Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Amazon’s price increase, Congressional whistleblowers, and a question for President Obama

Steven Brill
Mar 18, 2014 04:34 UTC

1. Are customers really upset at the Amazon Prime price increase?

The day after Amazon raised the annual subscription price for its Prime service from $79 to $99, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Complaints As Amazon Raises Cost of Prime.” I found the reporting lacking and the headline unfair.

I imagine if I were reporting the story, I could find people to quote grousing about the 25 percent increase. Indeed, Times reporter David Streitfeld did it the easy way, going on Amazon’s own customer comments page.

But everyone I’ve talked to who subscribes to Prime — membership not only delivers everything from a book to a flat-screen TV to your doorstep for free, but also provides free movies and TV shows and a free book-lending library — thinks it is a hard-to-believe bargain at $99 or $79. (One happy customer in my office thought the price had gone from $179 to $199.)

Moreover, Amazon’s notice to customers — noting that the price hasn’t gone up in nine years, while all the benefits and product offerings have improved dramatically — was candid and convincing.

But maybe I’m wrong. Which suggests an idea for a more enlightening story than the one the Times did: Someone ought to do a rigorous market survey of Prime customers to see not only whether they like the price increase (who likes price increases?), but whether they will continue to subscribe.

The mysterious allure of cruises, Al Sharpton conflict check, and doing the math on Ukraine bailouts

Steven Brill
Mar 11, 2014 15:00 UTC

1. Why do people take cruises?

A few weeks ago, USA Today reported that “More than 160 of 3,104 passengers on Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess “had fallen ill with a gastrointestinal illness that the cruise line suspected was norovirus — a highly contagious infection that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.”

That incident, USA Today noted, came “just days after a massive outbreak of a norovirus-like illness forced an early end to a sailing of Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas.”

Yet a January 25 Associated Press story reported that the leading cruise lines trade association expects that 21.7 million people will take cruises in 2014, up from 21.3 million in 2013.

Ambassadors astray, the Federal Reserve Board’s minutes, and conflict recusals in the Valley

Steven Brill
Mar 4, 2014 06:55 UTC

 

1. Ambassadors without portfolios?

What happens when you’re an ambassador whose government has been overthrown?

With the Ukrainian government being deposed last week, I’m wondering about the fate of the country’s envoys and their families. As key appointees of President — now fugitive — Viktor Yanukovich, have they been replaced and evicted from their embassies in Washington, New York (the United Nations ambassador), London or Paris? Or are they all professional foreign service officers, able to roll with the punches?

Who at the new regime in Kiev would assert to whom in the host country that the incumbent ambassador no longer represents Ukraine and should be evicted from the embassy, if that is to be their fate? Where would they and their families go? What about the staffs and their families?

In the particular case of Ukraine, is the fate of its ambassador in Moscow different from that of his colleague in Washington because Russia still supports Yanukovich?

Cigarette companies’ final days, high-speed trading, and how rich is Ringo?

Steven Brill
Feb 18, 2014 16:16 UTC

1. Cigarette companies’ final days:

This article last week from the Associated Press, “U.S. health experts predict…a cigarette-free America,” highlighted the release of a 900-page report on smoking from the U.S. surgeon general. “Though the goal of a cigarette-free America has long seemed like a pipe dream,” the AP noted, “public-health leaders have started throwing around phrases like ‘endgame’ and ‘tobacco-free generation.’”

Smoking has declined significantly in the United States in the five decades since the surgeon general’s first report pinpointing the dangers of cigarettes. It is still a multibillion-dollar industry, however, that sells more than 300 billion cigarettes a year here.

Yet smoking rates continue to decline as the evidence of tobacco’s lethal effects becomes accepted wisdom. At the same time, venues forbidding smoking have become nearly universal, even as the sale of smoking products becomes more constricted. CVS’s decision two weeks ago to stop selling tobacco is the latest example. (I wrote about that here.) Several states are now considering raising the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21.

CVS and the doctoring business, Sochi consequences, and getting Cohen’s side of the story

Steven Brill
Feb 11, 2014 05:00 UTC

1. How far can CVS and other pharmacy chains get into the doctoring business?

In announcing Wednesday that CVS Caremark would stop selling tobacco, chief executive officer Larry Merlo said selling cigarettes would be, according to a company press release, “inconsistent with our purpose.” He explained, “As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners.”

I’d like to know more about what Merlo has in mind vis a vis that “expanded role in providing health care.”

Drugstore chains like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens already offer flu shots. How is that regulated? Is it allowed in all states? Do licensed nurses have to provide them? Did doctors’ groups or health clinics lobby against it?

Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats, political stalling, and the lawyer who could nail Christie

Steven Brill
Feb 4, 2014 05:00 UTC

1. Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats? Or are its rivals overdoing it?

I may be imagining it, but while the other network news organizations are giving full, even avid, coverage to the threat of terrorism at the coming Sochi Olympics, NBC — which is televising the games — seems to be playing it down. Or at least not playing it up.

It’s no surprise that NBC has been full of segments featuring the arrivals or practice sessions of members of team America, especially the good-looking ones. That’s a time-honored, if cheesy, effort to use ostensible news shows to boost the games’ ratings.

But it also seems that its coverage of the security threats and accompanying precautions is nothing like what we’re seeing on CBS, ABC, Fox or CNN — where images of barb wire-encased arenas and helmeted Russian security forces abound.

Christie’s legal bills, who profits from retailer hacking, and Davos economics

Steven Brill
Jan 28, 2014 16:46 UTC

1. Christie’s legal bills and lawyers’ conflicts:

When it was announced earlier this month that Governor Chris Christie had hired Randy Mastro, the New York litigation head of California-based Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, to represent the Christie administration in dealing with all of the investigations involving Bridgegate, some observers told reporters that signing on Mastro signaled that Christie and his team might be gearing up to take an aggressive posture that is inconsistent with the governor’s initial promise to cooperate fully in all investigations.

That’s a logical assumption: Mastro, a former protégé of tough-guy New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is a notoriously hard-nosed litigator.

But what’s also intriguing is that Gibson, Dunn is one of the country’s most expensive law firms. Which raises the question of how much the state is paying to bring in this non-New Jersey team to represent the New Jersey governor’s office? And what is Christie’s rationale for passing over the local talent in a state full of terrific lawyers and law firms?

Why isn’t Chuck Todd anchoring ‘Meet the Press,’ how Sochi happened, and watching LGA crash

Steven Brill
Jan 21, 2014 15:22 UTC

1. Why isn’t Chuck Todd anchoring “Meet The Press”?

NBC’s “Meet The Press” is not simply mired in third place behind “Face the Nation” (CBS) and “This Week” (ABC). It has also become a boring hour weighed down with predictable guests answering bland questions from anchor David Gregory.

So can someone please do a story explaining why NBC chief White House reporter Chuck Todd hasn’t replaced Gregory?

Todd — who is also the host of MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” — arguably should have been chosen in the first place as the successor to Tim Russert after Russert’s untimely death. In terms of political smarts, enthusiasm for political horse races, and instinct for asking the right follow-ups, Todd was Russert’s natural heir.

Bezos and the Post, America’s worst-run agency, and who’s paying Dennis Rodman?

Steven Brill
Jan 14, 2014 12:28 UTC

1. Bezos and the Washington Post: A nothingburger?

It has now been more than six months since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his deal to buy the Washington Post. It’s been more than four months since the transaction closed and Bezos was legally in charge. But so far nothing seems to have changed. The paper still seems to be in a defensive crouch rather than back on the offense, fueled by Bezos’s promise to invest both his money and his brain in the enterprise and launch a bunch of think-outside-the-box initiatives.

For example, Ezra Klein, the maestro of the Post’s Wonkblog, is reported to be about to leave because Bezos and Washington Post executives turned down his proposal to start an ambitious offshoot of his widely-followed domestic policy blog. Without looking at Klein’s business plan it’s impossible to know if their decision makes sense, but the situation is eerily similar to when the prior ownership of the Post turned down the pitch by then-star-reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei to start something called Politico — which they then took to rival media company Allbritton Communications.

Over the weekend the New York Times announced  that it has beefed up its already-strong China team by hiring the award-winning reporter whose pending story about ties between China’s richest man and the country’s rulers was held or killed (depending on whose account you believe) by Bloomberg News, after which the reporter abruptly left the company. The moment he became available it seemed to me that Bezos could have sent a clear and relatively inexpensive signal that the Post was back in the game by snagging him.

Marijuana rules of the road, grading the CBO, and hiring journalists in war zones

Steven Brill
Jan 6, 2014 21:57 UTC

1. Marijuana rules of the road:

With Colorado legalizing pot last week, I’ve been waiting for a story about whether the bomb-sniffing dogs at the Denver International Airport will now have an expanded portfolio.

This story on CNN.com says that travelers will not be searched for marijuana per se but that carrying pot through the airport is not allowed. If a traveler is searched for any other reason and pot is found the traveler will be subject to a “$999 administrative fine.”

Does this relatively laid back approach mean that people coming in and out of Colorado will be free to take marijuana cigarettes or brownies home with them? With that in mind, how do the purchase limits — one ounce per transaction for Colorado residents and a quarter of an ounce for non-residents — work? Is there a limit on the number of transactions a non-resident can make in a day or a week?

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