Stories I’d Like to See

Romney’s ads, the Komen firestorm, and a Foxconn book

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. Tracking Romney’s ad buys:

Look at the remaining Republican primary calendar dates and the candidates’ respective strengths and do the math: There are certain states where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich seem to have the best chance later this winter and spring (assuming one or both stay in the race) of winning enough delegates to deny Mitt Romney the majority he needs to lock up the nomination before the convention. These include Georgia (76 delegates, Super Tuesday - Mar. 6), Ohio (66 delegates, Super Tuesday) Tennessee (58 delegates, Super Tuesday), Alabama (50 delegates on Mar. 13), Texas (a huge 155 delegates on Apr. 3), Pennsylvania (72 delegates on Apr. 24), and California (an enormous 172 delegates on June 5).

Here’s an angle on these contests that could provide not only a heads-up on where the most dramatic showdowns might occur but also another dimension to the story of how outside money and negative ads have pretty much taken over the process: Some smart political reporting unit should be bird-dogging the ad sales people for local television stations in markets in those states, looking to find out if the Romney campaign and allied super PAC are buying enough ad time right now to carry out against Santorum or Gingrich the same kind of carpet bombing they did in Florida, where a reported $15.3 million ad buy buried Gingrich.

Following the scare produced by the loss in South Carolina, the Romney team proved in Florida that it could and would spend whatever it takes to snuff out the strongest not-Romney contender. To take one example of what it would mean for Romney to use that formula in upcoming contests, it costs more to blanket Texas with ads than it does Florida, and there is a longer run-up to that race than there was between South Carolina and Florida. That could translate into an ad spend of $40 million or $50 million across the Lone Star State.

Buying that much time in a compressed period takes lots of planning and purchase orders in multiple media markets, and it completely upends the advertising and media business in these locales. Which means that if it’s happening, a good reporter should be able to get ad sales people in various Texas markets to talk about it. Local advertisers and ad agencies, which will see their own rates and schedules affected, will also be good sources. Ditto local media markets across Georgia, Pennsylvania or any of these other battlegrounds.

In fact, because delegates are often awarded in large part on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district, as opposed to statewide, and because the Romney people are organized enough to be focused on these kinds of details, the best place to look for Romney saturation buys aimed at creating delegate-sensitive firewalls would be in media markets in congressional districts in states such as California or Georgia that are rated as toss-ups.

2. Inside the Komen PR firestorm:

An article in last week’s Advertising Age casually mentioned that former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who now has a “sports communications strategy” firm, was involved in advising the Susan G. Komen Foundation in picking a new vice-president for communications last December—which is when the foundation cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. That’s just one of the tidbits I’d like to read more about in a behind-the-scenes “tick tock” about how Komen created and dealt with the firestorm in the 72 hours from when its suspension of funding for Planned Parenthood became public via an Associated Press story to when it reversed the decision (with several contradictory explanations for the original decision offered by Komen officials in between).

In the wake of the resignation on Feb. 7 of Komen vice-president for public policy Karen Handel, there has been much speculation on how the foundation blundered so badly — much of it centering on the role played by Handel, an anti-abortion former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia. But what really happened is still largely a mystery, especially when the denial by Komen Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brinker that Handel played a significant role in the December decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood is juxtaposed against Handel’s statement when she resigned that, “I openly acknowledge my role in the matter.”

Who really was calling the shots? Which of Komen’s many corporate sponsors, if any, were consulted beforehand? Which, if any, applied pressure to cut off Planned Parenthood? And was that because anti-family-planning or anti-choice groups exerted pressure on them?

Did anyone at Komen think about the political consequences back in December when the decision was made? Maybe it’s my mainstream media bias showing, but what seems particularly curious to me is that a group whose support is based on its standing as a champion of women’s health really thought its credibility and fundraising would be enhanced by picking a fight with Planned Parenthood.

Who thought that the rationale of denying money to any organization that is under any kind of “investigation”—including the typically politicized “investigations” carried out by some congressional subcommittee chairmen—would survive more than a few hours before being discredited?

Who are the people who now run Komen? Who are the most powerful people on the board, and what are their political leanings? How much do the top executives get paid? Who are the biggest contributors? (Partial answers to the last two questions should be available in the foundation’s IRS Form 990 filing, which is public.) Does this fiasco say something about the dangers of small, idealistic charities becoming too rich and too big?

Finally, how was the social media tsunami that rose up monitored, and who led the push for Komen’s about-face in response to it?

3. The book on Foxconn:

Now that The New York Times has published a landmark article on working conditions at the Chinese companies, particularly the Foxconn manufacturing behemoth, in Apple’s supply chain (which followed a public radio This American Life report last month), I’m hoping there is a book editor out there thinking about The Jungle.

That’s Upton Sinclair’s 1906 opus about conditions in American meatpacking factories. Some envelope-pushing editor and publishing house should try to figure out how to get an undercover reporter-writer into Foxconn for at least a few months to give us the fuller story in a rich, detailed narrative. That’s a lot easier said than done. In fact, it could be an assignment where the reporter ends up in a Chinese prison, or worse. But whoever figures this out—and does it the right way, by reporting all the ups and downs of daily life producing iPhones and iPads through the eyes of his or her fellow workers—is going to have one of this age’s most successful and important books.

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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. Tags: , , , , ,