Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The rebuff to Citi’s board, boxing’s decline, and GSA follow-ups

Steven Brill
Apr 24, 2012 12:52 UTC

1. Where is Citi’s board?

In the wake of the shareholders’ stunning 55 percent vote against the 2011 compensation packages approved by the Citigroup Board of Directors for CEO Vikram Pandit ($14.9 million) and other top executives, why hasn’t anyone put a microphone in front of Citi’s blue-chip board members – who include former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Rockefeller Foundation President and former University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, and former Stanford business school dean Robert Joss – asking them to explain their decisions? Although the shareholder vote (which came because a provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law required it) is only advisory, it was meant to encourage exactly that kind of accountability for decisions made by board members, who in this case earned $225,000 to $612,500 last year, depending on their committee assignments. So far it seems that only outgoing Citigroup Chairman (and former Time Warner CEO) Richard Parsons has been put on the spot by the press.

2. What happened to boxing?

The New York Times has recently been doing a series of jaw-dropping enterprise stories related to sports (such as this one about horse racing) written by reporters from the paper’s sports and other departments (in this case the investigations unit, I think). I happened to read one of them the same night last week that I was watching a rerun of one of the old Rocky movies, and that’s when it hit me: Why doesn’t a team from the Times or from another major news outlet tackle an epic sports story that is obvious to anyone who remembers Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson, and then tries to name the current heavyweight champion. (Is it one of the Klitschko brothers or someone else I wouldn’t recognize if he passed me on the street?) Why haven’t we read the definitive tale of “The Decline of Boxing”?

Sure, Muhammad Ali was, and is, one of a kind. And some could argue that future Philippine presidential contender Manny Pacquiao, and maybe Floyd Mayweather, have star power in the lower weight classes that compares to that of Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard. But there’s no doubt that boxing occupies nowhere near the center ring in American or world sports that it once did. There’s no Norman Mailer or David Remnick writing about boxers, no large swath of the population awaiting the next big match.

How come? What changed in our culture? What changed in the business of boxing? Did wars between competing boxing leagues with different titles to award shred the sport? Did advances like pay-per-view at home drain the drama and spectacle out of hundreds of thousands of people going to arenas to watch a closed-circuit video feed? Has the generation of celebrated trainers and promoters – fictionalized in the Rocky series but true to life in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – not been replaced? Was it lousy regulation of the sport, or overregulation? What can be done about it? Or should nothing be done, because it’s a dangerous, dehumanizing sport anyway?

3. What’s happening at the Peace Corps?

I recently had the chance to read a moving email that a family friend sent to his friends recounting how he and fellow Peace Corps volunteers had to leave Mali in an emergency evacuation following the recent coup there. “My heart is shattered,” he began, before describing the work he had done in a small village among people who lack the “opportunities that we take for granted in the West,” and then explaining how devastated he was to have to leave a country where “the coup completed the perfect storm, as it came in conjunction with a civil war that Mali has been fighting in the north.”

Cheney’s heart, CVS and privacy, and Wal-Mart’s guns

Steven Brill
Apr 17, 2012 13:11 UTC

1. Who gives out hearts?

In exploring whether former Vice-President Cheney might have received preferential treatment when he got a heart transplant recently, many of the reporters covering the story referred to what the New York Times called “a national system that tracks donors and recipients by medical criteria.” Two doctors were then quoted as saying, as one put it: “It is not possible to game the system.”

Fair enough, but who runs the system? Who sets the criteria, and who signs off on who has met the criteria? Who decides close calls? Is there a form that gets signed by a majority of some committee, or is there one king of hearts? And are actual names attached to the patients, so that whoever was making the decision could have seen that Vice-President Cheney was an applicant for the heart in question?

Because transplants are done urgently once a donor becomes available – often after his or her sudden death in an accident, when apparently there are only hours to spare before the heart is no longer viable – is there some kind of operations center, where these decisions are signed off on and coordinated? Can’t some reporter take us there and have us meet the people playing God?

Hoop academics, judging the GSA, Latin healthcare

Steven Brill
Apr 10, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. Hoop academics:

What’s one year of classes at the University of Kentucky really like for basketball stars?

Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Taylor Branch’s fabulous NCAA article in the Atlantic last fall entitled “The Shame of College Sports” and by Joe Nocera’s compelling Op-Ed columns in the New York Times arguing that the NCAA is all about money and nothing about education. And I admit I’m drafting this after watching the feel-good NCAA ads profiling the teams’ scholar-athletes during the March basketball tournament. But now that the Final Four have come and gone and we know that all five starters on the University of Kentucky’s winning team are quitting to join the NBA after just one or two years at school, I’m wondering what a reporter will find if he or she digs into the education these freshman and sophomores actually received.

