Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Hiding the debate rules, a tin cup for wounded vets, and the Bear Stearns legacy

Steven Brill
Oct 9, 2012 18:31 UTC

1.  The remaining debates: Tell us the rules

Two weeks ago there was an interesting story in the Huffington Post about how the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates are likely to be highly detailed, down to the permissible lighting and camera shots, how the moderators are supposed to ensure a balance in each candidate’s allotted time during any back-and-forth, and even a provision for the screening of notepaper the combatants could bring to the podium (to make sure it was blank).

The HuffPo report drew on a leaked 31-page contract the commission executed with the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and noted that “eighteen good-governance and media watchdog groups” have now demanded that this year’s contract be publicly disclosed.

But why is the press waiting for the commission and the campaigns to disclose what they obviously want to keep under wraps? Why hasn’t some reporter pried loose the text or at least the highlights of the 2012 contract? There must be a half-dozen or more operatives in each camp, plus at least as many debate commission officials, who know.

With the controversy over moderator Jim Lehrer’s allegedly too-laid-back performance in the first Obama-Romney debate, the actual rules seem more relevant now than ever. This is especially true because the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, has a town hall format. That means that beyond the moderator’s stipulated role, there are all kinds of issues related to the choice of the audience, the nature and selection of the questions they can ask, and what kind of follow-up is allowed from the citizen-questioners or the moderator. Any of these dynamics could be pivotal, which is why the 2004 contract included a whole series of special clauses governing only that town hall format.

These are the election’s most important events. Can’t one of the hundreds of reporters covering campaign 2012 find out what rules have been negotiated and what the moderator is supposed to do if they are violated?

Tales of a TARP built to benefit bankers, and waiting for CEOs to pay the price

Steven Brill
Oct 2, 2012 11:33 UTC

1.  The Obama TARP fiasco Romney can’t use:

If the dynamics of the presidential campaign were different, a book called Bailout by Neil Barofsky would be getting a lot more attention. Barofsky left a post in late 2008 as a top federal financial fraud prosecutor in New York to become the special inspector general overseeing the $700 billion TARP bailout program. He’s written a Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington-like account of how even after TARP was turned over to a Democratic administration – in fact more so after the Democrats took over – TARP money was dispensed and TARP rules were written almost completely for the benefit of the bankers who drove America into a ditch.

For example, there’s Barofsky’s blow-by-blow description of how the rules written by the Obama administration for its much-heralded $50 billion program to help homeowners whose mortgages were underwater were so tilted in favor of the banks and against homeowners actually being able to get relief that only $1.4 billion of the $50 billion was dispensed, with few homeowners getting any help. And Barofsky is not writing about compromises the Obama administration had to make with banker-sympathetic Republicans in Congress; this is all about internal decisions that unfailingly seemed to put the needs and mindset of Wall Street above those of Main Street consumers.

A presidential campaign that wanted to call out the Obama administration for being too friendly to Wall Street and the banks at the expense of Main Street would be using Bailout as the cheat sheet that keeps on giving. But with the Romney campaign’s attack coming from the opposite direction – that the president and his team have killed the economy by shackling Wall Street – and with Romney on record in favor of allowing the mortgage crisis to “bottom out” with no government intervention, the former Massachusetts governor and his team have no use for Bailout.

ProPublica’s prize-winning ways, and more questions about Ryan’s role

Steven Brill
Sep 25, 2012 11:25 UTC

1.  How does ProPublica do it? Can it scale?

I received an intriguing email alert last week from ProPublica – the non-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, does “journalism in the public interest.” The email announced that ProPublica’s “nursing home inspection” tool now has a completely searchable database of “140,000-plus” reports from government inspections of these facilities for seniors, many of which have been plagued by charges of poor or even abusive care.

That reminded me that as its fifth anniversary approaches, ProPublica deserves full-blown feature treatment.

The small, New York-based organization, which has already won two Pulitzer Prizes, has done a slew of amazing reporting projects that have combined old-fashioned shoe leather with ingenious use of modern technology to gather and present compelling stories and provide ongoing resource materials. It has tackled  subjects ranging from political ad spending to doctors getting payments from drug companies to presidential pardons to this nursing home project. And that’s all in addition to an array of killer one-off stories, such as its report on speaking fees paid to Chicago Tribune editorial board member and syndicated columnist Clarence Page by a group lobbying to be removed from a State Department terrorist list, or the story about Magnetar, the secretive financial firm.

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.

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.

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