Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Movies The final installment of the hugely popular Lord of the Rings series, The Return of the King, opens in theaters nationwide this week. The first two films, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, earned overall gross revenues of close to $1 billion each, and analysts are projecting that The Return of the King will match that and gain Oscar consideration for Best Picture. If the third film does keep pace with the first two, The Lord of the Rings will be the highest grossing movie project ever. New Line Cinema's investment in the trilogy: $540 million. (Cover story, page 18; review, page 21.)

Iraq war The Iraqi Governing Council last week announced the establishment of a special war-crimes tribunal that will look into atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The court's jurisdiction will extend back to 1968, when the party came to power, and will include investigations into attacks on the nation's Shiite and Kurdish populations. Several dozen of Saddam's top aides-currently being held by U.S. forces-could be tried under the new tribunal. "Today is an important historic event in the history of Iraq," said Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the current president of the council. Meanwhile, life for everyday Iraqis in Baghdad remains harsh, as unemployment, shortages, and crime persist. (Story, page 24.)

Iran An Iranian democracy activist last week became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Shirin Ebadi, Iran's first female judge, said the award "inspires me and millions of Iranians and nationals of Islamic states with the hope that our efforts, endeavors, and struggles toward the realization of human rights and the establishment of democracy ... enjoy the support, backing, and solidarity of international civil society."

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Supreme Court The high court last week upheld restrictions on political spending and political speech, ruling that Congress has the authority to limit "soft money" donations to political parties and to restrict political advertisements in the weeks leading up to an election. Both rulings were 5-4 decisions, with Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voting to uphold most provisions of the 2002 "McCain-Feingold" law. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy voted to strike down the provisions. (Justice Kennedy supported a ban on soft money if it applied only to federal elections.) The majority said the limitations on freedom of speech are acceptable because of a national interest in curbing real or perceived corruption.

SPORTS Dec. 7, 2003 is a date that will live in college football infamy. That was the day that the sport's Bowl Championship Series (BCS) denied a spot in its national championship game to Southern California, which sportswriters and coaches had picked as the nation's top team. The BCS formula for deciding its top two teams is as complicated as it is controversial: It takes into account the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and the ESPN/USA Today poll of coaches, plus computer rankings and measurements of schedule strength and "quality wins."

Oklahoma's four-touchdown loss to Kansas State on Dec. 6 left three major-conference teams with one loss: Oklahoma, Louisiana State, and Southern Cal. The two respected human polls picked Southern Cal and Louisiana State as the nation's top two teams. But the computers awarded spots in the Sugar Bowl (the site of this year's BCS championship game) to Oklahoma and Louisiana State. That leaves open the very real possibility of a split national championship. If Southern Cal defeats Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the AP Poll will almost certainly crown the Trojans national champions. But the Coaches Poll, by rule, must award its national championship this year to the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

The controversy has spurred talk of BCS reforms, but leaders of the major conferences made clear last week that a multi-team playoff will not be one of them. The lucrative bowl system likely will continue to make college football the only major sport that decides its champion not based on the field of play but rather in an Excel spreadsheet.

Health The worst outbreak of influenza in several years has hit several western states. Doctors in such cities as Denver and Houston said that emergency rooms are filling with flu patients, and federal health officials last week reported that at least 20 children have died of flu so far this year.

Vaccine makers produced 83 million doses of the flu vaccine this year, but some experts question whether the regular flu shot will work against this season's strain of the virus. Normally the flu vaccine is about 70 percent to 90 percent effective, but federal health officials are taking a wait-and-see approach this year. "We just have no good sense of how it will work in humans," said Scott Harper, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Biology is messy."

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