Stories I’d like to see

Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats, political stalling, and the lawyer who could nail Christie

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. Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats? Or are its rivals overdoing it?

I may be imagining it, but while the other network news organizations are giving full, even avid, coverage to the threat of terrorism at the coming Sochi Olympics, NBC — which is televising the games — seems to be playing it down. Or at least not playing it up.

It’s no surprise that NBC has been full of segments featuring the arrivals or practice sessions of members of team America, especially the good-looking ones. That’s a time-honored, if cheesy, effort to use ostensible news shows to boost the games’ ratings.

But it also seems that its coverage of the security threats and accompanying precautions is nothing like what we’re seeing on CBS, ABC, Fox, or CNN — where images of barb wire-encased arenas and helmeted Russian security forces abound.

Am I right? Someone on the media or sports beats ought to check that out by doing a full count of the types of stories aired across the networks.

Either way — if NBC’s security coverage is just as strong as its rivals or not — I’d like to see an inside report on how the network’s bosses are instructing their producers and talent to juxtapose their cheery coverage of our athletes with the more grim reports about the challenges of Sochi as the venue for the games.

When it’s over, I’d also like to see someone try to figure out if the ratings were hurt by the negative vibes from Sochi, or if they were helped because of the extra tension surrounding the events.

2. Stalling on environmental reviews:

Last week, the State Department released what most press reports called its “long-awaited” environmental impact review of the proposed Keystone XL gas pipeline. The pipeline’s sponsor, TransCanada Corporation, had submitted its application 21 months ago, on May 4, 2012, after what a company press release called “more than three years of environmental review already conducted” by the company and various regulatory agencies.

Though the State Department’s decision took up 11 volumes, almost two years is still a long time to write a report — especially one based on other reports.

Besides, it’s not even the final word: Now that the State Department has concluded that the pipeline, according to this account in The New York Times, “would not substantially worsen carbon pollution,” Secretary of State John Kerry still has to consult with eight other federal agencies (from the departments of Commerce and Justice, to Homeland Security and Energy) to decide whether the project is in the broader national interest.

So, who at the State Department was doing what over those 21 months? Was a team burning the midnight oil every day to produce its verdict? Or, as I suspect, has the report been slow-walked because the politics of the pipeline are so dicey for a Democratic administration that has two key constituencies — labor and environmentalists — in opposite camps?

A major news organization should demand calendars, meeting logs and other records and cultivate some inside sources to create what I’ll bet is a story of a determined bureaucratic stall. For the same reason, someone ought to start tracking the pace of Kerry’s consultations with all those other agencies.

3. Inside the Cuomo stall:

With that in mind, here’s an even surer story on the same subject. This one involves a Democratic presidential hopeful rather than a soon-to-be lame duck.

It’s about the debate over whether the hydraulic fracturing process of drilling for natural gas — fracking — should be allowed in New York State.

Fracking fields in neighboring Pennsylvania are thriving. But New York — whose upstate regions are thought to contain the same natural gas riches found in Pennsylvania — has had a moratorium on this kind of drilling since 2008, ostensibly to study the issue.

It’s become comical watching New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explain the deliberative process he and his team are going through whenever a reporter is lucky enough to pin him down on the subject.

After Cuomo inherited the moratorium when he took office in 2010, he assigned his health commissioner, Nirav Shah, to examine the pros and cons. Since then, Cuomo has repeatedly brushed off questions about where he stands on fracking by saying he’s waiting for Shah’s report. The governor has promised that his decision will only be based on science, as determined by Shah, not politics.

As labor and energy interests scream for the “study” to be completed, environmentalists (led by former Cuomo brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) continue to pound the drums against fracking. The pressure on Cuomo and Shah is mounting. Yet whenever Shah is asked when he’s going to give the governor his thumbs up or thumbs down, he looks increasingly like someone taping a hostage video as he explains that he hasn’t yet gathered all the evidence.

A good reporter ought to get his calendar and see just how vigorously Shah is doing his “study” and exactly how much the governor’s office is controlling the pace.

Whether you support fracking or hate it, an inside report on Cuomo’s obvious stall will be a fun read.

4. Checking out the MO of the lawyer who could nail Christie:

A day before former Chris Christie Port Authority appointee David Wildstein accused the New Jersey governor of knowing a lot more about the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge than he has claimed, this prescient article in the Wall Street Journal laid out the essence of the threat Wildstein might pose to Christie.

According to the Journal’s Ted Mann and Heather Haddon, by last week Wildstein had become “something of a wild card in the unfolding investigations into why bridge toll lanes were diverted for that week in September — and who was behind it.”

Why was Wildstein such a singular threat? Because, the Journal reported:

Mr. Wildstein has retained Alan Zegas, a prominent New Jersey criminal defender who sparred with Mr. Christie’s office during the governor’s tenure as a federal prosecutor, and who legal experts say is known for a willingness to cut deals that turn his clients to cooperating witnesses.

The rest of the Journal article provides no detail of any cases where Zegas successfully worked with prosecutors to flip his clients and get them to help in going after higher-ups. The Journal’s Mann and Haddon — or some of their competitors on the Bridgegate beat — should be chasing that down for what could be the most vivid preview of what’s going to happen next.

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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.