Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The Russian sanctions information gap

Steven Brill
Jul 29, 2014 05:00 UTC

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine — all important stories — there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

The Shell logo is seen on a pump at a Shell petrol station in LondonWhy haven’t the Dutch simply shut down all business with Russia? Why are there still nonstop flights between Moscow and Amsterdam such as this one, every day?

I’ve read references  to the fact that the Netherland’s largest company — oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, a Dutch-British corporation — has multibillion-dollar assets and operations in Russia that could be threatened by sanctions. But that’s not enough.

The facts on Iron Dome, suing over Flight 17 and reviving the VA

Steven Brill
Jul 22, 2014 05:00 UTC

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod

1. Figuring out the Iron Dome:

As I kept reading and seeing television reports last week about how the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing such a good job protecting Israel from Hamas’ rockets, this intriguing story by the highly regarded veteran journalist James Fallows appeared on the Atlantic website.

Fallows points to other reports suggesting that the system’s success might have been greatly exaggerated and, in fact, that in the midst of war, reporters – he singles out this Washington Post story — often get seduced by military officials and weapons makers into overstating how effective some new piece of weaponry has been.

So, there is obviously a lot more work to be done here figuring out just how good the Iron Dome really is.

Google’s lost links, U.S. border crossing guards and when a Tea Party loss is a win

Steven Brill
Jul 15, 2014 05:00 UTC

A Google search page is seen through a magnifying glass in this photo illustration taken in Brussels

1. Google’s dilemma:

Writing in the Guardian last week, Google general counsel David Drummond described the trouble the European unit of his company is having trying to implement a European Union court’s decision that the search giant must eliminate links to certain web articles or postings about people that these people claim are unduly embarrassing.

The European court’s “right to be forgotten decision,” Drummond wrote, “found that people have the right to ask for information to be removed from search results that include their names if it is ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.’ In deciding what to remove, search engines must also have regard to the public interest.

David Drummond, senior vice president of Google, attends the eG8 forum in Paris“These are, of course, very vague and subjective tests,” Drummond concluded.

How much is contraception coverage and costly violations for BNP Paribas

Steven Brill
Jul 8, 2014 05:00 UTC

justices

1. Does health insurance covering contraception actually cost anything?

In this article about a renewed fight at the U.S. Supreme Court just days after its decision about whether the owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain had to buy insurance covering certain forms of contraception, the New York Times’ ace court reporter Adam Liptak wrote:

The majority opinion there, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seemed to suggest that the forms could play a role in an arrangement that was an acceptable alternative to having employers pay for the coverage. Under the arrangement, insurance companies that receive the forms pay for the coverage on the theory that it costs no more to provide contraception than to pay for pregnancies.

Read the sentence I put in italics.

Obamacare was only passed after President Barack Obama and the bill’s lead sponsors in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed to a compromise to assuage religious groups opposed to contraception.

A Clinton alternative, more ABC legal woes and where’s A-Rod?

Steven Brill
Jun 24, 2014 05:00 UTC

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in "A Conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton" in Manhattan, New York1. The Hillary alternatives:

Can it really be such a certainty that Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 that the media is taking the right approach in essentially ignoring other possible Democratic candidates?

In any other situation we would be seeing profiles of a half dozen or more alternatives. But not now. Yet there has to be some possibility that the former secretary of state will opt not to run and some possibility that, for a variety of reasons, she will not win the primary contest.

One reason Clinton might not be inevitable is that inevitable often doesn’t sell well. Besides, someone could emerge who Democratic primary voters decide is a better, fresher face. Which is why we should start seeing stories about those alternatives.

Whither Cantor and setting the price on a cure

Steven Brill
Jun 17, 2014 06:00 UTC

U.S. House Majority Leader Cantor gestures as he talks about his defeat in his Virginia Republican primary election during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

1. An Eric Cantor sweepstakes:

Who’s going to hire the soon-to-be unemployed but highly marketable Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va.)?

He’s got a law degree, a world-class Washington Rolodex and the kind of visibility that should make him a client magnet for K Street’s law firms and lobbying and public policy shops.

