FROM THE GREAT DEBATE:
OCT 23, 2012 07:38 UTC
Scoping out the new election economy:
No matter what you think about the court decisions, including Citizens United, that have unraveled campaign-finance restrictions, it’s clear that the resulting gusher of contributions has created an industry of breathtaking scale.
Estimates now put overall federal campaign spending for 2012 at about $6 billion - more than half of Hollywood’s entire box-office gross last year. And that’s only for presidential and congressional campaigns.
So it’s time for a comprehensive report, perhaps from the Wall Street Journal or Reuters or BloombergBusinessweek, on Elections Inc.
Who are the biggest players among the consultants, ad agencies and ad buyers, mail-order houses, pollsters and media companies? (I noticed that Gannett attributed
much of its improved earnings this quarter to political ads on its local television outlets.)
And can we see sidebar profiles of the three or four biggest Election Inc. moguls – the ones who are making a fortune taking salaries and fees to deploy all of this money?
Who’s behind those Ohio and Wisconsin billboards?
Perhaps the most cynical political advertising of the year - and that’s a high bar - are the billboards that suddenly appeared in minority communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, declaring: “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” Featuring a looming judge’s gavel, the ad warns that the penalty is a $10,000 fine and three and a half years in prison.
Based on the neighborhoods where they were placed and the fact that they simply announce a law that has been on the books for years but that has rarely come into play - because there has been no voter fraud - it seems clear they’re meant to intimidate voters likely to support Democrats. The billboards suggest there are some new laws that could get them into trouble if they show up at the polls.
What’s worse, the billboards say only that the sponsor of the ads is “a private family foundation.”
Clear Channel Communications, which owns the billboards, told NPR last week that the contract allowing the ads to be anonymous “was a mistake” that violates the company’s policy. But, ClearChannel said, it cannot break the contract by disclosing the buyer. (As of this writing, however, the billboards are reportedly going to be taken down.)
The continuing anonymity of the “family foundation” that threw its money around for something like this illustrates a sad irony of the new media age: At a time when there are countless political pundits, many of whom claim to be reporters, filling million of Web pages and blogs and hundreds of hours of cable and online television, why hasn’t some reporter done the basic, if difficult, work of finding someone at Clear Channel, at the contractor that posted the billboards or at the agency that created the ad who might know something.
There have to be dozens of potential sources.
It might take almost that many closed doors or slammed-down phones, but I bet someone would provide a lead on who this buyer is. (A major investor in Clear Channel happens to be Bain Capital - something that might excite conspiracy buffs on the left. But I doubt it would have anything to do with getting someone down in the weeds at Clear Channel Outdoor to talk.)
Another potential avenue could be Internal Revenue Service records of foundations based in Ohio or Wisconsin. It’s a good guess that’s where the foundation is located, and reporting like this is all about testing good guesses. Something in their publicly available Form 990’s could provide a hint of political activity or the kind of political leanings that could lead to the buyer.
Still another path could be to pinpoint the billboards on publicly owned land. The municipality involved probably has to keep records of the revenues it gets from Clear Channel’s sales and might have to make those records available to a reporter (or might want to if the local agency is controlled by Democrats).
A building goes up on 57th Street, and it’s a story about everything
Last month, the New York Times published a fascinating story about a condominium tower rising 90 floors high above West 57th
Street in Manhattan. It’s such a ridiculously lavish monument to the .1 percent - two of the full-floor apartments near the top (where his and her bathrooms will have views of everything from Central Park to Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty) have sold for $90 million each - that it’s likely to drive much of the other 99.9 percent crazy.
Headlined “Rising Tower Emerges as Billionaires Haven,” the Times story reported that sales are brisk at the tower at 157 West 57th Street, which is called “One57” and is due to open in the fall of 2013. Purchasers are from all over the world – China, Russia, Canada, South America, Nigeria and, of course, the United States.
The Times, in fact, has done seven pieces about the tower over the last year, mostly focusing on One57 as a real estate industry story. But there’s a lot more to report.
