Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The beef against ABC, and Romney as a debater

Steven Brill
Sep 18, 2012 10:32 UTC

1. The beef against ABC:

Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.” Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade. Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which  she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did eleven separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.”  It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel “The Jungle” that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early twentieth century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.

These multiple reports — hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets — and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.

Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint Beef Products quickly lost 60% of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.

Most of the modest press coverage of the filing of the suit acknowledged the huge hurdles any plaintiff has in a country where the First Amendment protects not only free expression, but those, like ABC, whose expression angers its targets and even causes them ruinous economic harm. That’s true.

Some of the coverage, like this Wall Street Journal report, also focused on Beef Products’ invocation of a South Dakota law “that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized,” and noted that beef producers had tried unsuccessfully to sue Oprah Winfrey in Texas using the same type of argument that she had disparaged meat products. That’s true, too.

Tracking the battleground wars

Steven Brill
Sep 11, 2012 11:42 UTC

I always tell my students that the best stories come from what you’re most curious about. And for all the coverage of the presidential campaign we’ve been getting in print, online and on cable, my curiosity about what’s really going on in the battleground states and in their most evenly divided precincts hasn’t come close to being satisfied. With all the time and money CNN, Politico and the major newspapers are spending letting the usual suspects opine on the horse race, they should zero in on the people who count by doing some of the following:

a. The voters: Why haven’t the news organizations most heavily invested in campaign coverage selected representative samples of voters (undecided, as well as voters leaning to one side or the other) in three or four battleground precincts across the country – from Colorado to Ohio and New Hampshire to Florida – to ask them in focus groups what, if anything, is persuading them or turning them off? This should be video programming, but that doesn’t mean Politico or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (or even Reuters or Bloomberg) – in addition to the cable news networks – couldn’t do it, given that they all now have robust online video programming. There’s almost an infinite number of questions I’d want to hear these voters asked, among them:

Have field workers called or knocked on their doors? If so, what are the canvassers saying? Is it persuasive?

Polling the power of campaign lies, security ideas for 9/11′s 11th, stimulus stories

Steven Brill
Sep 5, 2012 12:53 UTC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Use polls to monitor the effectiveness of campaign lies:

It’s great that many media organizations have been fact-checking the claims of the presidential candidates and holding them accountable for blatant distortions. But with all the money they are spending on polls, why can’t they poll whether the lies are working?

For example, why not ask voters whether they believe the charge that President Obama has eliminated the work requirement in the welfare program? Or if they now believe that Obama cut $700 billion from Medicare benefits? Or that the Romney/Ryan budget plan would actually gut the deficit instead of balloon it?

And although I don’t want to imply equivalency of misstatements in the two campaigns, because there isn’t, pollsters could also ask about this Obama-side whopper: whether people think Governor Romney’s Bain Capital indirectly caused the death of a woman by depriving her husband of health insurance?

How would a woman “prove” rape to qualify for Romney’s abortion exemption?

Steven Brill
Aug 28, 2012 15:31 UTC

In the wake of the Todd Akin firestorm, Mitt Romney and a flip-flopping Paul Ryan have emphasized that their anti-choice stance excludes rape. In a Romney administration, abortions would be outlawed except in the case of women who have been raped, the Republican ticket has promised.

So here’s an idea, first suggested by my daughter and one of her friends: Who’s going to be the first reporter to ask Romney or Ryan how that would work? How would they implement that exception?

Would a woman’s rapist have to be convicted in court? How would that work, given that in most criminal cases it takes longer than nine months from when the crime is committed to catch the criminal (assuming the criminal is caught), prepare charges and reach a verdict. In fact, the window would be significantly less than nine months; it would start from when the pregnancy is discovered and end somewhere around the 16 to 20 weeks left during which abortions can be performed most safely.

Fareed Zakaria’s “mistake”

Steven Brill
Aug 22, 2012 15:48 UTC

Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”

I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”

Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”

Questions for Ryan, working for welfare, updates on Olbermann and Facebook

Steven Brill
Aug 14, 2012 12:26 UTC

1.   Quick questions for Paul Ryan:

It’s too bad Bob Schieffer didn’t get to these questions for Paul Ryan on 60 Minutes last Sunday night:

Have you calculated how much the average American enrolled in Social Security would have lost in the 2008-2009 market collapse if he or she had been allowed to move those funds into private stock accounts, as your 2004 Social Security privatization plan would have encouraged? Does that change your view of whether we should move Social Security in that direction?

