In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Bezos and the Washington Post: A nothingburger?
It has now been more than six months since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his deal to buy the Washington Post. It’s been more than four months since the transaction closed and Bezos was legally in charge. But so far nothing seems to have changed. The paper still seems to be in a defensive crouch rather than back on the offense, fueled by Bezos’ promise to invest both his money and his brain in the enterprise and launch a bunch of think-outside-the-box initiatives.
For example, Ezra Klein, the maestro of the Post’s Wonkblog, is reported to be about to leave because Bezos and Washington Post executives turned down his proposal to start an ambitious offshoot of his widely-followed domestic policy blog. Without looking at Klein’s business plan it’s impossible to know if their decision makes sense, but the situation is eerily similar to when the prior ownership of the Post turned down the pitch by then-star-reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei to start something called Politico — which they then took to rival media company Allbritton Communications.
Over the weekend The New York Times announced that it has beefed up its already-strong China team by hiring the award-winning reporter whose pending story about ties between China’s richest man and the country’s rulers was held or killed (depending on whose account you believe) by Bloomberg News, after which the reporter abruptly left the company. The moment he became available it seemed to me that Bezos could have sent a clear and relatively inexpensive signal that the Post was back in the game by snagging him.
Did Bezos or Marty Baron, the Post editor, even try? (Which suggests another story: will the Post’s coverage of China be affected by Amazon’s business interests there the way Bloomberg’s seem to have been — and what are those interests?)
Similarly, did Bezos personally vet Ezra Klein’s plan and reject it? Was there a substantive discussion, in which Bezos tried to tweak the plan only to be rejected by Klein? Or, was Bezos not even personally involved?
How involved has he been in anything else related to the Post? True, the Post has made some good hires, post-Bezos — luring AP Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Goldman and National Review’s Robert Costa — but beyond that so far it seems as if Bezos bought the paper as a relatively inexpensive (for him) favor to former Post company chief executive officer Donald Graham and the country by preserving it but leaving it alone. But who knows? He could have a ton of big plans in the works.
It’s time for a dogged business reporter to find out.
2. Time to focus on America’s worst-run agency:
The Bridgegate scandal enveloping New Jersey Governor Chris Christie last week has cast a bit of a spotlight on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It’s the bi-state agency that owns and operates the George Washington Bridge and whose officials, apparently at the behest of people in Christie’s office, bottled up traffic in Ft. Lee, NJ, heading to the bridge.
Two years ago I suggested that someone ought to do a major story on the Port Authority, which, in addition to the bridge, I wrote, “runs JFK, Newark Liberty, and LaGuardia airports, and all three perennially rate among the worst in the world when it comes to on-time performance, restaurants, and other concessions, transportation services, and general cleanliness and convenience….Being responsible for what may be the world’s three lousiest major airports (at least the worst 3 out of 5 or 10) is an amazing hat trick,” I added, “for an agency that is also jaw-droppingly over-funded, largely through ever-escalating airport landing and gate fees and sky-high tolls on the metropolitan area’s bridges and tunnels.” I also cited “perpetual cost overruns and execution failures,” and gambits such as paying overtime to workers who have been suspended for misconduct or convicted of crimes.
Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo share responsibility for all of this, and with each of them being talked about as future chief executives of the country, maybe the shenanigans at their bridge will stir some editor or producer to put some troops on to this overdue story.
3. Who’s paying Rodman what?
Left out of the coverage of former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s latest escapades in North Korea is a simple but potentially juicy piece of the story: Who’s paying for all of this?
Who financed the trip by Rodman and his crew of other former NBA stars to the hermit kingdom to play an exhibition game and celebrate dictator Kim Jung Un’s birthday?
Prior Rodman trips to North Korea were supposedly part of a documentary film project paid for by Vice Media, which operates a group of internet-based video sites. USA Today described Vice’s “edgy brand of journalism” this way last month:
What do military drones in Pakistan, arms expositions in Jordan and a naked beer-drinking man in Brooklyn have in common? They are all part of the go-anywhere storytelling style of Vice Media.
It’s been implied but not reported explicitly in stories written about Rodman’s latest trip — in which he denounced an American being held captive by North Korea and voiced more enthusiastic support for Kim than he had in the past — that this one was also part of a Vice project.
Beyond travel expenses, how much were Rodman and his friend paid for their self-proclaimed effort at “basketball diplomacy”?
Did North Korea share any of the fees and costs with Vice? What would the legal implications of that be for Rodman or maybe for Vice, given the American trade embargo with North Korea? Would Vice have any First Amendment protections if Kim’s government helped the company financially? Conversely, would Vice, whose investors include Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, have trouble under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act if it paid any North Korean officials for access?