What courses did they take? How rigorous were they? What do the players’ professors and fellow students have to say about their participation in class? Did the players do the work? Did they lag or excel?

Cable conflicts, BlackBerry’s demise and China’s millionaires

Steven Brill
Apr 3, 2012 12:49 UTC

1. Disclosure on cable news shows:

When talking heads come on the cable-TV news shows to support their causes and attack the opposition, are there any standards imposed by their host networks for disclosing conflicts of interest?

Here’s an excerpt from a statement put out by the conservative Koch Industries the week before last complaining about MSNBC:

On March 23, while guest hosting the Martin Bashir program, Karen Finney accused Koch of a connection with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Trayvon Martin matter. ”Who was the Typhoid Mary for this horrible outbreak,” Finney asked. She then stated, ”It’s the usual suspects the Koch brothers … the same people who stymied gun regulation at every point who funded and ghost write these laws.” Because we saw this dishonest story line developing and were concerned other extremists would pick it up, we put out a public statement the day before Ms. Finney’s rant explaining that this story line was totally false and irresponsible. First, Koch has had no involvement in this legislation … You should also be aware that on March 26, Ms. Finney signed and sent a letter on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soliciting political contributions. Yet, she is presented to viewers as a “political analyst” and not as a paid fundraising operative for the Democratic party, as would be accurate.

Hooked on drug ads, education collision in Hawaii, and the gas frenzy

Steven Brill
Mar 27, 2012 12:53 UTC

1. Are Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Brian Williams hooked on Cymbalta?

Every time I suffer through the (simultaneously timed) commercial breaks on one of the network evening news shows I wish I could read a story about prescription drug advertising on television. I’ll bet these ads now account for two-thirds or more of revenues for the network news shows, whose viewer demographics are apparently perfect targets for drugs directed at older people with erectile dysfunction, withering bones, dry eyes, insomnia, lung malfunction (as illustrated by an elephant sitting on some guy’s chest), incontinence, and whatever it is that is cured by something called Cymbalta, whose ads I think I saw on all three shows the other night.

To what extent does the federal government’s decision to allow, beginning in the mid-1990s, such direct-to-consumer ads keep these once-revered nightly news shows afloat? (A sidebar should also cover how these ads boost the economics of struggling magazines, in large part because the rules require a page of small print detail about dosage and side effects following the glitzy image ad.) At a time when healthcare costs are a national crisis, does the American policy of allowing these ads, which most countries prohibit, create unnecessary demand and needless expense? Or do they give patients important information? Does telling me I might have a disease that I had never heard of help me address a malady before it gets worse, or does it make me a prescription-guzzling hypochondriac? How does the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such advertising, evaluate all that, and what kind of lobbying do the networks and drug companies do to influence that debate? Or is there no longer a debate?

And what are the rules governing the hilarious recitations of possible side effects? How fast is the announcer allowed to breeze through describing the risk of suicide, hives, sleepwalking, backache, swelling of the tongue, depression, migraines, miscarriage or four-day (or is it four-hour?) erections?

Examining the insanity defense, MSNBC’s weekend sleaze, and suing OPEC

Steven Brill
Mar 20, 2012 12:48 UTC

1. The Afghan massacre and the insanity defense:

Beginning late last week we began to see the outlines of a possible defense for Robert Bales, the army sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month: insanity or diminished capacity. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” a “senior American official” told the New York Times. So, it’s time for a general review of the tough-to-pull-off insanity or diminished capacity defenses, along with a focus on the even higher hurdles involved in using either in a court-martial. (An insanity defense is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; diminished capacity means the defendant does not contest guilt but seeks to be convicted of a lesser offense or get a more lenient sentence.) That story should also tell us how much Bales’s defense lawyer might be able to turn the case into a trial over increasingly controversial Pentagon policies related to multiple redeployments, the treatment of traumatic head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Good sidebars would tell us whether Afghanistan, whose Parliament is still demanding that Bales be tried in Afghan courts, even allows an insanity defense, and how open the trial is likely to be, including to cameras.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the insanity defense that was keyed to the case of John Hinckley, whose lawyers used it successfully after he tried to kill President Reagan. It presents a fascinating legal dilemma, which in its oversimplified version is: The more outrageous your crime, the better your argument that you had to be insane to do it, but the more likely it is that jurors will be so angry that they’ll want to hang you for it anyway.

2. The numbers behind MSNBC’s weekend sleaze-fests:

Can one of the media trade publications or a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Reuters media reporter please do a story explaining why it makes sense for MSNBC to do a series of sleazy shows — Lockup, Sex Slaves, Caught on Camera — during the evening and in prime time on weekends? Last Saturday night, while CNN was doing a riveting, important report entitled, 72 Hours Under Fire, about the massacre of dissidents in Syria as witnessed by its gutsy reporting team, MSNBC was broadcasting Lockup: Boston, one of its stable of Lockup shows depicting life inside prisons that has all the journalistic value of rubbernecking at a car accident.

