Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The cost of attacking Syria, and tell me what to think about fracking

Steven Brill
Sep 10, 2013 10:52 UTC

1. Scoping out the budget for attacking Syria:

This article in Defense News estimates that if President Obama attacks Syria the cost would likely be “hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons,” including $1.4 million for each Raytheon Tomahawk missile that is launched. All last week I saw estimates that were equally vague and varied from the tens of millions up to and over a billion dollars.

Of course, that’s hardly the press’s fault; no one can know the cost of the proposed attack without knowing the details of the war plan, and even then, the ultimate cost would depend on how the plan pans out — including how many weapons are used and how long it all takes.

Still, I would like to see two stories this week related to the Syria war debate and money.

First, someone should try to scope out the likely cost with greater precision — including fuel and logistics support for the war ships in the area, extra costs for putting various forces, such as those protecting embassies, on high alert, as well as the exact cost of the missiles to be used. Maybe budgets for different scenarios have been submitted to the relevant congressional committees. One would hope someone on Capitol Hill has bothered to ask.

Suppose the budget is $500 million. Then, a sidebar ought to list a half dozen or more other items the federal government could buy for $500 million. For example, according to this CBS News report it would take just $425 million to restore all the sequester-forced cuts to Head Start that have forced 57,000 low-income children out of the early childhood education program beginning this month.

MTV’s Miley Cyrus mess, Donald Trump and the law, and who benefits from federal fines

Steven Brill
Sep 3, 2013 17:06 UTC

1. Ask about the Miley Cyrus sleaze:

In the wake of MTV’s universally-panned decision to feature 20-year-old Miley Cyrus in a cringe-producing sex pantomime with 36-year-old Robin Thicke during the telecast of the MTV Video Music Awards, reporters ought to be sticking microphones in front of producers and executives at MTV and its parent Viacom.

Using what the New York Daily News called “a foam hand as a sexual prop,” Cyrus’s act was characterized this way by Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who is younger and impressionable. And she’s really messed up, so I don’t think they should have put her on stage. They should be ashamed of themselves….”

MTV’s target demographics are teens and pre-teens. So reporters should start with a simple question: Would the producers and executives responsible for Cyrus’s performance have wanted their own teen or pre-teen children (or grandchildren or maybe great-grandchildren in the case of Viacom’s 90-year-old founder and chief executive Sumner Redstone) to have watched the show?

Bezos’ silence, lobbyists and Egypt, and the inner workings of State-owned TV

Steven Brill
Aug 27, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Wash Post reporters: Get a Bezos comment

These sentences in last week’s Times profile of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos beg for a follow-up from the house the Grahams built:

 “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’”  Mr. Marcus said. 

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

Over the years, in reading stories about Amazon I’ve noticed the same pattern of Amazon simply refusing to comment no matter what the story was about. And, although Amazon’s website lists a phone number for a public relations office, it lists no names of anyone specific to call, nor do its press releases list names for reporters to call for follow-up. Amazon’s resolute refusal to answer press questions and the paradox of Bezos now owning a business whose employees are paid to ask them is captured nicely in this column by Jack Shafer.

Football’s costs, SEC v. Cohen and the Whale’s tale

Steven Brill
Aug 20, 2013 00:25 UTC

The NFL’s looming court tests

As the 2013 National Football League season begins, it’s time for an update on the liability suits the league is facing from what the website Deadspin reported last April were “more than 4,000 former players” who claim to have suffered on-the-job brain damage. The same Deadspin report noted that helmet-maker Riddell is also a defendant in the suits and that in April a Colorado high school student won a $3.1 million judgment against Ridell after he was brain damaged and partially paralyzed following a concussion suffered in a 2008 practice drill.

In June of 2012, Forbes ran a story headlined, “NFL Faces Tobacco-Like Damages Reaching Billions Of Dollars In Concussion Litigation,” and in December, the New York Times reported another wrinkle — that the NFL and its teams are fighting in court with 32 different insurance companies over whether their policies cover the league’s and the teams’ liability and legal costs.

“The N.F.L., which generates about $9 billion a year, may be equipped to handle these legal challenges,” the Times wrote. “But colleges, high schools and club teams may be forced to consider severe measures in the face of liability issues, like raising fees to offset higher premiums; capping potential damages; and requiring players to sign away their right to sue coaches and schools. Some schools and leagues may even shut down teams because the expense and legal risk are too high.”

