Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Lawsuits from tragedy, ubiquitous security cameras, and IRS torpor

Steven Brill
Apr 23, 2013 10:28 UTC

1. Does awful luck always have to mean a lawsuit?

As Alison Frankel reported in her Thomson Reuters litigation column, last week a federal judge in Colorado refused to dismiss a suit brought by victims of the movie massacre in Aurora, Colorado against Cinemark, the theater chain that owned the Aurora venue.

The judge, as Frankel reports, wrote in his decision that “his first reaction to suits against Cinemark was, ‘How could a theater be expected to prevent something like this.’” But he went on to rule, according to Frankel, that:

[V]ictims should be allowed to probe exactly what Cinemark knew about past criminal activities at the Aurora theater (which had been the site of occasional gang-related violence), what it should have known about the risk of shootings, and what informed its decisions about safety and security for moviegoers. Holmes [the alleged shooter], after all, apparently made more than one trip from the theater to his car, where he had stored weapons and ammunition, and each time returned to the theater via a door he had propped open. “This took an extended period of time, but he was not monitored, deterred or contacted by theater personnel,” the judge said. [Judge] Jackson also noted that the theater didn’t bring in security guards for the midnight Batman premiere, even though it often hired security on the weekends.

To be sure, the judge noted that this was a close call and that he might end up giving the theater owner summary judgment after he reviews pre-trial discovery. Nonetheless, he has opened the door to expensive litigation brought by people who had tragically bad luck against a corporate defendant whose pockets are deep but for whom finding fault would be, to put it mildly, quite a stretch.

Not only does the green light for this case deserve coverage far beyond Frankel’s column, it also suggests lots of related, broader stories:

A New York Times home run, piggyback journalism, and hospital TV ads

Steven Brill
Apr 16, 2013 10:55 UTC

1.   The Times hits a home run in the Bronx:

This item comes under the category of stories I loved seeing. On Sunday the New York Times did a front pager (continued on two full pages inside) by veteran reporter William Glaberson on the collapse of the criminal courts in the Bronx that was about as close to perfection in execution and impact as journalism can get.

Glaberson’s chronicle of epic incompetence and sheer laziness among the judges, prosecutors and just about everyone else mixed mountains of impressive data (endless delays, startlingly low conviction rates) with the kind of personal stories that give the data indelible meaning: A murder defendant who was held in jail for nearly four years before being acquitted recounts how court officers, lawyers and prosecutors would be “laughing and giggling” while they scheduled postponement after postponement, ignoring him so completely that he “felt almost invisible inside the courtroom.” There’s a running narrative, artfully sprinkled in italics throughout the piece, of the agony of the family of a murdered bodega proprietor that is forced to wait five years for the accused killer to come to trial, only to have to face a new trial later this year because stale evidence and the witnesses’ foggy memories resulted in a hung jury.

When a reporter uncovers almost unbelievable data about a system failing, he’s doing a terrific job. When he then ties it this way to real people, he creates a reading experience that is unforgettable. Imagine igniting water cooler conversation about the Bronx criminal justice system rather than Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. Glaberson did that.

The revealing Rutgers report, job number revisions, and Trayvon, Inc

Steven Brill
Apr 9, 2013 11:05 UTC

1. The Rutgers basketball coach scandal as a window on NCAA sports:

Some of the stories about the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Michael Rice after a video of him abusing his players in practice was aired on ESPN referred to a 50 page report the university commissioned from an outside lawyer after the videos were first brought to school administrators’ attention. It’s this report that provided the rationale for the school initially to suspend and fine Rice but not dismiss him.

For reporters and columnists (like the New York Times’ Joe Nocera) who have been highlighting how the NCAA has become a profit machine that abuses its unpaid players, the report is worth diving into. It presents an amazingly candid, and grim, view of college athletics, and it would be great to get university presidents far and wide on the record commenting about it.

The report — written by John P. Lacey, the outside lawyer whose firm conducted the investigation — describes the offensive scenes shown on the videos and declares that it is “not acceptable for any coach at any time in a university setting to refer to players using curse words accompanied by slang and derogatory references to homosexuals such as “fags” or “faggots,” etc.” So far, so good. But here’s how the report, whose recommendations the Rutgers administration fully accepted, rationalized not jettisoning Rice:

Steve Cohen’s frustrated PR machine; unlikely lobbyists; and the $600 million train station

Steven Brill
Apr 2, 2013 11:30 UTC

1. Inside Steven Cohen’s frustrated PR machine:

Steven Cohen, the billionaire who is widely reported to be the ultimate target of prosecutors investigating insider trading at his hedge fund, has to be either crazy-reckless or supremely confident of his innocence. Either way, the master-of-the-universe buying spree he went on last week must make him the ultimate nightmare for the savvy financial PR firm that represents him, Sard Verbinnen &Co.

