Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

At a time when pretty much all of the rest of television advertising is threatened — just the way newspaper advertising has been — by alternative media ranging from Google search ads to Netflix, political ads seem to be the outlier, at least for now. That means that the giant media companies that sell television time will increasingly depend on campaign dollars as a lifeline. Stelter’s story focused on Gannett and Tribune because they had just made these big acquisitions, and because he could make the point that they are legacy newspaper companies that have stopped investing in print products. But every major media company is enjoying the TV political ad bonanza and fast becoming dependent on it. These include businesses far bigger than Gannett or Tribune: CBS, Comcast (NBCUniversal, Telemundo), Disney, Fox, Viacom, every cable channel from ESPN to Animal Planet, and companies such as Time Warner and Cablevision that own local cable systems (which sell highly-targeted local advertising).

So, I’d like to see a more complete story about all of this that includes:

    A projection of what portion of television ad revenue will depend on political money five, 10 or 20 years from now if political spending trends continue and if what Stelter calls the “array of digital alternatives” continues to lure away other advertisers. As this other ad revenue fades, how much more crucial will political money become? Are any companies particularly dependent on the campaign gravy train?
    What kind of lobbying is the industry doing to head off even a hint of campaign spending reform? Could that effort tacitly or explicitly include taking advantage of the companies’ obvious clout as the news channels that report on the politicians who will push or block any reforms?
    Are television outlets in particular localities already trying to influence local decisions that could affect the flow of TV money? For example, they could be involved in trying to get their state moved up in the primary calendar so that they rake in some of that early money now going to South Carolina or New Hampshire. Or they could be pushing for runoffs in close multicandidate races that force a second round of advertising.

On the other hand, a closer look at all of this might produce an entirely different story: Could it be that the celebrated use of big data by the Obama 2012 campaign not only to direct ad buys into low-cost niche cable channels aimed at highly-targeted audiences but also to move money out of television and into more cost-effective, finely-tuned social media and other digital alternatives will be replicated so soon across so many political campaigns that the television industry’s perceived life saver becomes an anchor, regardless of any campaign finance reforms?

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.

Vetting the Syrian rebels, stock gyrations, and A-Rod’s return

Steven Brill
Jun 18, 2013 11:47 UTC

1.  Vetting the Syrian rebels:

Most of those pushing for providing arms and other aid to the Syrian rebels — which the Obama administration announced last week it will now do — have promised that the rebels could be “vetted” so that weapons and other assistance don’t end up in the hands of jihadists and other bad actors.

I wish I could see a story explaining how that’s going to be done. We seem to have a hard enough time vetting Americans, like Edward Snowden, before giving them top secret security clearances. What’s the plan to separate the good rebels from the bad ones in Syria before letting them lock and load?

2. A gene-screening company’s stock gyrations:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story  about how hedge funds must be using lawyers to handicap an imminent make-or-break Supreme Court decision concerning Myriad Genetics. That’s the company whose claimed patent of a gene has allowed it to charge more than $3,000 for the kind of test used by actress Angelina Jolie to determine whether she was likely to become a breast cancer victim.

Booz Allen’s liability, Europe and the NSA, and Obamacare as stimulus

Steven Brill
Jun 10, 2013 16:07 UTC

1. Booz Allen’s liability in the government snooping leaks:

We now know that the source of last week’s leaks revealing various U.S. government data collection and surveillance activities is a low-level employee of the giant consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which the New York Times reported on Monday was paid $1.3 billion last year by various American intelligence agencies under multiple contracts related to data collection and analysis. (The firm’s website  has a whole section under “Intelligence Community” about how Booz turns “Big Data Into Big Insights.”)

So, the obvious question is what do those contracts say about the firm’s liability if one of its employees spills its client’s secrets resulting in what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls “gut=wrenching” losses? Can we at least get some or all of our money back? (The company’s stock was down in Monday morning trading, perhaps in anticipation of such problems.) If not, why not?