How the Guardian protects state secrets, and weak reporting at Ad Age

Steven Brill
Aug 6, 2013 12:31 UTC

1. How the Guardian protects America’s national security:

Last week, the Guardian released another Edward Snowden-procured red-hot document – a “top secret,” 32-page National Security Agency training manual for a program initiated in 2008 called XKeyscore that purportedly allowed NSA analysts to vacuum up data on Internet browsing activity around the world.

“The NSA boasts in training materials that the program…is its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet,” wrote the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald.

That was quite a scoop, though I suppose I’m not alone in no longer being surprised at anything the NSA is snatching up. But what did surprise me was that as I scrolled through the electronic version of the document, four of the 32 pages were blacked out, because, according to the Guardian’s explanation: “This slide has been redacted as it reveals specific NSA operations.”

The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2013 11:36 UTC

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 students for every faculty and staff member* faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

TV’s campaign ad addiction, Obamacare outsourced to Canada, and a Romney aide’s new role

Steven Brill
Jul 23, 2013 11:44 UTC

1.  TV’s campaign addiction:

This report from the New York Times’ Brian Stelter two weeks ago explains how campaign cash spent in hotly contested presidential election swing states and in close primary and general election congressional races has helped to drive two recent multibillion dollar purchases of television station groups by Gannett and Tribune Company, both of which already own large collections of local television outlets.

As Stelter explains:

“The increasingly expensive elections that play out across the country every two years are making stations look like a smart investment….Despite an array of digital alternatives and a rapidly transforming television business, 30-second commercials remain one of the most valuable tools of campaigns and political action committees. As Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of the CBS Corporation, which owns 29 stations, memorably said last year, ‘Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.’”

In fact, Stelter may have understated the impact of the changed legal landscape that now allows unlimited personal and corporate contributions to PACs, Super PACs, and “social welfare” nonprofits, all of which have been buying hundreds of millions of dollars in political ads.

Teflon Tim Geithner, and profiling the Center for Responsive Politics

Steven Brill
Jul 9, 2013 13:06 UTC

1.  Teflon Tim and the Obama Keystone Cops:

Did the First Amendment get amended when I wasn’t watching so that freedom of the press is guaranteed except when it comes to writing about Timothy Geithner?

What else could explain how the former Treasury Secretary’s name could not be found in any of the stories last week about the Obama administration’s decision to postpone for a year the Obamacare requirement that employers with 50 or more employees must provide health insurance or pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee?

The explanation for the postponement was that the rules, instructions, and reporting forms necessary to implement the requirement could not be written in time. The Treasury Department has responsibility for that paperwork and has had three years and three months to get it done. Geithner was in charge of Treasury for all but five of those 39 months.

Selling artificial knees, analyzing the Trayvon Martin trial, and Random House cancels Paula Deen’s cookbook

Steven Brill
Jul 1, 2013 21:41 UTC

 

When Madison Avenue pitches artificial knees, do we all pay?

Americans — personally, or through private insurance or Medicare — spend more than $12 billion a year on artificial knees and hips. That’s more than Hollywood takes in at the box office.

A TV ad I’ve seen recently for artificial knees and hips made by Smith & Nephew, a British medical technology company, may help explain why we spend so much on these implants. It is not the kind of ho-hum ad we now see so regularly, urging us to seek relief from a disease we’ve never heard of by taking a pill with so many side effects it takes the pitchman half the air time to recite them. Instead, Smith & Nephew’s ads look more like a pitch for Nike.

Here’s how the ads are described in an article I found on the website of a trade publication, Pharmaceutical Executive:

The mysterious farm bill, sequestration’s virtues, and the death of airport newsstands

Steven Brill
Jun 25, 2013 10:31 UTC

1.  Can someone please explain the farm bill fight?

I’m a news junkie. But I am completely clueless about one policy issue that is hugely important (it affects what we eat and how much we pay for it), involves hundreds of billions of dollars in government programs and subsidies, and was splashed all over the front pages last week as the latest example of congressional dysfunction.

I’m referring, of course, to America’s farm policy (that’s farm, not foreign) and what last week’s headlines called “the farm bill.”

What is the farm bill? I know it has to do with paying subsidies to farmers for something, enforcing price supports (whatever that means) on some crops or commodities, funding food stamps, and implementing a bunch of other programs supposedly to help the farming economy. But that’s all I know, and I bet that’s all a lot of you know.

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