On the heels of a proposed $616 million insider trading civil settlement with the SEC – which a federal judge last week said he was skeptical about approving because Cohen’s firm admitted no wrong-doing, and which prosecutors have taken pains to point out does not end their criminal investigation – Cohen made headlines last Monday by buying a Picasso for $155 million. The next day he got still more ink, this time for snagging a place in the Hamptons for $60 million down the road from an estate he already owns there.

That’s hardly the kind of keep-your-head-down behavior one might expect from someone trying to hold prosecutors at bay and soften public calls for his beheading. When a longtime top deputy was marched out of his Park Avenue coop early Friday morning after being arrested by the FBI, the bulls-eye on Cohen became that much more obvious and made his over-the-top buying spree that much more bizarre.

Obamacare and hospital costs; sourcing Leno stories; and firing civil servants

Steven Brill
Mar 26, 2013 10:50 UTC

1.  Obama administration malingers on hospital bill collecting abuses:

Here’s a compelling story for any reporter who wants to shine light on a failure of basic competence – or maybe it’s backbone – by the Obama administration on an issue that affects millions of middle class and poor Americans and that was supposed to be the president’s number one priority.

In the article about healthcare prices that I wrote last month for TIME, I reported that supposedly non-profit hospitals not only charge ridiculously inflated prices (from a price list called the chargemaster) to people who are uninsured or underinsured, but they also routinely sue and demand that those full prices be paid. It’s a prime reason medical bills are the cause of more than 60% of personal bankruptcies and even more demolished credit ratings across the country.

However, one of the little-noticed provisions of Obamacare, which was passed three years ago this week, requires that non-profit hospitals, as a condition of keeping their tax exempt status, must adhere to rules to be promulgated by the IRS that would, among other things, not allow them to send bill collectors or lawyers after patients except under certain conditions. Those conditions include that the patients first be informed through aggressive outreach efforts of the availability of financial aid for patients unable to afford the bills and, more important, that for patients whose incomes are below certain levels, hospitals can only dun them or sue them for the discounted amounts they usually charge insurance companies, rather than the far higher chargemaster prices.

Presidential aloofness, a patent rush, and disclosing Washington corruption

Steven Brill
Mar 19, 2013 10:08 UTC

1.   A scorecard on presidential aloofness:

Mark Knoller is the award-winning, long time CBS News White House correspondent famous for keeping count of everything that goes on in the White House, such as presidential press conferences, speeches, visits to various states and even golf outings. Memo to Mark or anyone else who wants to put some meat on the bones of all the reports about how President Obama — whose charm offensive on Capitol Hill has dominated last two weeks’ headlines  — has until now been so unusually disengaged with Congress: Can you do a comparison of how many times before his recent flurry of congressional encounters President Obama has met with members of the House and Senate? It could include a sub-category of one-on-one sessions, and compare Obama’s record, if possible, with the stats for presidents going as far back as you can. (Maybe Bob Caro can help you even get the LBJ numbers.)

A tally of one-on-one phone calls would be great, too.

2.   Black Friday at the patent office?

Saturday morning at 12:01 marked a key deadline in the world of intellectual property. Under a change in patent law passed in September 2011 and scheduled to take effect on Saturday, March 16, 2013, rules governing new applications for seemingly the same inventions will shift from giving priority to whoever first invented a claimed invention to whoever first filed a patent application for it. It’s complicated, but this is a drastic change in patent law and means that anyone claiming a patent who is worried about competing claims would have a huge leg up by filing the application as soon as possible beginning on March 16.

Patent law has become a multi-billion dollar legal sweepstakes. So was the patent office flooded over the weekend? Was there a run up to March 16 equivalent for patent lawyers to the black Friday holiday rush for retailers?

Congress’s friendly skies, and battle of the dumb lawyers

Steven Brill
Mar 12, 2013 12:42 UTC

1.   Air Congress:

As a snowstorm threatened Washington, D.C., last Wednesday night, there were TV news reports showing members of the House hustling down the Capitol steps so they could get to the airport to catch flights home. This reminded me of something I’ve been curious about for a while.

Several years ago, when I was doing reporting for a book on the aftermath of 9/11 about how the airlines lobbied Congress to block airport security initiatives that they thought would be too onerous, I was told that each airline has a travel agency-like staff in Washington that is an adjunct of its lobbying office. Its sole purpose, one airline lobbyist told me, is to assist members of the House and Senate with their weekly trips home and back. These staffers get the call if a legislator has to change flights because of a last-minute vote.

That sounds innocent enough, but does it mean that someone else gets bumped off a full flight? What kind of other special arrangements, if any, do these airline facilitators make for our legislators that help them avoid the hassles of modern air travel faced by their constituents? How “white glove” is this service?

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.

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?

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