Short Cuts

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."

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