Stories I’d like to see

The rebuff to Citi’s board, boxing’s decline, and GSA follow-ups

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. Where is Citi’s board?

In the wake of the shareholders’ stunning 55 percent vote against the 2011 compensation packages approved by the Citigroup Board of Directors for CEO Vikram Pandit ($14.9 million) and other top executives, why hasn’t anyone put a microphone in front of Citi’s blue-chip board members—who include former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Rockefeller Foundation President and former University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, and former Stanford business school dean Robert Joss—asking them to explain their decisions? Although the shareholder vote (which came because a provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law required it) is only advisory, it was meant to encourage exactly that kind of accountability for decisions made by board members, who in this case earned $225,000 to $612,500 last year, depending on their committee assignments. So far it seems that only outgoing Citigroup Chairman (and former Time Warner CEO) Richard Parsons has been put on the spot by the press.

2. What happened to boxing?

The New York Times has recently been doing a series of jaw-dropping enterprise stories related to sports (such as this one about horse racing) written by reporters from the paper’s sports and other departments (in this case the investigations unit, I think). I happened to read one of them the same night last week that I was watching a rerun of one of the old Rocky movies, and that’s when it hit me: Why doesn’t a team from the Times or from another major news outlet tackle an epic sports story that is obvious to anyone who remembers Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson, and then tries to name the current heavyweight champion. (Is it one of the Klitschko brothers or someone else I wouldn’t recognize if he passed me on the street?) Why haven’t we read the definitive tale of “The Decline of Boxing”?

Sure, Muhammad Ali was, and is, one of a kind. And some could argue that future Philippine presidential contender Manny Pacquiao, and maybe Floyd Mayweather, have star power in the lower weight classes that compares to that of Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard. But there’s no doubt that boxing occupies nowhere near the center ring in American or world sports that it once did. There’s no Norman Mailer or David Remnick writing about boxers, no large swath of the population awaiting the next big match.

How come? What changed in our culture? What changed in the business of boxing? Did wars between competing boxing leagues with different titles to award shred the sport? Did advances like pay-per-view at home drain the drama and spectacle out of hundreds of thousands of people going to arenas to watch a closed-circuit video feed? Has the generation of celebrated trainers and promoters—fictionalized in the Rocky series but true to life in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—not been replaced? Was it lousy regulation of the sport, or overregulation? What can be done about it? Or should nothing be done, because it’s a dangerous, dehumanizing sport anyway?

3. What’s happening at the Peace Corps?

I recently had the chance to read a moving email that a family friend sent to his friends recounting how he and fellow Peace Corps volunteers had to leave Mali in an emergency evacuation following the recent coup there. “My heart is shattered,” he began, before describing the work he had done in a small village among people who lack the “opportunities that we take for granted in the West,” and then explaining how devastated he was to have to leave a country where “the coup completed the perfect storm, as it came in conjunction with a civil war that Mali has been fighting in the north.”

I haven’t read much about the Peace Corps lately. Its work in an increasingly troubled and interconnected world should be worth lots of attention, especially because it has just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

What kinds of jobs do the volunteers do? How has it changed? Are applications up or down lately? Have the enrollment demographics shifted? Is the work more dangerous in the post-9/11 world? And has the Corps been able to escape the polarization of domestic politics in the U.S. that has undercut other government programs?

4. Three follow-ups from the GSA road-trip scandal:

As more information emerges about the federal General Services Agency’s $800,000 boondoggle conference near Las Vegas, three related stories come to mind.

First, there’s the casual way the scandal was handled. According to the uncontested timeline that has now come to light, the lavish trip occurred in October, 2010, and the GSA civil servant who first raised questions about it did so in February, 2011. But it took the GSA inspector general until May, 2011 to issue an interim report about the expenditures. What took three months, especially given that there was a GSA internal website that contained obvious evidence, including videos, of the scandal?

More important, given that the interim report had most of the gory details about the expenditures, why didn’t anyone get fired last May?

Then it took until the following January—seven more months—for the resort to provide the inspector general’s office with all the bills and other documents related to the “conference.” How come? And if these were GSA’s own bills, why did the inspector general have to get them from the resort?

Finally, the inspector general drafted his report and sent it to GSA Administrator Martha Johnson for comment on Feb. 12, 2012, but it took GSA’s Johnson until Apr. 2 to respond, before which the inspector general could not release his report publicly. Why did that take so long?

Second, now that we’ve seen anew how important inspectors general can be in ferreting out government waste and misconduct, someone ought to hunt out the strongest and weakest among them across the government. The jobs and independence of the inspectors general in each federal agency were legislated by Congress as a post-Watergate reform in 1978. Who’s the bane of some Cabinet officer’s existence? And who are the lapdogs?

Third, the Washington Post reported last Thursday that Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has introduced a bill that would, among other provisions, prohibit federal agencies “from paying bonuses to employees or supervisors under investigation by an agency inspector general or equivalent official, to those who have been found to have failed to follow contracting regulations or laws in awarding a contract, or to employees or supervisors who have taken, directed or supervised actions that led to fraud, waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars.” Is the Senator grandstanding, or does this kind of bonus abuse actually happen? Did it happen in the GSA case? Where else? If it does, someone ought to ask the Cabinet officer who’s responsible why federal legislation is necessary to prevent this kind of basic management incompetence in his or her shop.

5. Media hypocrisy:

Finally, because there’s nothing better than exposing self-interested hypocrisy, here’s a story I wish I had thought of.

Editor’s note: The Mar. 20 installment of this column asked for greater scrutiny of the unusual asylum request from the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, made at a US consulate. Last week several remarkable details emerged, including in this New York Times piece.

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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: , , ,