Or will he go to a think tank? That path might be more complicated because the most likely home for a conservative heavyweight, the Heritage Foundation, seems to have veered so far right that it might be awkward to welcome a guy just beaten by a candidate who attacked him from the right.

More questions for Snowden and the GOP establishment takes on the 2016 primaries

Steven Brill
Jun 3, 2014 05:00 UTC

Accused government whistleblower Snowden is seen on a screen as he speaks via videoconference with members of the Committee on legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

1. Snowden questions NBC missed:

In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last week, Edward Snowden tried to bolster his credentials this way: “I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word — in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job … and even being assigned a name that was not mine …. Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, he’s a low-level analyst.’”

In that segment — and as best I can tell from watching what I think were all the segments of Brian Williams’ interview — three words never came up: Booz Allen Hamilton.

Booz Allen Hamilton is the government contractor that Snowden supposedly worked for. As Talking Points Memo reported a year ago in this article, in the video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world following publication of his initial leaks, he said: “My name is Ed Snowden, I’m 29 years old, I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for [the] NSA, in Hawaii.”

A follow-up on Dasani, fitting Credit Suisse punishments, when Hollywood meets Beijing

Steven Brill
May 28, 2014 05:00 UTC

credit suisse

1. What happened to Dasani?

Remember Dasani Coates?

She’s the homeless Brooklyn girl whose plight the New York Times’ Andrea Elliott chronicled in a moving series of Times features last December. The last we heard about Dasani in the Times was this February 21 follow-up by Elliott and Rebecca R. Ruiz. They reported that New York City officials had decided to move 400 families, including Dasani’s, out of the squalid shelter where she had been living and into rent-supported apartments.

What’s happened since? One would think that with all the attention Dasani received — much of it focused on how intelligent, articulate and determined she was in the face of unspeakable adversity — that she might have been recruited by now into a prestige private school or otherwise showered with attention and even donations that would have dramatically improved her circumstances.

Is that true? What about her parents and siblings? And what about the trust fund established for the family following Elliott’s series?

How to answer the Jill Abramson equal pay question

Steven Brill
May 16, 2014 18:57 UTC

abramson

With the firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson last week, a dispute broke out over whether her ouster by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had anything to do with a complaint she reportedly made to Times executives that she had not been paid the same as Bill Keller, the man she succeeded.

Disclosure: Abramson is a good friend, so I have a favorite in this dispute. But I do know a way to figure it out objectively — with some simple reporting by a competent business reporter. The result would be a story that I’m sure many people would like to see.

The New Yorker’s longtime media writer Ken Auletta reported in two web dispatches (here and here) this week that, shortly before her firing, Abramson had complained to Times executives — and even hired a lawyer to discuss the complaint for her – about her compensation. She reportedly discovered that her salary in 2013 (and through this year) was significantly less than Keller made during his last year on the job in 2010 — $503,000 for Abramson in 2013/2014 and $559,000 for Keller in 2010.

Streamlining the Postal Service, when a merger fails and ‘Who lost Ukraine?’

Steven Brill
May 13, 2014 05:00 UTC

U.S. postal service trucks sit parked at the post office in Del Mar, California

This piece has been updated with a postscript at the end.

1. Postal Service blues:

Last week’s report that the U.S. Postal Service lost another $1.9 billion in the last financial quarter made me yearn for a story detailing the cost constraints afflicting this largest and most hidebound of government services. Everything from union restrictions, to legacy pension obligations, to congressional pressure that keeps even the smallest rural post office not only open but open on Saturdays, to lobbyist strong-arming that keeps the service from using its 32,000 retail footprints to offer other services.

Here’s the way for a reporter to write this: Completely reimagine the Postal Service by supposing it was sold to a private company. In fact, suppose the uber-opposite of a government agency — Amazon — bought it.

What would the real estate be worth if a more efficient company, freed from congressional oversight, bought the agency and slimmed down its holdings, cashing in on some of the premium properties scattered through every town, while using those that remain to offer all kinds of additional retail services?

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