In his “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. Find the story here:
Let’s begin this column with a quiz, one designed to test your story-generating talents. If the answer comes to you within 10 seconds, you, too, could be an editor or TV news producer. If you are an editor or producer and don’t see it instantly, you need better radar.
First, read the opening two sentences from a story that appeared in the Financial Times a few weeks ago:
Europe’s most senior justice official is adamant she will fight US attempts to water down a proposed EU data protection and privacy law that would force global technology companies to obey European standards across the world. Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice, said that the EU was determined to respond decisively to any attempts by US lobbyists — many working for large tech groups such as Google and Facebook — to curb the EU data protection law.
What’s the story that screams out to be written or televised based on these two sentences? Hint: It’s all about how Washington has been brought to its knees by special interests.
The answer: Let’s compare lobbying practices and regulations in the United States to those in other venues, including the European Union and its constituent countries. This story — with its reference to the EU commissioner vowing to fight “attempts by US lobbyists,” which are the words that rang the idea bell in my head — presents the perfect backdrop for reporting I’ve wanted to see for years comparing how lobbying is done, if at all, in other developed democracies to the way lobbyists and big money have come to dominate the agenda in Washington.
The rest of the Financial Times story explains that American lobbyists for tech companies seem to have persuaded the US government to push back against the EU’s plans to promulgate privacy protections for consumers that would impair the ability of companies such as Facebook and Google to collect data from users in ways that will continue to boost their advertising revenue. In other words, the companies’ lobbyists in Washington have recruited our government to become their lobbyists at the EU.
One implication of that is that Google and Facebook, juggernauts though they are, can’t deploy their own lobbyists in Belgium the way they can in Washington. Is that true? What are the regulations or traditions that limit the effectiveness of lobbyists in venues like the EU?
Following the battles over other big issues that cross national borders could add texture to the story. How, for example, have Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase tried to influence banking regulations around the world, including the crucial Basel rules on capital and liquidity?
These questions could lead to a tour of various world capitals describing how the influence industry works, or doesn’t work, in each place. Are the results always better? I bet not everywhere. True, America’s open system of influence peddling — in which lobbyists have to register and report their fees — is the embodiment of Michael Kinsley’s famous observation that the real scandal in Washington “isn’t what’s illegal but what’s legal.” Yet a balanced approach to this story might find not only examples of governments with a far cleaner process more grounded in the public interest, but also places where simple under-the-table bribes make Washington’s K Street culture look tame.
2. Following a wonder drug’s bottom line:
This story in Saturday’s New York Times about the Food and Drug Administration approving a promising new breast cancer drug suggests a reporting project that could produce a dramatic tale of scientific discovery along with an important look at the economics of the pharmaceutical industry. It could also open a window on the health and public policy issues associated with how we regulate drugs and drug prices and how we allocate healthcare resources in the United States.