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.
Red Cross donations: Remember September 11:
I hope we soon see a lot of coverage of how the Red Cross is using its Hurricane Sandy contributions.
For everyone from Mitt Romney to President Obama to the good-hearted people who raised $23 million through NBC’s telethon last Friday, the Red Cross has become the charity of choice for victims of Sandy - just as it was the default charity after 9/11. But if New York’s last mass disaster is any indication, how the Red Cross uses the money is worth a lot of reporters’ attention.
In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn’t in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away to provide that same kind of short-term relief for victims of future fires or floods.
At the time, Red Cross officials defended themselves by explaining, correctly, that all of their 9/11 appeals included language somewhere on all printed solicitations or in television ads saying that “the funds raised will be used for this and other disasters.” That subtle disclaimer (accompanied by images of the Twin Towers and Pentagon rubble) was widely criticized. It was initially defended by Red Cross officials because many of the locally-based board members consider it an article of faith that funds be spread across the country for the benefit of all disaster victims.
Eleven year later, on the Red Cross webpage soliciting donations with the headline “HURRICANE SANDY: HELP THOSE IN NEED,” there is a fulsome description of all the help being provided to the storm’s victims. However, the last sentence says: Financial donations help the Red Cross provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance to those affected by disasters like Hurricane Sandy, as well as countless crises at home and around the world.”
If you click the “donate” button and then click further for the “cause description,” it says: “You can help people affected by disasters like Superstorm Sandy by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief.”
I don’t mean to sound like Chris Hitchens attacking Mother Teresa. The Red Cross is a great organization, and I’ve heard, though not done the requisite reporting, that after several management shuffles, the organization has cleaned up its act considerably since 2001. Then again, as this New York Times article from last Saturday reports, the Red Cross has not received good reviews so far for its post-Sandy relief work.
Even assuming that the Red Cross can recover from these early missteps, unlike the 9/11 aftermath this time there may not be such a large surplus of donations in light of what needs to be spent on immediate shelter and recovery. After the September 11 attacks, the families of the dead and injured were compensated by a federal victims compensation fund, and there were far fewer people left in need of shelter than what we’ve seen across New Jersey and New York following Sandy.
Nonetheless, all of the hundreds of millions that is now likely to pour into the Red Cross isn’t likely to be spent on shelter and other immediate relief efforts for this storm alone. So that disclaimer language certainly suggests a story.
There’s also the question of what will happen if the Red Cross decides to ignore the wiggle room in its disclaimer and use all Sandy contributions for storm-related relief by doing more ambitious recovery projects. After the embarrassing post 9/11 reports that the Red Cross was storing up those surplus contributions for non-9/11 activities, its officials decided to solve the problem by shoveling it all out to more expensive, longer-term 9/11 recovery efforts. The results were not pretty.
As I reported in my book After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era and in a Newsweek column at the time (which focused on how the Red Cross was duped into becoming a gravy train for “lost business” grants to car service and limo drivers in New York who overstated their losses), despite its best intentions, the Red Cross was pretty bad at long-term relief. Tens of millions were wasted or even stolen. (Someone in Michigan got $286,000 to repay his dead brother’s mortgage.) And little of it was given out based on consistent, transparent standards. Will the Red Cross be similarly pressured into spending its surplus Sandy donations on projects it cannot handle?
If the Red Cross is still incompetent implementing long-term relief programs, but is planning again to provide them, that’s a story. If it has gotten better at using what is again likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to offer long-term aid, that’s an even better story. Or if 11 years after its 9/11 missteps, America’s go-to charity is using Sandy as another billboard for collecting funds only to hoard another windfall, that’s obviously something we need to know.
Getting Mitt’s transition papers:
No matter who wins the vote on Tuesday, someone ought to get as many of the transition memos generated by Governor Romney’s much-heralded transition task force as possible.
Obviously, if he wins, this will be great - though really difficult to obtain - material because it will shed immediate light on what his plans are. Is he going to be moderate Mitt or the “severe conservative” already thinking about heading off a challenge from the right in a 2016 Iowa caucus?
But even if Romney loses, the work done by his transition planners could make for some great stories. These papers, which will be much easier for a reporter to coax someone into leaking if President Obama wins, would tell us about the Romney Administration policy and personnel choices that might have been, while shedding light on who the real Romney is. They might also suggest some paths for President Obama to take toward bipartisanship. Suppose, for example, that Romney’s people - as a way toward ending the deficit stalemate - had a Simpson-Bowles-like plan in the works that reversed his “severe conservative” pledge not to ask the well-off to sacrifice extra tax payments. Obama could seize on it as a great idea and maybe even consider a cabinet post for a member of the transition team - such as its chief, former Utah governor Michael Leavitt, or even Romney himself — to lead the effort.
The ex-president’s book deal:
If Obama loses, I’d like to see a quick report on what his book advance is likely to be. After all, before he was anybody, he wrote a bestseller, Dreams from My Father, that showcased terrific writing and storytelling skills. The book revealed an autobiographer willing to share his thoughts and emotions to a degree that politicians usually do not. If Obama can make an account of growing up and going to Harvard Law School riveting, imagine what he can do with his most recent material.
Longer term, to get the scoop on an Obama book deal, someone needs to bird-dog Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who has negotiated DC-centric books for authors ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton, to Bob Woodward and Katharine Graham, to Sarah Palin and George W. and Laura Bush. Barnett represented Obama for the publication of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, and was on his presidential debate prep team.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.