Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Coming up with “A Bitter Pill”

Steven Brill
Mar 5, 2013 12:02 UTC

For the past 10 days I’ve been interviewed on various television and radio shows about the article I wrote for the March 4 issue of Time, called “A Bitter Pill.”  It’s all about how exorbitant prices and profits are at the core of the crisis America uniquely faces when it comes to financing healthcare, the cost of which now accounts for roughly a fifth of our gross domestic product. The article took a new approach to reporting on an overreported issue by avoiding “on the one hand, on the other hand” policy analysis. Instead, I took actual medical bills and dissected them line by line.

Invariably a question has come up in these interviews about how I thought of that approach. So, since this is supposed to be a column about good story ideas, I think I’ll use it to explain the genesis of “A Bitter Pill” in more detail than I’ve been able to on the talk show circuit.

I always tell the students in a journalism seminar I teach at Yale that the best stories come from what you’re most curious about. Because I’m interested in business (as well as legal and political issues), questions about business and money often are what make me most curious, sometimes to the point of idiosyncrasy. For example, when I read last week that Jeff Zeleny, a star political reporter for the New York Times, had been hired away by ABC News, one of my first thoughts was that I’d like to see a story detailing how much more money he’ll be making – I bet it’s as much as twice his Times salary – and perhaps analyzing whether for Zeleny and other journalists his move represented a wrenching market misallocation of talent, given that his work is likely to have more impact, not to mention space, in the Times than on network television.

Similarly, during the long debate over President Barack Obama’s health insurance reform proposals, a question kept nagging at me: Everyone on all sides seemed to accept as a given that healthcare was wildly expensive, and the only debate seemed to be over who should pay for it. I wondered: Well, why is it so expensive in the first place?

At about the same time, a relative suffered a series of medical crises that produced hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills. For him, it was no problem because he had Medicare and terrific insurance to supplement what Medicare didn’t cover, leaving him on the hook for just a few hundred dollars. But again, I wondered, why were the bills so high?

America’s lobbying abroad, and following a wonder drug’s money trail

Steven Brill
Feb 26, 2013 12:34 UTC

1. Find the story here:

Let’s begin this column with a quiz, one designed to test your story-generating talents. If the answer comes to you within 10 seconds, you, too, could be an editor or TV news producer. If you are an editor or producer and don’t see it instantly, you need better radar.

First, read the opening two sentences from a story that appeared in the Financial Times a few weeks ago:

Europe’s  most senior justice official is adamant she will fight US attempts to water down a proposed EU data protection and privacy law that would force global technology companies to obey European standards across the world. Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice, said that the EU was determined to respond decisively to any attempts by US lobbyists – many working for large tech groups such as Google and Facebook – to curb the EU data protection law.

Hagel’s ignorance, Big Oil in the rain forest and a drone story

Steven Brill
Feb 11, 2013 23:37 UTC

The Hagel fiasco:

I can’t get Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel’s awful Jan. 31 Senate confirmation testimony out of my head. I went back last week and watched most of it again. It was stunning, by far the worst performance by a high-level appointee I’ve ever seen or heard about. I’m not referring to Hagel’s gaffes, though there were some. I’m talking about pretty much everything he said after he read his opening statement. He seemed – is there a nice way to say this? – stupid.

Yet from what I’ve read, those who know him say he is far from stupid. I spent an hour interviewing him about 10 years ago and he seemed pretty sharp ‑ though it was for a profile of a friend of his, so the questions were hardly challenging.

Why did Hagel stumble so badly? Is he an empty suit who showed his real ability or lack thereof when he faced the senators’ tough grilling? Or was he ill? Does he have a health problem we should know about?

Lying to the SEC, A-Rod’s contract, and everybody gets hacked

Steven Brill
Feb 5, 2013 12:47 UTC

1.      Suppose a college applicant did this?

Here’s a story that seems so bizarre that it might be good material for a Tom Wolfe re-do of The Bonfire of the Vanities rather than worth the time of a serious non-fiction reporter – except that it’s apparently true. According to this New York Times report last month, Egan-Jones, an “upstart credit ratings firm,” has been:

barred for 18 months from issuing certain government-recognized ratings after the firm made misstatements on an application with the government. The S.E.C. said the firm had exaggerated its record when it applied for a government designation in July 2008. The firm said then that it had performed 150 ratings of asset-backed securities and 50 ratings of governments, when it actually had performed none at that time, according to the agency…. Under the terms of the penalty, Egan-Jones is barred [for 18 months] from rating asset-backed and government securities issuers as a so-called nationally recognized statistical rating organization….For other categories of ratings, Egan-Jones will still have the government designation.

Huh? “Exaggerated” its record? A firm applying for the SEC seal of approval as a provider of honest securities ratings seems to have completely fabricated its resume, saying it had done 200 ratings when it had done zero. And the SEC puts them in the penalty box for just 18 months for some ratings and lets them keep right on providing other ratings?

Newt’s new gigs, following the Sandy money, and hedge-fund matchmakers

Steven Brill
Jan 29, 2013 13:05 UTC

1.     Newt’s new gigs:

One of my favorite side stories of last year’s presidential campaign had to do with the details that emerged about all the money Newt Gingrich had been making in recent years from speeches, books and lobbying (which he insisted was merely consulting or “advocacy”). As I wrote at the time , Gingrich’s release of his tax returns (when he was taunting Mitt Romney to do the same) was so intriguing because most of his $3.1 million in 2011 income was derived from something called Gingrich Holdings Inc. This was the clearinghouse for his various activities, and it presented him ample opportunity to get tax breaks by routing all kinds of personal expenses through his private corporation. It was an only-in-Washington success story.

