Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

How would a woman “prove” rape to qualify for Romney’s abortion exemption?

Steven Brill
Aug 28, 2012 15:31 UTC

In the wake of the Todd Akin firestorm, Mitt Romney and a flip-flopping Paul Ryan have emphasized that their anti-choice stance excludes rape. In a Romney administration, abortions would be outlawed except in the case of women who have been raped, the Republican ticket has promised.

So here’s an idea, first suggested by my daughter and one of her friends: Who’s going to be the first reporter to ask Romney or Ryan how that would work? How would they implement that exception?

Would a woman’s rapist have to be convicted in court? How would that work, given that in most criminal cases it takes longer than nine months from when the crime is committed to catch the criminal (assuming the criminal is caught), prepare charges and reach a verdict. In fact, the window would be significantly less than nine months; it would start from when the pregnancy is discovered and end somewhere around the 16 to 20 weeks left during which abortions can be performed most safely.

Or would the exception be triggered just on the woman’s say-so? (Maybe that’s part of what the mentally challenged Akin was talking about when he referred to “legitimate” rape.)

Or would there be some kind of new quasi-judicial process falling somewhere between a full-fledged trial and a simple statement of victimization? Would each state have to set up a new tribunal to handle these “cases”? Who would be the judges or juries? What evidence would be admissible? Would there be an adversary engaged to challenge the woman’s claim and whatever evidence she offers? Who would that be? Could those challenges include references to her prior sexual history? Would there be criminal penalties for perjury? And, if as the Republican platform decrees, the outlawing of abortion should be implemented via a “human life” amendment to the Constitution, would Romney suggest that language defining rape and how it would qualify for the exception also be written into the Constitution? How would he craft language establishing that a fetus that is the product of rape is not a human life?

Fareed Zakaria’s “mistake”

Steven Brill
Aug 22, 2012 15:48 UTC

Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”

I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”

Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”

Questions for Ryan, working for welfare, updates on Olbermann and Facebook

Steven Brill
Aug 14, 2012 12:26 UTC

1.   Quick questions for Paul Ryan:

It’s too bad Bob Schieffer didn’t get to these questions for Paul Ryan on 60 Minutes last Sunday night:

Have you calculated how much the average American enrolled in Social Security would have lost in the 2008-2009 market collapse if he or she had been allowed to move those funds into private stock accounts, as your 2004 Social Security privatization plan would have encouraged? Does that change your view of whether we should move Social Security in that direction?

In his recent profile of you in the New Yorker Ryan Lizza says you were “embarrassed” by the Bush years and by the votes you cast in support of deficit-widening programs such as the extension of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Which votes, including that one, would you take back? And, more important, would you now urge a President Romney to move to repeal prescription drug coverage if you are elected?

Why is the Ford Foundation donating to Kaplan Education and Jerry Springer?

Steven Brill
Aug 7, 2012 12:54 UTC

It was widely reported last week that the Ford Foundation has given The Washington Post a $500,000 grant to hire four extra reporters for a year “to work on special projects related to money, politics and government,” according to a staff memo issued by the Post’s top editors. This followed a May announcement that the foundation had given a million dollars to the Los Angeles Times to expand coverage in areas ranging from local immigrant communities to the state prison system.

These reporting initiatives are worthy endeavors aimed at fortifying great newspapers whose profits have been savaged by the rise of the Internet. However, The Washington Post Co (though not the newspaper) is still quite profitable. The company reported operating income of $77.8 million in the first half of this year. In fact, the Post Co division that owns a group of local television stations is enjoying boom-time revenue this year because of the flood of 2012 political advertising; operating income in that unit increased 43 percent in the first half of this year over last year.

The Post Co also owns the Kaplan education business, and although Kaplan’s for-profit universities are suffering because of a government crackdown on abuses related to marketing and student loan commitments, its test preparation division has shown improved results.

Romney’s tax audit, Aurora and risk, inside the IRS

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2012 19:20 UTC

1. What happened with Romney’s audit?

On Sunday, Mitt Romney – while promising ABC he would “go back and check” to see if he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent in income taxes he reported paying in the only return he has released so far – volunteered that he had been audited in the past by the IRS. So, the next question needs to be, “Governor, when you were audited, did the IRS then require you to pay additional taxes, and, if so, would you specify the discrepancy between what you claimed and what the IRS determined was the appropriate tax? And was more than one year of returns audited? If so, what were the results of those other audits?”

2. Aurora and risk:

When I saw reports in the wake of the Aurora massacre that theater chains are thinking about how they might implement new security measures to restrict who can bring what into a theater, I was reminded of a story I read recently about what happened in the aftermath of a horrific air crash 16 years ago.

Most of us have only a dim memory of TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that exploded over the Atlantic shortly after leaving Kennedy Airport for Paris on the night of July 26, 1996.

Pinning Romney down on taxes

Steven Brill
Jul 19, 2012 21:23 UTC

The press is missing a trick in continuing to ask Governor Romney only whether he’s going to release more than his most recent tax returns. That allows him to say either yes or no (for now, it’s no), which produces no information. So no news gets made. But there are lots of other ways to get at the Romney tax issue by asking him a variety of different questions, for which even a refusal to comment would be news.

