddy” and “who paid whom how much” — is a tasty combo for the wolfpack.
In his piece on page 4 Richard Lee actually sees some benefits to this kind of reporting, and I will add one more to Lee’s list. The wolfpack keeps the blackmailers out of business.
Obama and the race issue. John McCain is above such politics — he has said so directly — but count on race to bubble up to the surface on several occasions during the course of the campaign. As the Sunday New York Times Magazine suggested on August 10, there is even a division between old line black politicians, including those of the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, and the new guard such as Obama and others who want to be seen as leaders, not just black leaders.
And I wouldn’t be surprised to see another surfacing of Michelle Obama’s 1985 senior thesis from Princeton, now fully available online. Since it was based on an 18-question survey she had sent to 400 black alumni of Princeton (89 responded), her sociology department thesis is packed with all sorts of observations, not necessarily her own. It may still offer some chow for the wolfpack.
McCain and the age issue. Barack Obama is above such politics, of course, but count on ageism to bubble up the first time McCain misspeaks in a presidential debate.
Of course he can point out that his mother is 96, and he can reprise Reagan’s old line to Walter Mondale in a 1984 Presidential debate: Said Reagan in mock solemnity: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But let McCain make one mental error, suffer one bad cold, or take one little fall on a slippery staircase, and watch the pack move in. Even at $1.50, ringside tickets are still a bargain.