With his losing campaign having diminished whatever luster Gingrich might have had, it would be interesting to see whether and how he and his wife, Calista, have revived Newt Inc. Washington seems to be a place where even the politicians pushed furthest to the sidelines can make a good living off of who they once were, who they know and, in the case of books and speeches, their true believers. Gingrich post-2012 puts that theory to a new and interesting test.

What kind of gigs has the former speaker lined up? Where has he been making the rounds trying to land “consulting” retainers? Who’s turned him down and who’s signed him up?

The next terrorist attack, Obama’s Medicare cuts, and the gun lobby

Steven Brill
Jan 22, 2013 16:03 UTC

1. The next terrorist attack may turn your lights out for weeks:

Or it may cause a dozen planes to crash at once because the air traffic control system goes haywire. Or it could play havoc with our email, e-commerce, use of credit cards, and the stock markets. Or do all of the above.

Because I’m on the Department of Homeland Security’s press release list, I’m forever seeing announcements of one DHS official or another speaking at some conference on protecting our critical infrastructure. Last week, DHS’s “National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of Emergency Communications Region IV Coordinator” spoke at one in Tampa, and two other officials will be speaking at conferences on Jan. 23. The problem is that while there are endless forums about the threats, little is being done to deal with them.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, many news organizations went back and looked at the scant attention paid to a commission chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that delivered a report to the Bush Administration on Jan. 31, 2001, warning that if the country didn’t start shoring up its intelligence and defenses, “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not help us.” Last fall, a series of measures to protect our critical infrastructure – everything from the power grid to electronic systems enabling air traffic control – failed to make it out of Congress despite warnings from Homeland Security and Pentagon officials that, as with the Hart-Rudman prediction, a devastating cyber-attack on our infrastructure was now a matter of when, not if.

A working legislature, post informant life and Wal-Mart’s guns

Steven Brill
Jan 15, 2013 04:30 UTC

A legislature that works:

Maybe it’s because I live in New York and have to read all the time about what may be the world’s two most dysfunctional legislative bodies – in Albany and Washington. But I wish a reporter for a national news organization would try to find the country’s best state legislature. A place where Democrats and Republicans actually work together. A place where money isn’t everything, and where everything isn’t done at the 11th hour, or later, followed by an orgy of self-congratulation.

We’ve got 50 states. They can’t all be governed by lawmakers who embarrass their constituents. Which ones function well, and why? What conflict-of-interest, campaign-spending or other rules do they have that help keep things in line? What makes them different, and how can we export their success to the rest of our capitals?

The afterlife of a Wall Street rat:

“Mr. Wang’s lawyer said his client is ‘isolated and broke’ following his cooperation.”

Medicare meddling, the guns of Westchester, and Al Gore’s payday

Steven Brill
Jan 8, 2013 13:09 UTC

1)   Fiscal cliff Medicare meddling:

According to this report in the New York Times, last-minute negotiations on the fiscal cliff included new congressionally imposed limits on what Medicare will pay for “nonemergency ambulance transportation of kidney dialysis patients” and “would reduce Medicare payments … for stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of treatment of cranial lesion(s) consisting of one session that is multi-source Cobalt-60 based.’”

Yes, Congress really does get that far down in the weeds when it comes to dictating how Medicare doles out more than $500 billion a year. This includes, for example, overseeing the payments Medicare allows, by state, for designated categories of ambulance rides (“critical,” “emergency,” “air evacuation,” etc.).

There are two obvious stories here: What scandalous overpayments or abuses in those nonemergency kidney dialysis ambulance trips triggered this intervention, and who in Congress pushed for it? Similarly, what’s the story behind those Cobalt-60 treatments?

How far can the Chinese firewall stretch?

Steven Brill
Dec 31, 2012 18:11 UTC

1.    Media tug of war in China:

Last week, my daughter sent me this amazing Bloomberg.com story, accompanied by graphics and  clickable family trees, that unraveled how the “princeling” ancestors of China’s “Eight Immortals” – the generals and party leaders who built the communist superpower – now control the country’s leading industrial and financial conglomerates. The New York Times has also been on the case, detailing in articles like this one and this one how those controlling China’s national and regional governments have showered favors on their entrepreneurial relatives.

Then, last Friday the Times added a report describing heightened Internet blocking measures that Chinese authorities are taking to keep these kinds of stories about Chinese crony capitalism and other scandals from being seen online in China. The new efforts to firewall information that would embarrass the ruling class even include trying to block offending content from reaching the virtual private networks (VPNs) used by corporations to ensure the privacy and security of the information their employees transmit around the world.

It’s all fascinating, important stuff. But it’s only the opening rumble of what could be one of the major business and political stories of 2013. After all, this is the kind of information that threatens to overturn the implicit deal with the citizenry that the Communist Party rulers have depended on for the last two decades: let us rule and we won’t act like Communists when it comes to giving you economic opportunity.

The NRA playbook, Obama’s pot dilemma, and HSBC’s money laundering

Steven Brill
Dec 18, 2012 12:41 UTC

1. Getting the NRA’s massacre playbook:

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, we’ve been reading a lot about school lockdowns and other emergency drills. Here’s an idea for some original reporting about a different kind of emergency drill: Reporters ought to get sources inside the National Rifle Association, or people who deal with the organization, to reveal the playbook the NRA must have developed by now to make sure the group can swing into action whenever there’s an outbreak of mass gun carnage.

Is there an email or phone list in place so that the first crisis team conference call can be convened quickly? Who’s on it in addition to NRA staff? Gun company executives? Lobbyists? Pollsters? PR people?

Is there a set script for the initial comment (such as “Now is not the time to talk politics”) followed by a sequenced set of later responses? How does the response evolve from the first days into the first week and then the second? Who is designated to make decisions about when to start responding to press inquiries and whether to do the Sunday talk shows, who should be the spokespeople and what the talking points should be?

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