The New York Times becomes a video force

By Steven Brill
December 6, 2011

The opinions expressed are his own.

1. The New York Times Goes Video:

Three different story ideas are prompted by the hours of interviews former Penn State assistant football coach and accused child molester Jerry Sandusky gave to the New York Times’ Jo Becker that resulted in a front-page Times story on Saturday.

First, by Saturday night I was seeing video clips of Becker’s interview on NBC, which credited the Times. This means Becker, a highly-regarded, hard-nosed print reporter, brought a video crew with her to make her Times report a multimedia event – which it was, with great impact, on the Times’ website. This left NBC’s Michael Isikoff, himself a print refuge from Newsweek, narrating a story on the Evening News on Saturday night using audio from Becker’s interview and the Times’ branded video package.

This, in itself, is a big media story. The Times‘ website, which now charges non-subscribers and is attracting hundreds of thousands of paying customers, is becoming an increasingly robust 24/7 multimedia platform. What are the prospects of the Times dispatching video crews more regularly to tape important on-the-record interviews? How will that change the reporter’s interview style and methods? (It sure would change mine, because it shifts the atmosphere and rhythm of an interview.) How might this affect the media chase to corral hard-to-get, high-profile figures for interviews? Might some feel better making their TV debut with a Times reporter than a conventional TV reporter? Leaving aside questions about their decision to talk to the press at all, it could be that Sandusky and his lawyer believed that by agreeing to this forum, they were minimizing the dangers of “gotcha” questions or of having sound bites taken out of context.

The Times report on the website was a strange mix of audio/video and audio-only. In some places, we saw and heard Sandusky, but more often we only saw still pictures of Sandusky and Becker while we listened to them. This suggests that the Times and reporters like Becker are still getting their feet wet in multimedia while they iron out issues such as limited budgets (this was clearly a one-camera shot) and interview ground rules. Nonetheless, this multimedia scoop for the paper of record is a transcendent media story.

Second, I’d like to read a story about Sandusky’s lawyer, at whose home the interview was conducted. Why does he think this interview, considered by most defense lawyers to be suicidal in advance of a trial, made sense? What other big cases has he done? Is this his usual approach to publicity? How has it worked in the past? Or is this his first big time case?

Third, someone ought to write a thoughtful piece about how in cases like these, defense lawyers have a conflict of interest with their own clients. Publicity and interviews always help them, but usually hurt their clients. And when defense lawyers give background interviews (and most of them do),  the more the lawyer tells a reporter what bad straits his client is in, the better the defense lawyer looks. Trust me, it happens all the time.

2. Hospitals and Madison Avenue:

Why do I keep seeing all those clever ads for hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic, Mt. Sinai, or Hackensack University? If hospitals are non-profits, what are the economics behind these ads? Is there something more than institutional egos at work here? Maybe the ads are pitched to reel in high-profit patients whose bills help pay for the hospital’s unprofitable work. If so, what are those high-profit services and what makes them so profitable? Or do the high-profit patients help support higher incomes for certain doctors who pressure the hospitals to buy the ads? All in all, this could be a good window into the governance and economics of the most important institutions in the industrial sector whose runaway costs continue to threaten our economic security.

3. College Financial Follies:

We keep reading about how college tuitions continually rise far faster than inflation. How about a look at the basics of higher education management, and nailing the schools that seem to care the least about fiscal responsibility? For example, a national news outlet could look at the annual financial reports filed by each Ivy League university (every non-profit has to file this IRS “form 990,” and it’s a public document) and figure out who spends the most per student on basic management and administrative costs. (In other words, leave out factors such as faculty salaries.)  Then look at some potentially juicy line items, such as travel expenses, communications, or faculty salary increases year over year.

From there, go deeper: How many dollars per hour of classroom teaching are faculty members paid? How has that changed over the years? Who seems to be wasting the most money on lawyers or consultants. Local news organizations could do the same with hometown schools. (Who’s running the tightest ship: MIT, Harvard or BU; Columbia or NYU; University of Arizona or Arizona State?) Finally, have a look at which schools within the university have become the cash cows for the rest of the University by charging students far beyond what it costs to educate them. (I bet the major culprits will be education and law schools.)

4. Is Holder on hold?

Other than coverage of his role or non-role in the debacle in which federal agents were found to have given guns to drug runners as part of a border sting operation, and a piece I recently saw about him in the Daily Beast quoting congressional critics attacking him for an alleged five-day, taxpayer funded “junket” in the Caribbean, I haven’t heard or seen much about Attorney General Eric Holder lately. He’s got the third most important cabinet seat in Washington. But an item I noticed a few months ago about him speaking at a convocation at a small private school in New Haven made me wonder, perhaps unfairly, just how much of a player he is. It seems time for a profile of Holder and a report card on his tenure.

On a related subject, there’s been a new White House Counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, since June. Except for being mentioned in stories about Congress seeking White House documents related to the Solyndra loan, I don’t remember reading anything about her. As the President’s chief lawyer–responsible for everything from picking federal judges, to dealing with Congressional subpoenas, to coordinating legal strategy and policy on everything from the war on terror to defending Obamacare–she may have one of the highest ratios of Washington power to visibility.

PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attends a joint news conference at the Interior ministry in Paris December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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