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. The next terrorist attack may turn your lights out for weeks:
Or it may cause a dozen planes to crash at once because the air traffic control system goes haywire. Or it could play havoc with our email, e-commerce, use of credit cards, and the stock markets. Or do all of the above.
Because I’m on the Department of Homeland Security’s press release list, I’m forever seeing announcements of one DHS official or another speaking at some conference on protecting our critical infrastructure. Last week, DHS’s “National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of Emergency Communications Region IV Coordinator” spoke at one in Tampa, and two other officials will be speaking at conferences on January 23. The problem is that while there are endless forums about the threats, little is being done to deal with them.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, many news organizations went back and looked at the scant attention paid to a commission chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that delivered a report to the Bush Administration on January 31, 2001, warning that if the country didn’t start shoring up its intelligence and defenses, “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not help us.” Last fall, a series of measures to protect our critical infrastructure — everything from the power grid to electronic systems enabling air traffic control — failed to make it out of Congress despite warnings from Homeland Security and Pentagon officials that, as with the Hart-Rudman prediction, a devastating cyber-attack on our infrastructure was now a matter of when, not if.
Concerned that their systems would be subject to costly new security standards and regulation, the big businesses that operate most of our infrastructure successfully deployed their lobbyists to block congressional action. There was some press coverage of the wrangling on Capitol Hill but not much.
Rather than repeat the 9/11 sequence and do a bunch of stories after a catastrophic cyber-attack chronicling Washington’s failure to act and finding the culprits among all the lobbyists and the interests they represent, why not do the stories now? Why not get out there and spotlight some illustrative vulnerabilities and put the heat on those companies and legislators whose continuing neglect virtually ensures an attack that will cause mass casualties and shut down the economy? The reporting should be specific. Rather than quoting terrorism experts and their general calls for action, take us to the scene of some disaster waiting to happen and describe what the consequences would be, what needs to be done, and who’s neglecting to do it and why. After the attack this will all be headline news for months. Why not before?
2. What’s the plan, Mr. President?
Can’t some White House reporter take it upon himself or herself to ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney every day at every press briefing what the president’s specific plan is to cut Medicare entitlements and other expenditures? We were told that President Barack Obama put some proposals on the table during his grand bargain negotiations last year with Speaker John Boehner, and the president and his staff have been telling us ever since that he’s willing to make cuts. Where and how? We now know exactly what he wants to do about guns, just as we knew exactly what Lyndon Johnson wanted to do about Civil Rights. But what about the deficit?
When Carney deflects the question with generalities (such as “the administration supports a balanced approach along the lines of Simpson-Bowles”), the reporter should press him for specifics. And then do the same thing the next day and every day after. Meantime the reporter’s news outlet (let’s hope it’s one less predictable than Fox News) should post a ticker online and in print or on the TV screen counting the number of days the president has refused to tell us what his proposal is for addressing the country’s most pressing problem.
3. Who’s who in the gun industry?
Amid the renewed debate on gun control there have been scattered reports about the gun industry, such as this one and many others like it about how a major venture capital firm that owns the company that made the Bushmaster deployed in Newtown has put its investment up for sale. But I’ve been waiting for a major feature somewhere that really sheds light on the gun industry in America. Who are the leading players in both handguns and long guns? Who are the CEOs, and what do they say about the products they sell?
How much do they really help to fund the NRA and similar anti-gun control groups and how? Are there other blue chip venture firms — run perhaps by people who otherwise proudly grace the financial or even the society pages for their charitable activities — tied up in the industry?
What are their most profitable products? Do the same players sell the armor-piercing bullets and the multi-round magazines now under attack from the gun controllers? How has the recent surge in gun sales and this related equipment (apparently because gun enthusiasts are afraid their right to purchase it is going to be curtailed) boosted their profits? Is the NRA’s “slippery slope” argument that President Obama’s limited proposals are the beginning of a gun confiscation program part of an industry-inspired campaign to boost sales by encouraging a run on all guns before confiscation happens? Can someone find some sources inside the companies to tell us about that or maybe even provide strategy memos?
This Huffington Post article spotlights the National Shooting Sports Foundation (based, ironically, in Newtown) as the industry’s primary trade association. Its 2011 tax return shows no expenses for lobbying but $2.5 million in 2011 for “government relations.” What exactly are its activities in Washington and state capitols? Are there other trade associations or groups that fund the industry’s advocacy in Washington? The foundation doesn’t appear to have given any money to the NRA, but to what extent do the individual companies or perhaps some other industry-related group fund the NRA and through what channels?
This piece, also from the Huffington Post, asserts that “the NRA is primarily a front group for the nation’s gun manufacturers.” But the NRA’s tax return for 2010 (the 2011 return seems long overdue, which is itself an interesting line of inquiry) only lists $58.5 million in “contributions, gifts, grants,” whereas $100.5 million is recorded for “membership dues.” That’s still $50 million that could be from the gun makers, and there’s also $20.9 million in advertising revenue (most of which is presumably for the NRA’s monthly magazine) that probably comes mostly from the industry. But those are simply hints from a two-year-old tax return. It would be great to see a full, detailed picture of who the gun industry is, how much money they make on what, and the extent to which they use that money to hold back gun control.