2. Greenwald’s conflict?

Revealing Snowden’s identity was Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s latest in his series of scoops on U.S. government snooping. Greenwald posted a video interview with Snowden in which the Booz Allen employee says he revealed the government’s intelligence programs to Greenwald to expose abuses of what he called “a surveillance state.”

More questions for Bloomberg and Angelina Jolie

Steven Brill
Jun 4, 2013 20:58 UTC

Actor Brad Pitt and his fiance Angelina Jolie arrive for the premiere of his film World War Z in Berlin June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Paging Bloomberg’s Winkler and Pearlstine

This story that ran in Saturday’s New York Times is the best one yet on the abuse of Bloomberg’s customers’ private information by Bloomberg, the financial information powerhouse founded by New York City’s mayor. As first reported in the New York Post last month, reporters at the Bloomberg news service made a practice of checking the customer service files of bankers and others subscribing to Bloomberg’s ubiquitous and extremely expensive – about $20,000 a year each – financial data information services.

For example, they reportedly figured out that the “London Whale,” who was involved in losing billions for JPMorgan Chase, had been fired by seeing that he had not been logging on to his Bloomberg account. (Bloomberg is a competitor of Thomson Reuters, which owns Reuters – where this column appears.)

Justice Department overreach, and a rudderless IRS

Steven Brill
May 28, 2013 16:05 UTC

1.    Who called Fox News reporter a “co-conspirator”?

On the Sunday before last, the Washington Post broke a story providing details of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation into how Fox News reporter James Rosen obtained classified information about American intelligence gathering in North Korea. Coming on the heels of the news that the Justice Department had secretly conducted a massive sweep of the phone records of the Associated Press as part of another leak investigation, the Post’s scoop was big news and ignited complaints from the press and others that the Obama administration was engaged in an unprecedented dragnet that would chill basic reporting.

For many, including me, the most disturbing aspect of the Post’s story was that in an affidavit filed seeking a search warrant for the Fox reporter Rosen’s email records, the Justice Department told a federal judge that “there is probable cause to believe that the reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d) as an aider or abettor and/or co-conspirator.” In other words, the government was saying that Rosen’s act of seeking the classified information the way journalists do every day (there are no allegations that he bribed someone for it or stole it) made him guilty of a crime because he was aiding or abetting or conspiring in the leak.

That characterization, which presumably would generate multiple life sentences for Bob Woodward, was unprecedented and seemed, even to many Obama supporters, over the top.

The commencement speech market, Obamacare job bonanza, and recess appointment gridlock

Steven Brill
May 14, 2013 11:36 UTC

1.  The commencement speech market:

It’s my guess that the most sought-after commencement speaker this season is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. How many invites did she get, and how does that compare with other top names? And did she accept any? Is she getting paid? Especially now that Benghazi has come back into the news, has she set any ground rules related to the appearance, such as whether she will be available to the press before or after the talk?

Who else is a top drawer graduation speaker this year? And who, in terms of gravitas or lack thereof, is this year’s most unlikely pontificator?

What’s the market like generally this season? At a time when students face mounting tuition debt, have any schools, mindful that graduates are rarely rocked by any commencement speaker, made it a policy not to spend big bucks to put a star at the podium?

The compensation racket, Al Jazeera’s plans, and Boston health costs

Steven Brill
May 7, 2013 11:17 UTC

1.     Looking at ‘Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo’:

In his 2006 annual report to shareholders , Warren Buffett had this to say about compensation consultants:

Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance. That won’t change, moreover, because the deck is stacked against investors when it comes to the CEO’s pay. The upshot is that a mediocre-or-worse CEO – aided by his handpicked VP of human relations and a consultant from the ever-accommodating firm of Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo – all too often receives gobs of money from an ill-designed compensation arrangement.

Buffett went on to explain how these consultants simply make outsized pay in any industry the norm by ratcheting up the average, so that all executives in a given “peer group” have to get what everyone else gets:

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