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. Use polls to monitor the effectiveness of campaign lies:
It’s great that many media organizations have been fact-checking the claims of the presidential candidates and holding them accountable for blatant distortions. But with all the money they are spending on polls, why can’t they poll whether the lies are working?
For example, why not ask voters whether they believe the charge that President Obama has eliminated the work requirement in the welfare program? Or if they now believe that Obama cut $700 billion from Medicare benefits? Or that the Romney/Ryan budget plan would actually gut the deficit instead of balloon it?
And although I don’t want to imply equivalency of misstatements in the two campaigns, because there isn’t, pollsters could also ask about this Obama-side whopper: whether people think Governor Romney’s Bain Capital indirectly caused the death of a woman by depriving her husband of health insurance?
2. 9/11 anniversary ideas:
As the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks approaches, here are some ideas the press might want to pursue:
a. Mission creep and budget creep at the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve written in prior columns about how the Department of Homeland Security seems to keep expanding into areas not associated with securing the homeland. Its spending seems to reflect that: The first DHS budget in 2003 was $37.7 billion. This year it’s $50 billion, and it’s up nearly 20 percent in just the last four years. How come?
b. Why not a permanent Victims Compensation Fund? Most of the players involved, including the families of the victims, agree that the federal fund, set up by President Bush and administered by Kenneth Feinberg to compensate survivors as well as families of victims of the attacks, successfully prevented a litigation nightmare in which the courts would have been clogged, victims would have had their payouts delayed and plaintiffs’ lawyers would have had a bonanza. Yet we’ve done nothing to apply the lessons of a government program that actually worked. Rather than depend on the vicissitudes of the politics of a chaotic moment, why haven’t we codified provisions for another fund to be implemented should another terrorist attack happen, with carefully defined guidelines of what defines an eligible terrorist attack and who would qualify as victims? Has anyone in Washington tried to do that? If not, why not? And what does Feinberg think?
c. A privatized TSA? The current Republican platform calls for the functions of the Transportation Security Administration to be transferred to private corporations, which is how airport security was handled before 9/11. However, in the pre-9/11 world the airlines were in charge of hiring the private security firms that checked people through at the airports, with little government regulation and little attention paid to anything other than moving people through the lines with no hassles. The Republican platform would have the Department of Homeland Security strictly regulate the private companies that would replace the TSA employees - as is done at most airports in Europe.
In fact, a few airports in the United States, including San Francisco, have been allowed to experiment with that approach, and it seems to have worked, providing more cost-effective and customer-friendly service with no apparent security compromises.
It would be good to see stories exploring the merits and demerits of each approach.
d. Private-sector winners and losers. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, companies from Lockheed Martin to Raytheon to GE, as well as all of the major consulting firms and a slew of small businesses and startups, plunged into what quickly became a new homeland security industry. The new industry in turn created squadrons of lobbyists with a new specialty.
So who are the big winners? Who are the losers? How come? And which members of Congress sitting on newly important committees with jurisdiction over various aspects of homeland security accumulated new power?
3. Missing the nuts and bolts of the stimulus:
The New New Deal - a terrific book just out by Time senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald - is an encyclopedia of stories that most other reporters missed every day for the past three years because the stories were as unsexy as they were important. Grunwald zeroes in on the nuts and bolts and trials and tribulations of implementing the president’s 2009 stimulus package. (See, I told you it’s not sexy, just hugely important.)
His account explains how things work and don’t work in Washington. For example, I’ve always wondered how the Obama people blew even the simple branding of the stimulus, and Grunwald provides all the details, including how they ended up with a logo for the too-small signs that adorn the stimulus act’s projects that is as unappealing and indecipherable as the name of the act itself. (Seriously, why didn’t they use the title of Grunwald’s book instead of “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”?)
My favorite story is Grunwald’s six-page description of a program in the Department of Energy intended to create lots of jobs and make long-lasting, nationwide improvements in energy efficiency by weatherizing - as in caulking windows and doors - 600,000 low-income homes. It seemed like a simple, logical way to deploy $200 million of the stimulus. But it was sidetracked by a tangle of red tape and bureaucratic fights, into which was thrust Claire Broido Johnson, a hard-driving young Harvard MBA and entrepreneur lured into the Obama change mission.
In Grunwald’s fly-on-the-wall account, Johnson faces off against career bureaucrats who sneer at her fervor and delight in finding obstacles to put in her way. For example, they dredge up the question of whether a 1930s law, much beloved by labor unions, requiring the federal government to pay “prevailing wage” on federal construction projects applied to workers caulking windows and, if it did, how and how quickly that prevailing wage could be determined. (It took months.)
Books like this, written a year or more after the events, have multiple advantages. Perspective is easier to come by. And getting people to talk after they’ve left their jobs, or at least when they’re not in the thick of starting them, is also a lot easier. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of stories we should have been reading all along.
Unlike covering government agency announcements or congressional mud fights, or looking for leaks of personnel appointments or firings, these are the stories that make government correct itself in real time by raising issues and holding people accountable. And they’re the stories that give credit to and encourage people like Johnson - who made her 600,000-home goal but is quoted by Grunwald at the end of this section as saying: “I’ll never work for the federal government again.”
As we approach either a second Obama administration or a new Romney administration, editors and producers should be thinking about how to gear up for this kind of coverage. It really matters. If Grunwald’s work is any indication, it can make for a lot of good reads, too.
Conflict disclosure: Although I do not know Grunwald, his editor at Simon & Schuster is my editor and longtime friend. Also, in his reference notes in the book, he refers in a complimentary way to the book I wrote last year about education reform and President Obama’s Race to the Top.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.