Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The clown-show economics of storm-hit utilities, and in search of open primaries

Steven Brill
Nov 13, 2012 12:42 UTC

1.   My Alaska-Hawaii electricity repair team:

It’s 10 o’clock and the lights are out. Do you know where your local utility actually lives?

I have already written that New York State Electric and Gas — the incompetent, uncaring electric company that services our home in northern Westchester County, New York ‑- is not exactly a community utility. It is part of a Spanish energy conglomerate. Nonetheless, when a repair crew finally arrived six days after Hurricane Sandy hit and I chatted up the guys who were about to climb our poles, I was amazed to hear that one was from Hawaii and the other two from Alaska. That they had come that far seemed so absurd that I asked to see their driver’s licenses.

Adding to this theater of the absurd was the fact that the truck they were driving was owned by something called Michels Company and had come from Syracuse, New York. That’s about 250 miles from our house. And they had been commuting all week on that truck to the repair jobs in our neighborhood from a motel in Kingston, New York – which is 72 miles away.

My new Hawaiian and Alaskan friends told me they were recruited by Michels and flown to New York on the Wednesday after the storm. Michels, they explained, is a far-flung construction contractor based in Brownsville, Wisconsin (which is about midway between Green Bay and Milwaukee) with 27 field offices from Seattle to Syracuse. The company handles jobs ranging from the Keystone Pipeline  to building highways to climbing our light pole. The crew chief, who was from Green Bay, told my wife that for New York State Electric and Gas and many other utilities, Michels has become the lead outside contractor for storm repairs. From headquarters in Wisconsin, it coordinates the now-standard practice of rounding up electricians from all over the country to become an electric company’s temporary storm recovery crew.

All of this ‑- not to mention the obvious broader tableau of how we seem to accept it as the new normal when our public utilities routinely tell customers that power outages will take a week or more to fix ‑- cries out for comprehensive reporting.

Electoral legal minefields, baseball contracts, and airline woes

Steven Brill
Oct 16, 2012 10:26 UTC

1. The Election Day legal battlefield:

We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.

Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.

For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.

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.

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?

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.

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