Romney, Sully, Steve Jobs and The Boss

November 22, 2011

By Steven Brill

This is the first entry in a new regular column, “Stories I’d Like To See.” It’s the notebook of someone who still thinks like an editor but is over the thrill of managing a reporting staff – or the hassle of dealing with “great” story ideas that crash and burn when someone actually goes out and reports them and learns anew that even the best editors can’t hit much better than the best ballplayers (meaning three or four out of ten story ideas will actually work).

1. Mitt the philanthropist:

If the excellent New York Times story last month about Mitt Romney’s Mormon Church involvement is correct, he is required to tithe 10 percent of his income to the Church or church activities each year. This would amount to an enormous amount of money when he was running Bain Capital during its highly-successful years. It might even make him the most charitable person ever to run for President (or be President). Is this true? Or did he tithe 10 percent of his “taxable income,” which would have been a lot less, given all the deductions and favorable tax-rate-treatment available to a high-income private-equity earner?

2. Mitt the taxpayer:

On the other hand, this raises the issue of what percentage of his gross earnings Romney paid in taxes during his best years, or even last year, when presumably all of his earnings were capital gains and might also have been subject to all kinds of investment tax credit and other deductions. I know he hasn’t released his tax returns (yet), but can’t someone get access to Bain’s investor reports and an estimate of his gross income, and then extrapolate that into what he actually might have paid, given favorable tax treatment of capital gains and of carried interest payouts to private equity fund managers? Or, at least, can’t some pesky reporter simply pick Bain’s best two or three years when he was running it and ask Romney what percent of federal income tax he paid on his gross income?

3. Yankees’ empty seats:

During this year’s baseball season, as anyone who watched their games on television could readily see, many of Yankee Stadium’s prime seats, which once carried a price tag of $2,500 per game, went empty. Now, I hear the team is calling around to former box holders offering deals. Is this true? More broadly, three years into its run, how is the new Stadium doing financially? And, how are the Yankees doing financially? Are things being run differently since the death of George Steinbrenner? Can’t somebody find one of the Yankees’ limited partners to spill the beans?

4. Medical insurance trophy:

What’s the most medically-dubious but expensive procedure paid for by Medicare, and who lobbied for it? How much does it cost per year? Which bureaucrats make those decisions and do they go through the usual revolving door in and out of the companies whose products and services they evaluate?

5. Litigation system test:

As we approach the third anniversary of the successful crash-landing of a U.S. Airways jet into the Hudson River on January 15, I’d like to know if any of the passengers sued the airline or anyone else after pilot Sully Sullenberger’s heroic landing and his crew’s equally heroic evacuation of all the passengers. If ever there was a case where “victims” were the victims of bad luck but not negligence (except on the part of the birds that flew into the plane’s engines), this seems to be it. So, did anyone sue or threaten to sue to get the airline or the airport or someone else to pay for their bad luck? Or is this a case where litigious Americans and usually-ferocious air-crash accident plaintiffs’ lawyers all took a pass?

6. When good news is bad news:

I’ve lately been seeing stock analysts’ reports covering major defense contractors that have been awfully gloomy over the news that we are winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would love to see a story quoting a bunch of them spelling out – artfully or inartfully – how peace is bad news. And what are they saying about the chances of those Draconian defense cuts mandated by Monday’s failure of the supercommittee actually happening?

7. Gates’s real legacy:

Walter Isaacson’s vivid biography of Steve Jobs quotes Jobs dismissing Bill Gates as having created boring, pedestrian products, and for generally being a soul-less geek who would have been better off had he dropped acid at some point in his life. It’s fun to read this kind of smug dis of the world’s richest man. But there’s nothing soulless about Gates’s and his wife Melinda’s post-Microsoft life, running what is now the world’s richest and arguably most-effective foundation. I’d love to see a story taking us to a village in Africa where we can meet the children whom Gates’s fortune is protecting from malaria or dysentery, or to a classroom in Memphis where his money is priming the pump for effective school reform. Not as wondrous as watching Kim Kardashian work a smartphone, but pretty compelling stuff.

Reporter Alert: Don’t let the hyper-protective Gates Foundation PR department orchestrate this as a tour of the Gateses going through some village or sitting in a classroom smiling at their beneficiaries. Just show up, and get deep into the nitty-gritty of how they have not only been generous with their billions but also have been geekily efficient and relentless in diving personally into the details of making their programs work. I found in doing my recent book about the battle over fixing American public education that Bill and Melinda sweated the small stuff related to their education reform grants  – the same way Isaacson watched Jobs agonize over whether iPhones should have square or round corners.

Photos: Republican presidential candidate Romney serves sandwiches to supporters outside Jackie’s Diner in Nashua, New Hampshire. REUTERS/Brian Snyder. A section of premium seats can be seen empty in the New York Yankees stadium during an MLB baseball game against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium in New York. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

See one of these stories come to fruition? Have an idea of your own? Drop a note in the comments below.


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If Romney’s faith strictly compels him to tithe, even as President, does this religious-demand of material (money)constitute a violation of church and state? This issue seems different from, let’s say, an Orthodox Jewish non-work on Sabbath law, because there are always Jewish faith emergency loopholes. Non-work is non-material. A tithe is matrial and is also different from a charitable donation.

Posted by geesam47 | Report as abusive

The new Reuters column is a great idea; that is, if Mr. Brill proves to be a fair and balanced apolitical observer/inquirer rather than the poser that I suspect.

Posted by jca | Report as abusive

We’ll get right on that Gates story. We already did a little ditty about Jobs – – and are working on more.

Yankee seats? Breaking our hearts.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

Cripes. Already one of the first comments is a “fair and balanced” whine.

Do the current generation of conservative poseurs finally realize the educated world considers their allegiance to lousy standards and corrupt practices to be a fault – and they hope it will be overlooked by “balance”?

Facts are not political, they are not balanced. The results of greed and grasping aren’t restricted to a balance sheet clutched by an invisible CPA in the sky.


Go for it, Brill. This piece reads like you resent the distorted craft that passes for journalism, nowadays – distorted by investors and owners who consider a once-principled occupation to be nothing more than an addition to their entertainment portfolio.

Living up to the standards of a leading journalism school may not get you an easy job at MTV – but, long range, you get to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning with that historic hungry smile because you hope to be the first to uncover a bit of truth, today – instead of planking your butt before a computer and rewriting PR releases.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive