Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

Did Bezos or Marty Baron, the Post editor, even try? (Which suggests another story: will the Post’s coverage of China be affected by Amazon’s business interests there the way Bloomberg’s seem to have been — and what are those interests?)

Similarly, did Bezos personally vet Ezra Klein’s plan and reject it? Was there a substantive discussion, in which Bezos tried to tweak the plan only to be rejected by Klein? Or, was Bezos not even personally involved?

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?

The Oracle Oregon fiasco, crying wolf on an Obamacare tax, and anointing the ‘Politico 50′

Steven Brill
Dec 31, 2013 16:01 UTC

1. The Oracle Oregon fiasco:

We all know by now that the dominant story line of the Obamacare website’s failed launch is that the federal government is terrible at doing high-tech projects — let alone one that involves the e-commerce wizardry that has made Silicon Valley the envy of the world.

But it turns out that one state exchange to sell Obamacare insurance plans has had an even more disastrous launch than the 36-state HealthCare.gov. It’s CoverOregon.com — the website for the Oregon exchange.

In fact, as this Associated Press story notes, last week state officials cancelled an advertising campaign to get people to sign up at CoverOregon.com because the website still isn’t up and running.

MSNBC’s book promotion machine, helping Dasani, and profiling Eric Schneiderman

Steven Brill
Dec 24, 2013 11:53 UTC

1. MSNBC’s book promotion machine:

Lately it seems as if it must be written into MSNBC anchors’ contracts that if he or she writes a book, no matter how related to current news, the anchor will get endless opportunities to promote it on the cable channel’s air.

The most blatant example is “Hardball”’s Chris Matthews, who recently came out with Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked — about how the friendship between then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan supposedly produced productive, bipartisan governing during the Reagan years.

Since Matthews’ book was published in October (in fact, even in the weeks leading up to its publication) whenever there has been a story about Washington gridlock — which is just about always — MSNBC has used it as a pretext to feature Matthews on its various shows talking about how things were different in the good old O’Neill-Reagan days, when Matthews was O’Neill’s chief of staff

Profiling John Miller, the Snowden dilemma, and options for national security whistleblowers

Steven Brill
Dec 17, 2013 12:26 UTC

1. Profiling John Miller:

This story  in the Huffington Post last week speculated that CBS News senior correspondent John Miller might be appointed to run the New York City Police Department’s counterterrorism unit, now that Bill Bratton has been named police commissioner by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

The story makes sense. Miller and Bratton are close friends and Bratton had Miller running counterterrorism in Los Angeles when he was police chief there. Miller — who began his career in the 1970s as a reporter for local New York City TV outlets before being promoted to the networks — had served as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public affairs during Bratton’s first tour running the NYPD in 1994. And just before coming to CBS in 2011 he had held senior positions at the FBI and in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But here’s why CBS should do everything possible to make sure Miller doesn’t leave — and why a newspaper or magazine editor would be smart to assign a profile of him: If major league television news organizations named a Most Valuable Player the way baseball does, Miller would get the honor this year, hands down.

Behind a legislative triumph, Mandela memorial security, and a question for Politico

Steven Brill
Dec 10, 2013 11:28 UTC

1. Behind a legislative triumph:

According to this article in the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill, the House is poised this week to pass legislation that relates to three controversial issues: the federal budget, airport security, and funds for the military. Yet the bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 43 House members.

Does this bipartisan breakthrough signal an end to Washington gridlock? Hardly. In fact, the bill seems more like it was drafted by Saturday Night Live scriptwriters looking for a new way to make fun of Congress.

The law, spearheaded by Republican Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida, doesn’t amount to much more than loose change. Literally.

A video game called ‘School Shooting,’ backing the video gaming industry, and a qualified lawyer on hold

Steven Brill
Dec 3, 2013 12:30 UTC

1. Is there really a game called “School Shooting”?

Last week, the Connecticut State’s Attorney issued his official report  about the shooting a year ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. On page 26 the State’s Attorney noted that among other video games found in the home of murderer Adam Lanza was: “The computer game titled ‘School Shooting’ where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students.”

Is there really such a game? The CBS-owned website Gamespot, which covers news related to video-gaming, reported two days later that, “The ‘School Shooting’ game is somewhat of a mystery. In the 44-page Sandy Hook report released this week, no details are provided regarding who made the game or where it can be purchased or downloaded.”

I hope someone is working on that mystery.

2. “Advocating” for video games?

While trying to learn more about the School Shooting game I came across the website of a trade group called the Entertainment Consumers Association, which represents the video gaming industry. Its “Advocacy” page led last week with the good news that the State’s Attorney’s report did not directly link video games to the Sandy Hook massacre (though the report did spend a lot of space listing all the violent games found in Lanza’s home).

Picking government contractors, high-flying Dubai, and a dubious drug on the market

Steven Brill
Nov 26, 2013 10:34 UTC

1. Who picks the contractors?

In the wake of the failed launch of Healthcare.gov there has been some spectacular insider coverage, particularly by the Washington Post and New York Times, of the failure of the private contractors to deliver what they promised when they won the assignments to build the federal insurance exchange. But while there has been some mention of problems with the contract procurement process itself (focusing on the notion that in Washington the IT providers who win the contracts are better at winning IT contracts than at doing cutting-edge IT), one piece of the story has so far been missing: Who actually decided to award the Healthcare.gov contract to CGI and the others who shared the work? And on exactly what basis?

We know the winners had invested heavily over the years to get on a list of pre-qualified companies who could bid on contracts like this one, a tortuous process that the best and brightest technology companies outside the Beltway typically don’t bother with because they have too much more rewarding work to do in the private sector, where the bidding process is more straightforward. But we still haven’t gotten a good picture of who in the government runs these processes.

I know from some reporting I’ve done recently that in Kentucky, to take one example, the contractor that won the job to build that state’s Obamacare website was chosen by a committee that did not include the person who was actually in charge of building the Kentucky exchange. In other words, the person who would supervise the outside vendor, and whose career depended on whether the contractor did a good job, had nothing to do with picking the contractor. In fact, I’m told that the official in charge of the website didn’t meet the leader of the contracting team until after the choice was made.

Timing the capitol bloviators, the French as the tough guys, and Wal-Mart’s reputation

Steven Brill
Nov 19, 2013 12:21 UTC

1. Timing the capitol bloviators:

Watching the spate of committee hearings on Capitol Hill related to the Obamacare launch debacle reminds me of a story — or, rather, an ongoing type of coverage — that I wish the Washington Post, Politico or even C-Span would do: Keep count of the percentage of time each senator or congressman talks versus the amount of time the witnesses, whose appearances are ostensibly the purpose of the hearings, get to talk.

A sub-tally might also be done of how much of the committee member’s time is spent even asking a question, as opposed to giving a speech.

At most hearings each committee member is usually allotted five minutes to question the witness. My informal count of what I’ve watched over the past few weeks had the members hogging three to four minutes each, sometimes more.

Finding Obamacare’s authors; assessing J&J’s CEO culpability; and grading Chris Christie

Steven Brill
Nov 12, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Finding the folks who wrote Obamacare:

As I report a story I am writing about Obamacare, it’s become clear to me that — as we are already seeing with the controversy over people getting their insurance plans dropped — there are all kinds of issues related to provisions in the massive law that are bound to get lots more attention once the website is working. A few weeks ago in this column, for example, I mentioned the as-yet-little-noticed high penalties that smokers will have to pay.

As with the smoking penalty, many of these issues are related to narrow provisions that are hard to spot in a 906-page law. But as someone who has now read those 906 pages I can also report that, in addition to the substantive issues likely to become bigger deals as the law is implemented, there are also potholes soon to come because the law is filled with inconsistencies, gaps, and just plain wording errors. More generally, even for legal writing, it’s badly constructed and seems written to torment even someone who is used to reading legislation.

With that in mind, I recently asked a senior Senate staff person who was heavily involved in designing the law who the person or persons who actually wrote it are, and how I might track them down for an interview. His answer: “Senate Legislative Counsel. They don’t talk to anyone.”

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