Afghan justice, Putin’s palace, and the Edwards trial

Steven Brill
Mar 13, 2012 12:57 UTC

1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:

With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.

2. Putin’s billion-dollar palace?

Check out these two sentences embedded in a recent New York Times story about how various cronies of Russian prime minister and now president-elect Vladimir Putin have all become billionaires:

A hidden Gulf economy, Romney’s old taxes, and patent wars

Steven Brill
Mar 6, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. An underground economy in the Gulf?

I was interested to read these paragraphs in a recent New York Times story about the processing of claims being made by victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; pay special attention to the part I have underlined:

Glenn Poche, a shrimper, said he had lost 90 percent of his retail business. Despite official assurances that seafood pulled from the Gulf of Mexico is safe, many of his customers “want to wait a couple more years” to be sure….

Diane Poche, Glenn Poche’s wife, said she had received $30,000 from the fund — “just a little drop in the bucket of what we’ve lost” — but her claims for more had been refused, she said, her voice rising. “I sent in paperwork over two inches thick!”

Super PAC cash, immigration rules, and Businessweek’s revival

Steven Brill
Feb 28, 2012 13:57 UTC

1. The business of super PACs:

With super PACS having altered the dynamics of federal campaigns, it’s time for a look at how they’ve changed the fortunes of political consultants, pollsters and others who feed off of campaign money. With the cash flow this Republican primary season shifting from political organizations run by the candidate to independent — or at least ostensibly independent — entities, giving them much more money than the campaigns themselves, has the talent followed the dollars? Wouldn’t pollsters or ad-makers rather work for an organization with $100 million to spend than one with $10 million? And how do the people who run these super PACs get paid? How do the IRS rules governing the finances of non-profit entities apply to super PACs? Can someone like Karl Rove take a cut of the tens of millions he’s raised and dispensed for America’s Crossroads the way private equity funds take management fees? Who decides how much Rove or other super PAC executives or staffers make? Articles like the one in Sunday’s New York Times have pointed out the overlaps among staffers. So who ferrets out conflicts if, for example, someone running a super PAC steers business to his or her ad agency or consulting or polling firm?

2. Rick Santorum’s father and a Mexican laborer: A tale of two immigrants

I doubt that I’m the only one who doesn’t know the basics of America’s immigration laws and rules, despite the fact they have become a staple of current political debate. For example, whenever I hear Rick Santorum talk about how his father, Aldo, was an immigrant from Italy who came to the United States in 1930, I wonder if he came in legally and, if so, under what rules. I assume Aldo Santorum couldn’t simply pick up and come here today from Italy, right? (I wondered the same thing about Rudy Giuliani when he ran for president in 2008.)

My curiosity was piqued by a recent editorial in the Washington Post that took President Obama and all of his would-be Republican opponents to task for saying that illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line” in applying for citizenship. In fact, the Post pointed out, when it comes to most illegal immigrants, there is no line — and no possibility of applying for citizenship. As the Post explained, “a large majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants are unskilled or low-skilled Mexicans [who] have no relatives over age 18 who are either U.S. citizens or permanent residents in possession of green cards,” and that would make them ineligible for visas, let alone citizenship status.

Scoring healthcare insurers and getting campaign spending right

Steven Brill
Feb 21, 2012 13:53 UTC

1. When health insurers say no:

Like probably every other family in America, ours regularly has claims we submit to our health insurer rejected — with little or no explanation and no recourse from the company’s always-on-hold telephone hot line. Yet lately I’ve been seeing ads from health insurers projecting friendly, caring images. My favorite is the television and print campaign from United HealthCare featuring a girl who develops asthma but is shown swimming and even surfing because United, which sells insurance under the Oxford and other brands, has gotten her “specialists, lots of doctors, lots of advice…that help her pediatrician coordinate your child’s care and make sure all doctors are on the same page….” The ad trumpets United’s “more than 78,000 people looking out for 70 million Americans. That’s HEALTH IN NUMBERS,” the ad concludes.

Speaking of numbers, what percentage of customer claims for medical care or prescription drugs does United HealthCare reject? How does that compare with its competitors? Why can’t some reporters ask?

A cursory search on Google turns up little more than a 2009 Huffington Post piece reporting that: “Data on how often insurance claims are denied — and for what reasons — is collected and analyzed by the insurance companies themselves. But except in California, the companies aren’t required to provide those records to any state or federal agency.” The article quotes Karen Pollitz, a professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, as saying: “The number is knowable, but not known by regulators or policy makers or patients.”

  •