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 Reuters.com.
1. Hoop academics:
What’s one year of classes at the University of Kentucky really like for basketball stars?
Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Taylor Branch’s fabulous NCAA article in the Atlantic last fall titled “The Shame of College Sports” and by Joe Nocera’s compelling Op-Ed columns in The New York Times arguing that the NCAA is all about money and nothing about education. And I admit I’m drafting this after watching the feel-good NCAA ads profiling the teams’ scholar-athletes during the March basketball tournament. But now that the Final Four have come and gone and we know that all five starters on the University of Kentucky’s winning team are quitting to join the NBA after just one or two years at school, I’m wondering what a reporter will find if he or she digs into the education these freshman and sophomores actually received.
What courses did they take? How rigorous were they? What do the players’ professors and fellow students have to say about their participation in class? Did the players do the work? Did they lag or excel?
How many hours did departing superstar freshman Anthony Davis actually spend in class in his first and only year at college? What papers did he write? What tests did he take? If he and others were serious students who got a real college education, however abbreviated, that would puncture a stereotype, and one definition of a good story is that it surprises people. If he or others on the team were completely divorced from anything approaching academics—perhaps by taking comically unacademic classes or rarely showing up, or both, or not going to class altogether once the season ended—that would add more indelible specifics to what Branch and Nocera have been writing about.
2. GSA: Beyond the Vegas boondoggle
I’ve been thinking about the hilarious, or maddening, story that broke last week about 300 employees from the federal General Services Administration spending more than $800,000 of taxpayer money on a “conference” at a plush resort near Las Vegas. The details, as disclosed by the GSA’s inspector general [PDF], included gourmet banquets, a $3,200 mind reader, $44-per-person breakfasts and $75,000 spent on a training exercise to build a bicycle. There was also a $136,000 tab for travel and meals just to conduct “dry run” planning sessions at the Nevada resort. The impact of all this was amplified by the inspector general giving a congressional committee a spoof video, recorded during the event, that was then released to the press
All great stuff, but I think the press may be missing the forest for the trees by not following up with more important questions.
Buried in the inspector general’s report is the simple statement that this biannual conference of GSA employees from four different GSA regions in the West had been going on for years. Its stated purpose, according to the inspector general, is to offer “training in job skills; an exchange of ideas between ‘higher-ups’ in the four regions; and a combination of those things.” Huh?
Anyone who goes to conferences like these knows that most are fun getaways whose only work-related purpose is usually for the participants to network their way into better jobs. So why, when our government is broke, do we pay for these “conferences”? Suppose the conference had only cost $200,000 or $300,000, which, when you tally up the inspector general’s list of overpayments, seems what the total should have been? Why would we routinely spend all that money, not to mention waste all that employee time?
So someone ought to scan all the federal agency press releases for, say, the last three months and tally up the number of “conferences,” “training sessions,” or “seminars” that were held. Then give us a sampling of the agendas and estimate the total costs. Then, go find the conferences sponsored by others that boatloads of government officials from all departments attend—on our dime. (I’m on the Department of Homeland Security press release list, and I bet I see at least one such event a week listed just for that department, including one in Miami Beach on “Online Dating” that I mentioned in my January 24 column.)
This brings me to one of my favorite gripes with the Washington press. There is an endless supply of fun, important stories about the nitty-gritty of government that are not covered because reporters have to go find them instead of waiting for some inspector general or congressional committee to discover them and serve them up. Some reporters, such as Robert O’Harrow of The Washington Post, do this kind of work, but not many. The same is true for how the press covers or doesn’t cover most state and municipal governments.
As an example of what else might be out there, take the aforementioned GSA.
The GSA is the equivalent of the people who manage everything in your office, from the building’s lease and services to the photocopying machines to basic cleaning and supplies. In the federal government that means an agency with 12,000 people and a fleet of 190,000 vehicles that oversees $66 billion in annual spending for products, services and facilities. Its budget for its own people and the facilities it builds or maintains is over $600 million. (In fact, just the GSA Office of Inspector General has 338 people in 14 locations scattered around the country and spends $62 million a year.)
One good story might ask whether we need a GSA at all, given that just about every agency of the federal government has its own facilities and procurement offices. It’s a question I couldn’t help asking myself when I noticed that one of GSA’s three “strategic goals” listed in the introduction to its 260-page annual budget request to Congress is [PDF]:
Customer Intimacy. GSA will seek an intimate understanding of and resonance with its customers in order to serve with integrity, creativity, and responsibility. GSA will develop strategic partnerships with industry and with other Federal agencies to develop new and innovative tools for a more effective Government.
Cherry-picking this kind of bureaucratic drivel out of a massive document is easy and unfair without more reporting. GSA could be an unsung engine of cutting-edge management efficiency. Either way, it’s worth a look.
Even if GSA passes that overall legitimacy test, there are all kinds of questions lurking in that budget document that are potentially as interesting, and more important in terms of dollars, than the Vegas jaunt. For example:
GSA is spending $36 million dollars to fix up a border crossing in Dunseith, North Dakota. I was at that border crossing in conjunction with a book I did about the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that seems like a lot of money; as I recall, Dunseith is the least busy of the three full-service border crossings in North Dakota. Who’s getting all that money? How could it possibly cost $36 million for this small facility? Is there a congressional pork story behind this? Or has Denseith, population 713, become an as-yet-unheralded terrorist crossroads that needs almost 50 percent more than the federal money North Dakota got this year in aid for the Head Start early childhood education program?
There’s lots more, page by page, in turgid budget documents like the GSA’s - from the $145 million to redo and consolidate the FBI’s office in San Juan to the $7 million to improve on “wellness and fitness programs” in government buildings.
Put simply, there’s no reason the DC press corps has to wait for an inspector general to generate its own scoops.
3. What are the “Cuban medical brigades”?
Here’s a sentence buried in the amazing New York Times story last week recounting how a team of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal seems to have caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake:
At first, Doctors Without Borders and the Cuban medical brigades, both self-financed, handled the overwhelming majority of cases.
What are “the Cuban medical brigades?” A Google search took me to a Wikipedia entry titled “Cuban Medical Internationalism,” which says that “Cuba provides more medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined, although this comparison does not take into account G8 development aid spent on developing world healthcare It is widely believed that medical workers are Cuba’s most important export commodity.”
Cuba has long been known for making healthcare a priority and for exporting health workers. But with medical care such a hot topic in the United States, this story out of Cuba could be an eye-opener.
4. Is Mexico also ahead of us on health care?
Which reminds me: In the joint press conference last week held at the White House by President Obama with Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Calderón had this to say when asked about health care:
We’re getting close to reaching universal coverage of health care - full, free health care coverage for all people up to 18 years of age, including cancer coverage. Of the 112 million Mexicans, 106 million will have efficient, effective universal health care coverage.
Really? We know about Canada’s universal coverage, but is Mexico also ahead of the U.S. in providing health care to its citizens?