Stories I’d like to see

Hiding the debate rules, a tin cup for wounded vets, and the Bear Stearns legacy

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. The remaining debates: Tell us the rules

Two weeks ago there was an interesting story in the Huffington Post about how the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates are likely to be highly detailed, down to the permissible lighting and camera shots, how the moderators are supposed to ensure a balance in each candidate’s allotted time during any back-and-forth, and even a provision for the screening of notepaper the combatants could bring to the podium (to make sure it was blank).

The HuffPo report drew on a leaked 31-page contract the commission executed with the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and noted that “eighteen good-governance and media watchdog groups” have now demanded that this year’s contract be publicly disclosed.

But why is the press waiting for the commission and the campaigns to disclose what they obviously want to keep under wraps? Why hasn’t some reporter pried loose the text or at least the highlights of the 2012 contract? There must be a half-dozen or more operatives in each camp, plus at least as many debate commission officials, who know.

With the controversy over moderator Jim Lehrer’s allegedly too-laid-back performance in the first Obama-Romney debate, the actual rules seem more relevant now than ever. This is especially true because the second presidential debate, on October 16, has a town hall format. That means that beyond the moderator’s stipulated role, there are all kinds of issues related to the choice of the audience, the nature and selection of the questions they can ask, and what kind of follow-up is allowed from the citizen-questioners or the moderator. Any of these dynamics could be pivotal, which is why the 2004 contract included a whole series of special clauses governing only that town hall format.

These are the election’s most important events. Can’t one of the hundreds of reporters covering campaign 2012 find out what rules have been negotiated and what the moderator is supposed to do if they are violated?

2. Why do wounded vets need charity?

Lately I’ve been seeing lots of compelling television ads soliciting contributions for Wounded Warrior Project, Inc, a Jacksonville, FL-based nonprofit that, according to the ads and its mission statement, supplies financial aid and rehabilitative services to “honor and empower wounded warriors.”

No, this is not a suggestion for a story investigating whether the charity is a rip-off. Yes, the annual Form 990 that this and other charitable organizations file with the IRS reveals that Wounded Warrior’s top executive, Steven Nardizzi, made $341,000 in the fiscal year ending September 2011, and seven other officials made in excess of $160,000 each. And the nonprofit actually recorded an operating income of $16 million on $74 million in revenues, including donations - or 22 percent. But these salaries seem appropriate for an organization of this scope, and this kind of surplus is normal for a growing non-profit. Moreover, Wounded Warrior has attracted a blue-ribbon board of directors that includes decorated veterans of all ranks and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, who is unpaid.

Rather, for me the very existence of the organization and its activities raise a more fundamental question: How did it come to be that the people who have so selflessly served our country have to rely on private charity for the kinds of rehabilitation and social work services that Wounded Warrior provides? Indeed, as I was watching one of its commercials pitching for donations to help the thousands of veterans who have been blinded or paralyzed or who must learn how to live in wheelchairs or with prosthetic devices, I imagined that sitting next to me was someone from another country. How embarrassed would I be explaining that our government doesn’t provide all of these services in full - and, therefore, that our veterans had to form an organization to pass a tin cup around?

What’s the Obama administration’s explanation for Wounded Warrior’s existence? How about the Republicans who control Congress? If it’s the case that the Wounded Warrior Project is centered on important and laudable supplemental services (such as “family support” or the “stress relief events” for hospital doctors and nurses described in the IRS filing) on top of the billions the government already provides, then someone needs to explain the seemingly basic services, such as physical therapy and counseling, that dominate the commercials and that are also described in the IRS filing.

Beyond that, if these are predominantly supplementary services meant to provide aid beyond what government can do, then why not put the arm on those in the private sector who profit the most when our soldiers go off to war?

Wounded Warrior spent $57.7 million in fiscal 2011, according to its IRS report. The Defense Department spends about $350 billion a year on all private contractors. That produces one of the most prosperous sectors of the private economy, yielding, for example, much of the $3.8 billion in operating income enjoyed last year by Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor.

If those contractors kicked in, say, five one-hundredths of 1 percent of what they get from the Pentagon - a nickel for every hundred dollars - the Wounded Warrior budget would be quadrupled. Why not ask some of the defense contractor CEOs if they’d be willing to do that?

3. Why wasn’t JPMorgan indemnified for the sins of Bear Stearns?

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s sued JPMorgan last week over alleged fraud by its Bear Stearns subsidiary in the marketing of mortgage-backed securities leading up to the Wall Street meltdown. Since then, the general narrative of JPM’s defense has been that the bank had bought the sinking Bear Stearns at the behest of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, which hoped to avoid a systemwide meltdown. Thus, from JPMorgan’s perspective this is an example of no good deed going unpunished.

However, as Bloomberg’s William Cohan argued on Monday, another thread of the JPM-Bear narrative has to do with how hard JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon bargained to get a fire-sale deal when he took over Bear. Therefore, according to Cohan, Dimon and his bank should be responsible for the risks they took on along with the valuable assets they got at a lowball price.

Leaving aside who’s right, I have one basic question that I hope a reporter asks Dimon: If the government was so desperate for you to rescue Bear, why didn’t you insist that it indemnify you from suits exactly like this one? Did you and your lawyers screw up? Or, as I suspect is more likely, if you tried to get indemnification but couldn’t, how can you argue now that you didn’t willingly assume the risks?

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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.