Stories I’d like to see

Timing the capitol bloviators, the French as the tough guys, and Wal-Mart's reputation

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. Timing the capitol bloviators:

Watching the spate of committee hearings on Capitol Hill related to the Obamacare launch debacle reminds me of a story — or, rather, an ongoing type of coverage — that I wish the Washington Post, Politico or even C-Span would do: Keep count of the percentage of time each senator or congressman talks versus the amount of time the witnesses, whose appearances are ostensibly the purpose of the hearings, get to talk.

A sub-tally might also be done of how much of the committee member’s time is spent even asking a question, as opposed to giving a speech.

At most hearings each committee member is usually allotted five minutes to question the witness. My informal count of what I’ve watched over the past few weeks had the members hogging three to four minutes each, sometimes more.

This would make a nice sidebar to any story about a hearing. And perhaps an award could be given out at the end of the year for the member of the Senate and the House who took up the most time. Who knows? Keeping a visible count like this might even turn the hearings into hearings.

2. The French as the tough guys:

I may have missed this because I don’t follow foreign affairs as much as I should, but it would be great to read an explanation of how France — in fact, France run by a Socialist — has become the toughest member of the NATO alliance. Whether it’s Mali, Syria and now the Iran nuclear negotiations, the country that former George W. Bush defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as part of a timid “old Europe” now seems to want to be the West’s leading hawk.

How did that happen?

3. Has Wal-Mart gotten a bad rap?

The airwaves have been filled lately with ads touting “the real Wal-Mart” as a company that is not only great for customers but great for its employees.

“Healthcare starting at $40 a month,” crows one Wal-Mart worker, referring to a fringe benefit he says he gets.

Another worker calls himself “the next American success story,” because “over 75 percent of store management started as hourly associates.”

“There’s opportunity here,” he adds. “I can use Wal-Mart’s education benefits to get a degree.”

“It’s about time Wal-Mart fielded a TV-advertising campaign that explains just why the stores are still so popular with Americans despite the disbelieving objections of elites that keep picking at the world’s biggest retailer for one reason after another,” wrote Dale Buss in a blog post on “By focusing in a clear-eyed way…on the strengths of the company and how they benefit various huge constituencies — American consumers, Wal-Mart workers, and Wal-Mart’s supply-chain participants — the brand has a good shot at engendering more of the endemic kind of cultural goodwill that perpetually has escaped it.”

So, someone obviously needs to fact check all these claims. And a special plea to editors: Give the story the same space if the claims are true as you would if they’re not. News, after all, is best defined as telling people something they don’t know. Given all the bad press Wal-Mart gets about how it treats employees, it would, indeed, be news if the positive claims check out.

4. Brokaw on JFK coverage:

Amid all the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, this op-ed by Tom Brokaw last week in the Wall Street Journal might not have gotten the attention it deserves. Looking back at Kennedy’s tenure, the former NBC News anchor wondered how the echo chamber of cable news and tweets, combined with today’s take-no-prisoners political climate, might have affected the most tumultuous crises Kennedy faced. Here’s an excerpt:

Watching the recent government shutdown debate, I tried to imagine how Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs disaster — the invasion of Cuba with a small surrogate army in April 1961 — might have played out in today’s Benghazi climate. How long would it be before a national chorus of critics arose, demanding his impeachment? Can you imagine the wall-to-wall, channel-to-channel, blog-to-blog tsunami during the 12 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962? That’s when Kennedy had arguably his finest hour as commander in chief, cooling off potentially catastrophic war fever with imaginative diplomacy.

Brokaw’s whole piece is worth reading.

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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.