Writing Around the Big Story

Tough time to be a weekly news magazine. The latest edition is put to bed over the weekend. Yet the biggest news story of the year is about to break — and maybe even be wrapped up — just as that issue hits the mailboxes of millions of readers across America.

How do you tap-dance around those logistical hurdles?

The cover of Time magazine ignores the election, choosing to celebrate the Red Sox victory (“The Joy of Sox” is a headline we hope to never see again, and it has nothing to do with our baseball allegiances). Inside, however, reporter Josh Tyrangiel examines the political implications of the missing munitions in Iraq.

The saga of what exactly happened to the explosives at the al-Qaqaa facility, followed by the airing of a fresh Osama bin Laden videotape … cast into high relief a central question of the election: Which candidate can we trust to make us safer?

While both candidates tried to put the best face on the discovery, writes Tyrangiel, “the trouble is, of the facts that are known, few are on the president’s side.”

Foreign affairs receive top billing at Newsweek which devotes its cover story to a look at the build-up of U.S. troops for an assault on Fallujah and Ramadi. Reporters Rod Nordland, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Michael Hirsh write:

And so the bloody battles of the Iraq war — which never quite ended — are about to start up again in full force. Much depends on the new offensive. If it succeeds, it could mark a turning point toward Iraqi security and stability. If it fails, then the American president will find himself in a deepening quagmire on Inauguration Day.

For months the American people have heard, from one side, promises to “stay the course” in Iraq (George W. Bush); and from the other side, equally vague plans for gradual withdrawal (John Kerry). Both plans depend heavily on building significant Iraqi forces to take over security. But the truth is, neither party is fully reckoning with the reality of Iraq — which is that the insurgents, by most accounts, are winning. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who stays in touch with the Joint Chiefs, has acknowledged this privately to friends in recent weeks …

Angie Cannon of U.S. News & World Report takes a look at the law that was intended to make 2004’s election a piece of cake. Instead, writes Cannon, the Help America Vote Act may have exactly the opposite effect. Consider the matter of provisional ballots:

[C]ritics say the vagueness of the federal law has opened the door to disputes. The law says that voters must receive provisional ballots if they say they are registered in the “jurisdiction” where they want to vote but their name “does not appear on the official list of eligible voters for the polling place.” States have interpreted this differently: Seventeen states intend to count provisional ballots cast by voters in the wrong precinct. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia won’t count provisional ballots if they are cast in the wrong precinct. Democrats have mostly interpreted “jurisdiction” broadly; Republicans read it as the proper home precinct. But the differing interpretations have resulted in a torrent of lawsuits over the course of recent weeks.

U.S. News’ Roger Simon wraps his election essay with this advice: “It is time to wrestle with the better angels of our nature. It is time to examine the candidates, their issues, their pasts, their promises. Give it thought. Make an informed choice. And take comfort in the immortal words of Adlai Stevenson, who said, ‘In America, anyone can become president. It’s one of the risks you take.’” (We like that line.)

Regardless of the outcome, The Nation is calling for reforms to the problem-filled electoral process (subscription required):

The first problem is unequal protection: America has no uniform standard for registering voters, resolving challenges to those registrations, designing ballots, guaranteeing access to the polls, creating a paper trail when votes are cast, counting ballots and, in the case of a close election, recounting them. Instead, there is a collection of fifty-one different systems with often radically different rules. “It’s a tragedy in many ways that the standard for accountability and integrity and objectivity is better in many Third World countries than in ours,” says former President Jimmy Carter, who explains that the Carter Center, which monitors elections around the world, could not do so in the United States because of a lack of consistent standards and a lack of commitment on the part of both major parties to cooperate with the monitoring process.

And finally, The Economist is out, with a lukewarm endorsement of John Kerry, under the withering headline “The Incompetent Versus the Incoherent.” Those Brits … we wish they’d just tell us how they feel for once.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.