In his recent profile of you in the New Yorker Ryan Lizza says you were “embarrassed” by the Bush years and by the votes you cast in support of deficit-widening programs such as the extension of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Which votes, including that one, would you take back? And, more important, would you now urge a President Romney to move to repeal prescription drug coverage if you are elected?

Why is the Ford Foundation donating to Kaplan Education and Jerry Springer?

Steven Brill
Aug 7, 2012 12:54 UTC

It was widely reported last week that the Ford Foundation has given The Washington Post a $500,000 grant to hire four extra reporters for a year “to work on special projects related to money, politics and government,” according to a staff memo issued by the Post’s top editors. This followed a May announcement that the foundation had given a million dollars to the Los Angeles Times to expand coverage in areas ranging from local immigrant communities to the state prison system.

These reporting initiatives are worthy endeavors aimed at fortifying great newspapers whose profits have been savaged by the rise of the Internet. However, The Washington Post Co (though not the newspaper) is still quite profitable. The company reported operating income of $77.8 million in the first half of this year. In fact, the Post Co division that owns a group of local television stations is enjoying boom-time revenue this year because of the flood of 2012 political advertising; operating income in that unit increased 43 percent in the first half of this year over last year.

The Post Co also owns the Kaplan education business, and although Kaplan’s for-profit universities are suffering because of a government crackdown on abuses related to marketing and student loan commitments, its test preparation division has shown improved results.

Romney’s tax audit, Aurora and risk, inside the IRS

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2012 19:20 UTC

1. What happened with Romney’s audit?

On Sunday, Mitt Romney – while promising ABC he would “go back and check” to see if he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent in income taxes he reported paying in the only return he has released so far – volunteered that he had been audited in the past by the IRS. So, the next question needs to be, “Governor, when you were audited, did the IRS then require you to pay additional taxes, and, if so, would you specify the discrepancy between what you claimed and what the IRS determined was the appropriate tax? And was more than one year of returns audited? If so, what were the results of those other audits?”

2. Aurora and risk:

When I saw reports in the wake of the Aurora massacre that theater chains are thinking about how they might implement new security measures to restrict who can bring what into a theater, I was reminded of a story I read recently about what happened in the aftermath of a horrific air crash 16 years ago.

Most of us have only a dim memory of TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that exploded over the Atlantic shortly after leaving Kennedy Airport for Paris on the night of July 26, 1996.

Pinning Romney down on taxes

Steven Brill
Jul 19, 2012 21:23 UTC

The press is missing a trick in continuing to ask Governor Romney only whether he’s going to release more than his most recent tax returns. That allows him to say either yes or no (for now, it’s no), which produces no information. So no news gets made. But there are lots of other ways to get at the Romney tax issue by asking him a variety of different questions, for which even a refusal to comment would be news.

All these questions should begin with something like this: “Governor, we know you feel that releasing additional tax returns will invade your privacy and that of your family and, as you have asserted, allow the Obama campaign to pick through thousands of pages and come up with more distortions and half-truths. So if you are not going to release the returns, could you just tell us this:

Reporters could then choose from among these follow-on questions:

1. In the last 10 years have you ever paid less than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income in federal income taxes? If you don’t know offhand, could you ask your accountant to tell us? (On different days reporters could substitute 7 percent, 5 percent or 2 percent as the benchmark.)

Soaring college costs and the Penn State private plane

Steven Brill
Jul 17, 2012 12:41 UTC
1. How high are universities flying?

I was amazed to see this sentence in the piece the New York Times’s ever-amazing Jo Becker wrote last week about all the goodies outgoing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno negotiated in a new contract even as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was imploding around him: “He would also have the use of the university’s private plane…”

Penn State has a private plane? Sure, the school probably charters a jet when the team travels. But do the university executives have their own jet? How many other universities have perks like this?

As this article from Bloomberg.com documents, the relentless rise in higher education tuition and other costs has trapped students in debt from readily available student loans backed by us taxpayers. It is fast becoming a national scandal akin to the mortgage crisis. Which means we need some tough, fresh reporting finally holding university leaders accountable for spending and management efficiency.

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