Stories I’d like to see

The mysterious allure of cruises, Al Sharpton conflict check, and doing the math on Ukraine bailouts

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

1. Why do people take cruises?

A few weeks ago, USA Today reported that “More than 160 of 3,104 passengers on Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess “had fallen ill with a gastrointestinal illness that the cruise line suspected was norovirus — a highly contagious infection that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.”

That incident, USA Today noted, came “just days after a massive outbreak of a norovirus-like illness forced an early end to a sailing of Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas.”

Yet a January 25 Associated Press story reported that the leading cruise lines trade association expects that 21.7 million people will take cruises in 2014, up from 21.3 million in 2013.


It seems that every few months the headlines are filled with stories of a cruise from hell — high-paying guests felled by illnesses or boats stalled with some mechanical failure that leaves passengers without food or even bathroom facilities. With all these stories about people marooned in these gruesome situations with literally no way out, why do millions still hop onboard?

I’d like to see a story combining market research with interviews of people who take cruises and love them, plus those who may have been scared off, that flushes out (sorry) why this still seems to be a booming industry.

2. Al Sharpton conflict check:

Last week, Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and host of Politics Nation on MSNBC, told the New York Daily News that he supported New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his fight with Eva Moskowitz, who runs the much-lauded Success Academy charter schools. Success Academy is the largest charter network in New York, and it began with a school in Harlem — where the children regularly outperform kids in wealthy suburbs, like Scarsdale, in reading and math achievement tests.

Not much attention was paid to Sharpton’s backing of de Blasio, whose criticism of the way Mayor Michael Bloomberg had supported the education reform movement in general and Moskowitz in particular was a centerpiece of his campaign. Sharpton’s comments ran on the News’ local politics blog.

But there could be a lot more to this story.

In reporting for a book about the education reform movement three years ago, I had a front-row seat observing Sharpton’s avid and effective support for education reform — especially for supporting and expanding charter schools in Harlem. At one point, Sharpton even embarked on a remarkable national education reform tour with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in which the success of schools like Moskowitz’s was a major part of his argument.

Getting Sharpton on board the reform movement had been a major victory for charter advocates in Harlem, where organizations like the Working Families Party and the now-defunct ACORN — both financially supported by the teachers’ union — claimed that the schools were run by Wall Street-funded “outsiders” somehow seeking to exploit the community’s children. (Moskowitz has lived in Harlem for decades.)

So what persuaded Sharpton to switch sides? Why did he reverse himself on what was for him a signature issue — one he often called “the civil rights issue of our generation” — and support de Blasio, whose administration includes former ACORN and Working Families Party leaders in high level positions?

There could be all kinds of reasons. Perhaps Sharpton just changed his mind. Perhaps it’s because he wants to support de Blasio, even if it means backtracking on what had been a favorite cause.

It may be more complicated, however. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the teachers’ unions are generous contributors to civil rights and other activist groups that support them on key issues like fighting education reform.

Though Sharpton has a daily MSNBC show, he is still the president of the Harlem-based National Action Network, where he drew a salary of $241,000 in 2011 (the latest year the nonprofit’s tax filing is available publicly). A reporter ought to ask Sharpton to release the group’s list of contributors for the most recent year and for the first quarter of this year.

Sharpton also owns at least two businesses, according to the National Action Network’s tax filing (which had to reveal them because the businesses had financial dealings with the network). He should be asked whether either receives any business from parties with an interest in education reform issues.

If these questions seem too accusatory because they are based on no actual knowledge, let’s remember what Sharpton’s current major activity is: He works for a news organization. Which means that when he takes positions on issues, he should disclose any financial conflicts or anything that might be perceived as a conflict.

It also means that a reporter ought to ask him.

3. How does our Ukraine bailout/Russia sanctions plan balance out?

While the United States continues to threaten economic sanctions against Russia in response to that country’s takeover of Crimea, and while Washington prepares a substantial aid package to Ukraine to keep the country from bankruptcy, there have been multiple reports that much of the funds for a Ukraine bailout would go to Russian banks that hold Ukrainian debt.

So with the first move, the United States would be financially assaulting Russia. But with the second move, Uncle Sam would be sending funds there.

Yet I haven’t seen a good report on how those numbers add up. How much of our bailout would end up in which Russian hands? And how much would the sanctions hurt which Russians? It’s obviously a profit-and-loss statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to calculate.

A smart, plugged-in financial reporter ought to take a crack at it, too.

One other key question: Is there any way we should or could attach a condition to our bailout that Ukraine not be allowed to send money to any country that has violated international law by invading its territory?

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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.