Stories I’d Like to See

Hooked on drug ads, education collision in Hawaii, and the gas frenzy

In his weekly “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. Are Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Brian Williams hooked on Cymbalta?

Every time I suffer through the (simultaneously timed) commercial breaks on one of the network evening news shows I wish I could read a story about prescription drug advertising on television. I’ll bet these ads now account for two-thirds or more of revenues for the network news shows, whose viewer demographics are apparently perfect targets for drugs directed at older people with erectile dysfunction, withering bones, dry eyes, insomnia, lung malfunction (as illustrated by an elephant sitting on some guy’s chest), incontinence, and whatever it is that is cured by something called Cymbalta, whose ads I think I saw on all three shows the other night.

To what extent does the federal government’s decision to allow, beginning in the mid-1990s, such direct-to-consumer ads keep these once-revered nightly news shows afloat? (A sidebar should also cover how these ads boost the economics of struggling magazines, in large part because the rules require a page of small print detail about dosage and side effects following the glitzy image ad.) At a time when healthcare costs are a national crisis, does the American policy of allowing these ads, which most countries prohibit, create unnecessary demand and needless expense? Or do they give patients important information? Does telling me I might have a disease that I had never heard of help me address a malady before it gets worse, or does it make me a prescription-guzzling hypochondriac? How does the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such advertising, evaluate all that, and what kind of lobbying do the networks and drug companies do to influence that debate? Or is there no longer a debate?

And what are the rules governing the hilarious recitations of possible side effects? How fast is the announcer allowed to breeze through describing the risk of suicide, hives, sleepwalking, backache, swelling of the tongue, depression, migraines, miscarriage or four-day (or is it four-hour?) erections?

2. Will the U.S. education secretary help determine control of the Senate?

There’s a showdown looming this fall over President Obama’s most highly touted domestic policy initiative, and it could end up deciding a Senate race in Hawaii—and perhaps even control of the Senate.

Some pundits scoping out the 2012 Senate races have started to look at Hawaii, where the retirement of three-term Democrat Daniel Akaka has created an open seat. Former two-term Republican governor Linda Lingle is likely to win her primary in August and face either Democratic congresswoman Mazie Hirono or former Democratic congressman Ed Case, who are competing in their party’s primary. Current polls suggest that Lingle, who was more popular than Neil Abercrombie, the Democrat who has replaced her, has at least a fighting chance to buck Hawaii’s tradition as a Democratic stronghold and become only the second Republican senator Hawaii has ever elected.

But there’s an extra angle to the Hawaii race that someone ought to look at: In the summer of 2010, Hawaii was one of 11 states (along with the District of Columbia) chosen as a winner of President Obama’s Race to the Top education grant program. The winners were meant to be those states that presented the best plans to reform their K-12 education systems by enacting the kinds of teacher evaluation and accountability programs that teachers’ unions—which are the base of the Democratic Party—have traditionally opposed. Despite the unions’ opposition, President Obama pushed Race to the Top through Congress. Still more surprising to the pols, policy wonks, and lobbyists who follow education in Washington, the Obama administration then wrote regulations that gave the program real teeth.

The outside experts chosen to vet each state’s reform proposals were instructed to award points according to painstakingly specific criteria, and they were charged with doing so based not only on what each state promised but also on how likely it was that the state could and would actually deliver.

The problem, as I reported in a book (Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools) published last summer, was that to avoid charges of conflicts or favoritism, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff chose a group of mostly academic vetters, rather than experts experienced in education reform, to evaluate the states’ 500-to-800-page proposals. This may have made the process above reproach, but it also resulted in having many vetters who were clueless about the practical issues involved in implementing reform.

Thus, some of the evaluators’ winning picks, such as New York and Ohio, and some of their rejections, particularly Colorado and Louisiana, were hotly debated in education circles, with critics arguing that these were emblematic misfires in an evaluation process in which the vetters had been bamboozled by the applicants’ promises of reform. But the $75 million award to Hawaii—where the teachers’ union is the state’s most powerful Democratic interest group and where the state’s promises in its application had been filled with gaping loopholes—wasn’t really debated at all. No one outside of Hawaii tried to defend it. It was broadly dismissed as a fiasco. In fact, Duncan and his staff couldn’t believe it when they saw Hawaii on the winners list.

However, when I asked Duncan just after Hawaii got the nod what he would do if states failed to keep their promises, he vowed he would cut off the money, which is to be awarded in eight increments over four years—or even sue to get money back where checks had already been written.

Twenty months later, the Hawaii state teachers’ union has refused to agree to the evaluation and accountability reforms that were the core of the state’s winning application. And so far, Hawaii has requested 31 amendments to its application, all involving delays in its promised schedule or a watering down of its promises. Duncan’s office has approved 27 of them, but he has reiterated his vow to hold Hawaii accountable. He has even formally placed Hawaii on “high risk” status, meaning he might revoke its funding if he doesn’t see progress soon.

Crunch time on fulfilling many of the Race to the Top promises should be early this fall. That will mark the second anniversary of the original award and would supposedly mark the half-way point in the four-year program. Yet it’s likely that Hawaii will have done little, if anything, even to begin implementing the key reforms it promised.

Duncan has been a straight arrow when it comes to keeping politics out of the Race to the Top contest. Then again, the $75 million Hawaii grant is lot of money for a state this small, and the failure of Governor Abercrombie to deliver on his state’s reform promises has gotten a fair amount of local press. So, if there’s a tight Senate race in Hawaii this fall that might even determine control of the U.S. Senate, will Duncan stick to his guns and undercut the Democratic candidate, not to mention embarrass the Democratic governor, by lowering the boom?

3. Who’s getting what at the oil pump?

With all the frenzy over oil prices, I’d like to see a simple but definitive story that takes a gallon of the gasoline Americans buy and breaks down exactly who gets how much of the $4.00 (or whatever the price is), starting with owners of the oil fields and including drillers, shippers, refiners, distributors, retailers, and, of course, the tax collectors. And which of these parties benefits the most when the price goes up?

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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. Tags: , , , , ,