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. A legislature that works:
Maybe it’s because I live in New York and have to read all the time about what may be the world’s two most dysfunctional legislative bodies - in Albany and Washington. But I wish a reporter for a national news organization would try to find the country’s best state legislature. A place where Democrats and Republicans actually work together. A place where money isn’t everything, and where everything isn’t done at the 11th hour, or later, followed by an orgy of self-congratulation.
We’ve got 50 states. They can’t all be governed by lawmakers who embarrass their constituents. Which ones function well, and why? What conflict-of-interest, campaign-spending or other rules do they have that help keep things in line? What makes them different, and how can we export their success to the rest of our capitals?
2. The afterlife of a Wall Street rat:
“Mr. Wang’s lawyer said his client is ‘isolated and broke’ following his cooperation.”
That’s how the Wall Street Journal summarized the situation of Wesley Wang, 39, a former consultant who had worked for an SAC Capital Advisors affiliate and was sentenced Wednesday only to probation for conspiracy to commit securities fraud (by trading on inside information) — because prosecutors said he had been helpful in informing on the targets of their investigation into the trading activities of the hedge fund led by Steven A. Cohen.
Prosecutors told Judge Jed Rakoff that Wang “began cooperating after he was approached by federal agents in January 2009,” according to the Journal. He not only recorded his telephone calls for the feds but also wore a body wire for in-person meetings with targets of the government’s investigation. His cooperation, prosecutors said, gave them evidence against “about 20” potential suspects.
Anyone who has seen The Godfather or watched The Sopranos knows what happens to mob rats. What about Wall Street rats? What are Wang’s prospects for ever being anything other than “isolated and broke”?
It may take a week or a year for Wang to get over how his life fell apart after he got caught. It may take even longer if he is a witness in any of the government’s cases — including a potential one against Cohen. But at some point, Wang is likely to be willing to talk about his fall; how he’s trying to recover; and what he thinks about the Wall Street greed stakes that propelled him up, then brought him down.
When he does, it will be an important, gripping story. I know, because I wrote one like this about a fabulously successful young lawyer who got caught up in the Ivan Boesky-Michael Milken insider trading scandals of the 1980s.
3. Wal-Mart and guns: the money question
This will likely be an almost impossible story to get, but anyone wanting to one-up the trailblazing work by The New York Times on overseas bribes allegedly paid by Wal-Mart should try to find out what guns mean to Wal-Mart’s bottom line.
In the gun control controversy stemming from the Newtown, CT, massacre, it’s been widely reported that Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest gun seller. Other stories focused on the giant retailer’s skittish stance on gun sales, noting that the company, citing “scheduling conflicts,” first turned down a White House invitation to have a representative come to a meeting on the issue, then accepted following press criticism.
What’s been missing is any information on how important guns sales are to Wal-Mart. What percentage of those sales comes from the types of assault weapons, bullets, or magazine clips that might be the focus of new controls? How much has this issue been discussed in the company’s executive suites and boardroom, and at what levels?
Even if a group of reporters has to start by hanging around some stores and observing how many of these weapons go out the doors, the effort would be worth it. The Times had a six-person team do a story Saturday on gun sales generally. Why not have six reporters hang out at Wal-Mart stores for a few days?
Beyond that, someone should ask Wal-Mart whether being forced to stop selling certain weapons would have a material effect on earnings and, if so, whether the company plans to list that as a risk in its next securities filing. It’s highly unlikely, but worth a try, as a way to start a conversation. Few public companies will ignore questions related to the integrity of their securities disclosures.
Another line of inquiry would involve getting a fix on whether Wal-Mart is more worried that taking what gun control advocates would see as a more responsible position on assault weapons sales would risk an overall consumer backlash that would cost more than lost sales on those products.
4. Boeing’s Dreamliner Crisis:
I assume that the key business reporting outlets are working on tick-tocks of how Boeing is coping with the crisis surrounding its new Dreamliner aircraft and how competitor Airbus is trying to take advantage of it.
But a story covering the struggles of the people behind the design, sale (and competitive fights) and setbacks of this game-changing plane would be a great book. I’m thinking of The Devil’s Candy by Julie Solomon, one of my favorite books, which was about the making of the disastrous movie version of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Maybe this one will have a happier ending — but either way it has all the elements of a compelling read.