Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

Everything about the piece shows the Times running on all cylinders. The front page photo – of crowds of frustrated witnesses, family members, and prospective jurors waiting to go through under-manned security checkpoints at the entrance to the courthouse – is emblematic of what goes on inside. The chart on the jump page that uses Glaberson’s stopwatch record of how long court was actually in session versus how much time was lost to the judge or lawyers being late or taking breaks or going to lunch or leaving early was a home run, too. The sub-headlines – “Routine Lateness,” “Delay As A Strategy,” “Trouble On The Bench” – all pack the right punch.

The only element missing was how Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose multi-dimensional incompetence is demonstrated in almost every other paragraph, has kept getting reelected to the point where, at 24 years, he’s the longest serving of New York’s five county prosecutors. I hope Glaberson will get to that. His Sunday story was introduced as the first in a series; yesterday’s second part zeroed in on another key player – a defense lawyer – who has perfected the art of delaying trials while the judges and the prosecutors DA Johnson supervises do nothing to stop him.

Cheney’s heart, CVS and privacy, and Wal-Mart’s guns

Steven Brill
Apr 17, 2012 13:11 UTC

1. Who gives out hearts?

In exploring whether former Vice-President Cheney might have received preferential treatment when he got a heart transplant recently, many of the reporters covering the story referred to what the New York Times called “a national system that tracks donors and recipients by medical criteria.” Two doctors were then quoted as saying, as one put it: “It is not possible to game the system.”

Fair enough, but who runs the system? Who sets the criteria, and who signs off on who has met the criteria? Who decides close calls? Is there a form that gets signed by a majority of some committee, or is there one king of hearts? And are actual names attached to the patients, so that whoever was making the decision could have seen that Vice-President Cheney was an applicant for the heart in question?

Because transplants are done urgently once a donor becomes available – often after his or her sudden death in an accident, when apparently there are only hours to spare before the heart is no longer viable – is there some kind of operations center, where these decisions are signed off on and coordinated? Can’t some reporter take us there and have us meet the people playing God?

Hoop academics, judging the GSA, Latin healthcare

Steven Brill
Apr 10, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. Hoop academics:

What’s one year of classes at the University of Kentucky really like for basketball stars?

Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Taylor Branch’s fabulous NCAA article in the Atlantic last fall entitled “The Shame of College Sports” and by Joe Nocera’s compelling Op-Ed columns in the New York Times arguing that the NCAA is all about money and nothing about education. And I admit I’m drafting this after watching the feel-good NCAA ads profiling the teams’ scholar-athletes during the March basketball tournament. But now that the Final Four have come and gone and we know that all five starters on the University of Kentucky’s winning team are quitting to join the NBA after just one or two years at school, I’m wondering what a reporter will find if he or she digs into the education these freshman and sophomores actually received.

What courses did they take? How rigorous were they? What do the players’ professors and fellow students have to say about their participation in class? Did the players do the work? Did they lag or excel?

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