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New York Times, Saturday, February 20th, 2010: Our Life In A Front Page

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Once in a while, the front page of a newspaper happens to cohere into a juxtapositional commentary on where American life rests at a particular moment in time.

Looking at Saturday's New York Times, it struck me that this random collection of stories, each selected for its own newsworthiness, narrates a larger story that steps beyond the individual, smaller items; the front page as novelistic armature.

In a world where media content has become stripped of context - and is distributed, syndicated, pixilated and dismembered for a la carte consumption - this impressionistic canvas is instructive. As we consider the social losses that follow the slow demise of newspapers, our valedictory would be incomplete if we didn't consider this daily display - available for unconscious scanning and absorption - of the many-angled view of ourselves, this wounded cubist front page of ours.

February 20th, 2010 is a patchwork yet consistent picture of an America still in emotional negotiation over 9/11, a nation that is distrustful of authority, bubbling with internal rage, struggling with the limits of privacy, desperately trying to balance emotion and rationality, and in search of the American center. And curiously hopeful.

• "After 8 Years, F.B.I. Shuts Book On Anthrax Case."

The government may have closed the book on the anthrax attacks, but millions of Americans - and not just conspiratorial wing-nuts, just don't believe it. It's a measure of how much we mistrust the representations and pieties of officialdom; our cynicism is bi-partisan.

America is wired for this, of course, - our founding catechism, the Declaration of Independence, calls out "a long train of abuses and usurpation." We are still on high-alert for abuse, and the Internet and social media only serve as agents of prolongation, massaging our periods of doubt and response.

So if the F.B.I thinks they can close the door on the anthrax investigation, let me introduce them to the Warren Commission.

• "Research Ties Diabetes Drug To Heart Woes."

Another manifestation of our mistrust epidemic: Confidential government reports obtained by the New York Times say that GlaxoSmithKline drug Avandia should be whisked off the market. Indeed, if every Type 2 diabetic taking Avandia were given Actos (a competitive drug) instead, there would be 500 fewer heart attacks and 300 fewer cases of heart failure every month.

This story blazes with our fundamental mistrust of drug companies, as well as the ongoing health fallout of our obesity epidemic, which has led to the riotous growth of Type 2 diabetes. True cynics would say that Big Food is locked in some kind of unholy economic embrace with Big Pharma - the former's sugary baubles creating a pipeline of customers for the latter.

• "For Texas Pilot, Rage Simmered With Few Hints."

If Saturday's front page is a scenario out of Don DeLillio's paranoid America - mysterious anthrax attacks, torture-authorizing memoranda, people clutching their hearts and dying of FDA-approved drugs - then Charles Stack III flying his plane into the IRS building is just another plot turn.

Stack, by all measures, was a peaceful man without a hostile bone in is body. Till he exploded. It's tempting to say he is an amplified amanuensis for goblets of bottled rage out there. Tempting and largely accurate.

• "'Family Guy' Palin and the Limits of Laughter"

A one-liner about Sarah Palin on the "Family Guy" sitcom - delivered by an Andrea Fay Freidman, an actress who herself has Down's Syndrome has become - has triggered a firestorm.

Ms. Palin attacked the joke on her Facebook page as a horrible-taste, gratuitous jab at Trigg; Bristol has weighed in as well.

It's a pitch-perfect (or some would say, pitch-imperfect) example of today's cauldron-mix of politics, humor, entertainment, and the permissible boundaries of in-group self-deprecation as an expression of mainstreaming.

• "An Accidental Leader Stirs Hope in Nigeria."

Is it his name? President Goodluck Jonathan is an academic who became president of Nigeria a week ago; current President Umaru Yar'Adu has been sick in a Saudi Arabian hospital for three months and unable to govern.

As part of my front-page anatomization , this story speaks to the fundamental optimism of the American people - the one positive story in an aspic of asperity.

• "Report Faults 2 Who Wrote Terror Memos."

A final Justice Department report has determined that those who wrote these authorizing documents exhibited "flawed legal reasoning but were not guilty of misconduct."

This captures what for me is the majority spirit of Americans, as we still struggle with the historical and heuristic implications of September 11th.
We feel the need to acknowledge interrogations that violated our national ethics, but we also want to avoid lengthy prosecutions. Even the Times headline that scrupulously uses "Terror Memos" rather than "Torture Memos" reflects our ambiguity.

• "A Top Terrorism Prosecutor Turns Critic of Civilian Trials."

Andrew C. McCarthy was lead prosecutor 15 years ago, in the trial of the infamous blind sheik, who was accused of trying to blow up the United Nations, along with the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.

But McCarthy has changed his point-of-view. He now believes that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind (allegedly) of the 9/11 attacks, should not be tried in a civilian court.

The story captures the larger internal debate that simmers in American life - a mirror struggle to the torture debate. The contradictions burn through in a just-released CNN poll: 65% said that the Christmas-day bomber should have been read his Miranda Rights; but 59% want him tried in a military court. We live in the turmoil of a national brain.