Stories I’d like to see

Default scenarios, Yankees' doctors, and why internet companies backpedaled on privacy

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

1. Default scenarios:

With a deadlock over raising the debt ceiling looking more likely than a stalemate over funding the government to avert a shutdown, I’ve been looking for a definitive story on what exactly will happen if the ceiling isn’t raised.

Yes, we’ve read that the government is likely to continue to pay its debts to bondholders in order to avoid a default. That means that other checks for basic expenses, like payrolls, will have to be delayed until revenues roll in to cover them. But how exactly will that work?

Indeed, is there really any way that the government — which must have thousands of agencies and offices issuing checks every day — can control its outlays the way you or I might control our checkbooks when we’re in a pinch? Or is everything already programmed on systems that can maybe be turned on or off but can’t be tweaked to cover one check but not another? Who in the government is staying up at night working on that?

If the disbursements can, in fact, be controlled, who’s deciding what the priorities are and on what basis?

And how much is the daily or weekly shortfall likely to be? In other words, what percent of the government’s ongoing expenses, however the priorities are determined, will have to be deferred?

Finally, what rights do those owed money have? Can they go into court demanding payment the way any other creditor can when bills don’t get paid or checks bounce? (Tongue-in-cheek sidebar idea: if creditors go into federal court, might judges, who also might not have been paid their salaries, have a conflict when it comes to setting payment priorities?) And will any judgments against a deadbeat government further erode the country’s credit rating even while the government tries to avoid that by paying off, as it apparently will, its more formal debts related to treasury bonds?

2. The Yankees’ doctors:

Here’s an intriguing healthcare story I haven’t seen yet: Is there something about the New York Yankees’ trainers and doctors that might explain the way the team has been crippled by injuries this year? Sure, the Yankees’ key players are old. They’ve also had lots of bad luck; for example, Curtis Granderson’s two broken bones came from pitches that hit him. But the Bronx Bombers have also suffered all kinds of muscle pulls, ligament strains and other injuries — and, worse yet, re-injuries and relapses — that should make a reporter on the baseball beat wonder if their trainers and doctors aren’t up to snuff.

3. The internet economy drops its privacy pose:

This story last week in Advertising Age has so far not gotten the broader attention it deserves. As Ad Age reports, executives representing the internet advertising industry have pulled out of something called The Do Not Track initiative, which as Ad Age puts it, is “the broad collective of privacy advocates, technologists, ad industry representatives and lawyers who have struggled over the past two years to define online tracking and determine a standard for a browser-based do-not-track mechanism….”

The Ad Age report suggests to me a back story — that the advertising people (from Google, Yahoo, and other industry leaders) were really only going through the motions, and never would have agreed to the kind of strong protections against tracking that the privacy advocates have insisted on. Rather, they’ve been stringing the privacy people along by pledging a voluntary solution, hoping to avert an all-out push for strong regulation.

That the advertising executives would ultimately walk away from the table should be no surprise. For without being able to track where people go online, the game-changing advantage of Internet advertising — targeting the best prospects based on their interests — evaporates.

What appears to be a looming confrontation between the two sides is now worth major coverage.

The privacy advocates are surely going to intensify efforts to get new laws and regulations to do what the Internet industry would not do voluntarily. It’s going to be a pivotal fight, with great arguments on both sides.

On the one hand, Internet tracking and the advertising that it enables fuels most of our most valuable Silicon Valley enterprises, as well as the websites that are the sources of so much of our information, entertainment, and social networking. On the other hand, at a time when we seem worried about tracking by the National Security Agency — which at least in theory is subject to outside oversight and laws about how it can use our information — dozens of private companies, some of which we have never heard of and all of which are accountable to no one in the way the NSA is, are tracking us, too.

To inform that debate, we need to see stories flushing out the arguments, sizing up the key players on both sides, and exploring how tricky the politics of all this can be. (Can Google or Facebook deplore NSA tracking while fighting for the freedom to do their own tracking?) Most important, we need some good analyses of how tightened restrictions on tracking will affect our economy and some of our most celebrated enterprises.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , , ,