Stories I’d Like to See

Super PAC cash, immigration rules, and Businessweek’s revival

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. The business of super PACs:

With super PACS having altered the dynamics of federal campaigns, it’s time for a look at how they’ve changed the fortunes of political consultants, pollsters and others who feed off of campaign money. With the cash flow this Republican primary season shifting from political organizations run by the candidate to independent—or at least ostensibly independent—entities, giving them much more money than the campaigns themselves, has the talent followed the dollars? Wouldn’t pollsters or ad-makers rather work for an organization with $100 million to spend than one with $10 million? And how do the people who run these super PACs get paid? How do the IRS rules governing the finances of non-profit entities apply to super PACs? Can someone like Karl Rove take a cut of the tens of millions he’s raised and dispensed for America’s Crossroads the way private equity funds take management fees? Who decides how much Rove or other super PAC executives or staffers make? Articles like the one in Sunday’s New York Times have pointed out the overlaps among staffers. So who ferrets out conflicts if, for example, someone running a super PAC steers business to his or her ad agency or consulting or polling firm?

2. Rick Santorum’s father and a Mexican laborer: A tale of two immigrants

I doubt that I’m the only one who doesn’t know the basics of America’s immigration laws and rules, despite the fact they have become a staple of current political debate. For example, whenever I hear Rick Santorum talk about how his father, Aldo, was an immigrant from Italy who came to the United States in 1930, I wonder if he came in legally and, if so, under what rules. I assume Aldo Santorum couldn’t simply pick up and come here today from Italy, right? (I wondered the same thing about Rudy Giuliani when he ran for president in 2008.)

My curiosity was piqued by a recent editorial in The Washington Post that took President Obama and all of his would-be Republican opponents to task for saying that illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line” in applying for citizenship. In fact, the Post pointed out, when it comes to most illegal immigrants, there is no line—and no possibility of applying for citizenship. As the Post explained, “a large majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants are unskilled or low-skilled Mexicans [who] have no relatives over age 18 who are either U.S. citizens or permanent residents in possession of green cards,” and that would make them ineligible for visas, let alone citizenship status.

So what exactly are the rules? Which countries and what kinds of people get preference, and who gets no chance at all of “getting on the line” to pursue the American dream? How come? And what were the rules when the parents or grandparents of the politicians who rail the most about closing our borders came here?

3. Textbooks and money:

A recent editorial in the “Bloomberg View” section of Bloomberg Businessweek described the Neanderthal state of the American textbook market: high prices, little innovation and market domination by a few big companies. All this adds up to an industry in which prices have doubled the pace of inflation since 1986 and kids still lug brickloads of print books in their backpacks. The opinion piece keys off of the recently announced entry of Apple’s iPad into the market. But as it glumly concludes, Apple’s announcement that it is working with the incumbent publishers on a pricing model that is not likely to save anyone any money means that “Apple seems less intent on disrupting the textbook cartel than on joining it.” That’s because Apple seems set on partnering with the incumbents to publish their digital products only through the Apple store and have them be readable only on Apple’s expensive iPads.

The essay then offers up the idea that digital texts should instead be published only on open platforms so they can be read on all devices. The federal government, it suggests, could force this by threatening to cut off crucial education aid to states that don’t require those open platforms.

Beyond the obvious political obstacles with that kind of heavy-handed regulation, Bloomberg missed a bigger story. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have now agreed to begin implementing what’s called “Common Core” curriculum standards — partly because of being pushed to do so by President Obama’s Race to the Top education grant program. In a country with 13,000 turf-conscious local school districts, this common-sense approach to setting strong national standards to meet the challenge of global competition is revolutionary. It also promises a potential revolution in the textbook industry, both print and digital. A textbook that becomes a favorite of education officials charged with implementing the Common Core standards could achieve unheard-of scale and sales volumes. The same is true for high-tech teaching products, which is why venture capitalists are starting to warm to an industry they once shunned because sales had to be made one by one to states or even school districts in a highly politicized process.

The emergence of digital publishing combined with the adoption of the Common Core is going to upend a big, important industry. The right story would take us inside the jockeying among traditional publishers and startup entrepreneurs to get in on the potential Common Core gold rush. Which bureaucrats are making the Common Core decisions about which learning products to adopt? What kind of lobbying and political pressure has been unleashed at what levels to influence these choices? Apple stories have glitzy appeal, but what’s going on behind closed doors to determine how and what our kids will learn when the revolutionary Common Core is implemented is the real story.

4. Businessweek’s revival:

Although I wasn’t keen on that Bloomberg View essay in the Feb. 6 issue of Businessweek, I was stunned in reading this issue, as I have been repeatedly in reading other recent issues, at how terrific the magazine has become under its new Bloomberg owners and editor Josh Tyrangiel. I second Jack Shafer’s December appraisal: It has become, for my money, the best business magazine published today and one of the two or three best magazines, period. If anything, its fault is that, because it’s a weekly, there’s so much good stuff in each issue that it leaves the reader feeling guilty he didn’t get to it all (though there are smart bottom-line summaries at the end of each piece to help deal with that).

The cover story of that Feb. 6 issue was an exquisite blow-by-blow account of how hard it is to merge two giant airlines (Continental and United) because there are thousands of surprisingly complicated decisions to be made—such as whose coffee and uniforms to keep or figuring out how to cut over to common reservations and flight-information systems while still operating 24/7 around the world. Reporter Drake Bennett made the important but mundane come to life in a way that reminded me of the quote attributed to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc celebrating “the kind of mind that can see beauty in a hamburger bun.”

Inside the same issue there were at least a dozen other stories I wanted to read, from the “wild battle to overpay for the bankrupt Los Angeles Dodgers” to “So Long, Wal-Mart Greeter.”

This kind of transformation doesn’t just happen. Someone needs to do as thorough and as page-turning a piece on the magazine’s resurgence as Businessweek itself would do. There is a lot more to remaking a magazine than investing in talent. It takes attitude, discipline and a constant visualization of the reader—a relentless focus on whom you’re writing for and what you’re trying to deliver.

How did Tyrangiel put all that together in an age when print is supposed to be dying? And is his reborn product making money? Are advertisers ponying up? Are circulation revenues on the rise? How is the magazine keeping itself from being victimized by the Web—or is it? How does its progress compare with a parallel effort to beef up Bloomberg’s long-suffering cable-TV network? What’s the difference? And how does all of this fit into the larger strategy of the Bloomberg company?

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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: , , , , ,