Stories I’d Like to See

Cable conflicts, BlackBerry’s demise, and China’s millionaires

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. Disclosure on cable news shows:

When talking heads come on the cable-TV news shows to support their causes and attack the opposition, are there any standards imposed by their host networks for disclosing conflicts of interest?

Here’s an excerpt from a statement put out by the conservative Koch Industries the week before last complaining about MSNBC:

On March 23, while guest hosting the Martin Bashir program, Karen Finney accused Koch of a connection with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Trayvon Martin matter. ”Who was the Typhoid Mary for this horrible outbreak,” Finney asked. She then stated, ”It’s the usual suspects the Koch brothers … the same people who stymied gun regulation at every point who funded and ghost write these laws.” Because we saw this dishonest story line developing and were concerned other extremists would pick it up, we put out a public statement the day before Ms. Finney’s rant explaining that this story line was totally false and irresponsible. First, Koch has had no involvement in this legislation … You should also be aware that on March 26, Ms. Finney signed and sent a letter on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soliciting political contributions. Yet, she is presented to viewers as a “political analyst” and not as a paid fundraising operative for the Democratic party, as would be accurate.

Is this accurate? Was Finney paid to send the fundraising letter, or is she on the Democratic Party payroll? If so, should she be identified on air as a paid Democratic Party fundraiser the way sister channel CNBC identifies stock commentators who hold interests in the stocks they are talking about?

What are the cable news channels’ policies about all this, whether it’s Al Sharpton (also MSNBC), James Carville (CNN), or Karl Rove (Fox) who are the talking heads?

Sure, we know all about Rove’s or Carville’s political leanings, but wouldn’t it add to the disclosure to have a message underneath the talking heads reminding viewers, whenever it’s the case, that they are currently getting paid by those with a direct interest in what they’re saying? For example, we know generally that Sharpton is a civil rights activist, but when he’s talking about education reform, wouldn’t it help to know that his main organization, the National Action Network, got $165,000 last year in contributions from Randi Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers, while its sister union, the National Education Association, chipped in $40,000?

So what are the news networks’ standards? Do they ask their talking heads about conflicts? And in what circumstances will they disclose them?

2. BlackBerry’s demise:

I may have missed it, but I still haven’t seen one of the more obvious business stories out there begging for a full-bore narrative: How did Research In Motion, which produces the BlackBerry, get away with a lagging product offering and obviously unworkable corporate governance for so long? Newly installed CEO Thorstein Heins conceded last week that “substantial change” on multiple fronts was now needed, but what took so long? Why did the board and shareholders sit by while customer base and market share eroded and service outages persisted? At what point should management or the board have woken up and pulled a fire alarm? Who were the stock analysts who made the right call on RIMM while its stock rose to untenable levels, and who was going along for the ride?

3. Candidates’ health insurance:

Amid the debate over health insurance, it would be great to see an article detailing how each presidential candidate, including President Obama, is insured. We know that Mitt Romney’s wife and Rick Santorum’s daughter have faced severe health issues. Without delving into the details of their illnesses and care, let’s find out how well they were covered. For example, does Santorum’s Senate service give him lifetime coverage under the congressional health plan, and, if so, what are the deductibles, the co-pays and the caps, if any? How has Romneycare in Massachusetts affected Romney’s own family, if at all? And let’s compare the candidates’ coverage to those of, say, three American families in different economic classes.

4. How did China’s millionaires make it?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal about the prospects for private jet sales in China estimated that China had 3 million people worth over $1 million and 8,000 worth over $30 million. I’d love a story explaining who these people typically are and how they made their money. We know generally that China’s ruling Communist Party is all about political dominance rather than economic orthodoxy, but I suspect I’m not the only one who is otherwise ignorant when it comes to how free markets and entrepreneurship coexist in a country with so much state control and so many state-owned enterprises. It can’t all be about the Communist bosses doling out the spoils to its cronies. Or is it?

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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: , , , , ,