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. 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.