All these questions should begin with something like this: “Governor, we know you feel that releasing additional tax returns will invade your privacy and that of your family and, as you have asserted, allow the Obama campaign to pick through thousands of pages and come up with more distortions and half-truths. So if you are not going to release the returns, could you just tell us this:

Reporters could then choose from among these follow-on questions:

1. In the last 10 years have you ever paid less than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income in federal income taxes? If you don’t know offhand, could you ask your accountant to tell us? (On different days reporters could substitute 7 percent, 5 percent or 2 percent as the benchmark.)

Soaring college costs and the Penn State private plane

Steven Brill
Jul 17, 2012 12:41 UTC
1. How high are universities flying?

I was amazed to see this sentence in the piece the New York Times’s ever-amazing Jo Becker wrote last week about all the goodies outgoing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno negotiated in a new contract even as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was imploding around him: “He would also have the use of the university’s private plane…”

Penn State has a private plane? Sure, the school probably charters a jet when the team travels. But do the university executives have their own jet? How many other universities have perks like this?

As this article from Bloomberg.com documents, the relentless rise in higher education tuition and other costs has trapped students in debt from readily available student loans backed by us taxpayers. It is fast becoming a national scandal akin to the mortgage crisis. Which means we need some tough, fresh reporting finally holding university leaders accountable for spending and management efficiency.

Digging deeper on the effects of Obamacare

Steven Brill
Jul 10, 2012 12:54 UTC

Just because President Obama and his team have been pathetic when it comes to letting Americans know what’s in his healthcare reform law doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t be zeroing in on this huge, multifaceted story. The law is packed with changes – some of which have already taken effect but have barely been written about – whose ramifications range from likely upheavals in the advertising and marketing industries to an apparent lifeline for all Americans who are mystified or even tormented when dealing with their health insurers.

A marketing explosion

Let’s start with the business angles. As this article from Advertising Age points out, once various provisions of Obamacare take effect, key sectors of the healthcare industry, particularly hospitals and insurance companies, are going to have to become heavily engaged in consumer marketing and communications. In the last few years we’ve seen some hospitals use advertising to establish their brand, and, as I mentioned in this column in February, United HealthCare has been aggressively advertising to consumers.

All of these early efforts are about to be taken to a whole new level because of Obamacare – which requires that by 2014 everyone must buy health insurance and every state must have an exchange where consumers can go online and compare insurers’ offerings. This means not only that the market for health insurance is going to expand but also that much of it is likely to be sold directly to individual consumers rather than through an employer. Meantime, hospitals and doctors’ networks will want to advertise to have more leverage in negotiating with insurers to include them in the insurers’ networks.

A new narrative for Fast and Furious, ICANN’s domain name jackpot

Steven Brill
Jul 3, 2012 14:23 UTC

1. Fast and Furious zeroing in on Fortune’s different take:

Last week Fortune magazine published this surprising story that convincingly debunks the premise of the so-called Fast and Furious “gun walking” scandal that has enveloped the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Attorney General Eric Holder. Last week the controversy resulted in a contempt of Congress citation against Holder for not turning over documents about the case to a congressional committee chaired by Darrell Issa, the California Republican.

According to a ton of reporting done by Fortune’s Katherine Eban, including on-the-record interviews with many of the ATF agents involved and what Fortune says were more than 2,000 pages of explosive internal government emails and other documents, ATF agents did not deliberately allow American gun buyers working for Mexican drug cartels to “walk” assault rifles across the border to the drug gangs. Rather, the agents were carefully tracking the gun buyers and wanted to intercept and arrest them. They were stopped because prosecutors said that loopholes in gun record-keeping laws – loopholes that have long been protected by the gun rights advocates who are now leading the attack against ATF and Holder – and other constraints on ATF pushed by the gun lobby were such that prosecutors said the agents did not have enough probable cause to make the arrests.

In fact, according to Eban’s reporting, the one ATF agent who has been the key whistleblower and protagonist for Representative Issa’s charges that ATF deliberately let the drug cartels get the guns turns out to be the only agent who actually suggested that ATF do so in a separate case.

The tax man who could change the 2012 campaign

Steven Brill
Jun 26, 2012 13:00 UTC

1. The IRS bureaucrat who could upend the campaign finance money flow:

Here’s an idea for a story about an obscure government bureaucrat whose decisions could have a major impact on the 2012 elections and on the entire issue of campaign finance reform going forward.

As this article in Roll Call, the Washington weekly, reports, there is increasing controversy surrounding super PAC-like groups that fashion themselves as coming under the Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(4) classification as a “social welfare organization.” Under IRS rules, 501(c)(4)’s are not only tax-exempt but also don’t have to disclose their donors. This means that they can spend unlimited sums on political advertising – including corporate contributions, following the Citizens United decision – but unlike super PACs, they can do so while keeping the sources of the money completely secret.

That’s why many of the big super PACS, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads – which are simply non-profits that engage fully and unabashedly in political activity but must disclose donors – operate companion 501(c)(4)’s that can take undisclosed donations. In the case of Rove’s super PAC,  the companion 501(c)(4) is called Crossroads GPS.

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