Watching the rise of this largest residential tower ever built in the United States, I’ve wanted to read about the construction, traffic and safety challenges associated with building something like this in literally the middle of Manhattan. Have any workers been injured or died? Have neighboring businesses suffered from the traffic jams and the noise? If so, what’s been done to minimize that? What are the environmental, safety and other regulatory hurdles the builders have had to jump over, and what did they do to clear them?
I’ve also wanted to know what kinds of jobs have been created and who’s doing them. And I’ve been curious about what kind of high-tech communications equipment is being built into the apartments and what special security protections are in the works.
Then there are all the potential stories related to money - from a blow-by-blow of how the developer managed to get the project done after he had assembled the property just before the financial meltdown, to the tax maneuvering around the shell corporations being used by the future residents to purchase these castles, to the effect the building will have on retail outlets and restaurants in the neighborhood.
The story of One57 has elements of everything that’s fascinating and glorious, troubling and challenging about the age we live in: The widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The globalization of wealth, for which the building’s sales website is a modern billboard. Regulation versus economic development. Old industry (construction work) melding with high technology.
So here’s my idea: The Times, or maybe the FT or the Wall Street Journal, should do a monthly column in their magazines (because this also demands great color photography) until the building opens, chronicling all aspects of the One57 story.
I even have the perfect writer to do it: Gay Talese, the former New York Timesman. Talese is well known for his classic magazine articles in Esquire (including profiles of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio). He’s also known for best- selling books, including “The Kingdom and the Power” (about the Times), “Honor Thy Father” and “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” But one of my favorite Talese works is his lesser-known 1964 book, “The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.”
Nearly 50 years later, this could be a perfect follow-on.
A Yankee ticket sales slump?
A sequel to my note last week about seats seeming to go unsold during the playoffs at Yankee Stadium: The day after I wrote it, I got a sales promotion from the Yankees that listed their retail price for playoff seats. I noticed that I paid less on Stub Hub (the online secondary sales channel) for my seats at the League Championship Series than the Yankees’ retail price for the same seats.
That’s right, not only were tickets not being scalped the way they were in the glory years, they were being unloaded at an apparent loss. There’s a story here, sport fans.
OCT 16, 2012 10:26 UTC
1. The Election Day legal battlefield:
We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.
Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.
For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.
Similarly, we know that new voting restrictions in Florida, which were only partially set aside by the courts, are likely to add to the confusion and disputed ballots there.
Other swing states could also cause lots of trouble, leaving us to wonder who won. For example, according to this excellent Associated Press report, in Wisconsin and Virginia, voters who don’t present proper identification at the polls can vote provisionally and still have their ballots counted if they show up by the following Friday with their ID’s. Imagine if we had to wait for that process to play out.
Put simply, any serious news organization in any swing state ought get to work on a full report on what the rules are (for example, do polls stay open if there are waiting lines at closing time?), what the likely snafus will be in the event of a close vote and what the legal process is supposed to be for resolving them.
Beyond these local stories, I’m hoping that by Election Day, Politico, Pro Publica, The New York Times, The Washington Post or one of the cable news organizations will have a comprehensive website posting of all the potential disputes in all of the swing states, what the law and the rules (including court filing deadlines and other timetables) seem to be that would govern their resolution, and maybe even a link to brief bios of the judges who might be asked to resolve them.
The other angle has to do with what the two sides are doing to prepare for all of these battles. What are the legal issues they’re most geared up to deal with? And which states do the respective sides think are most likely to be the scene of a Bush v. Gore-like fiasco?
2. Shedding A-Rod’s contract:
Alex Rodriguez’s fall from $22 million-a-year Yankee superstar to $22 million-a-year benchwarmer, as told here by the incomparable Tyler Kepner of The New York Times
, is — depending on your view of A-Rod — sad, as inevitable as the aging process itself, or maybe even fun to watch. But I wish Kepner or another sports reporter could find out if the Yankees have an insurance policy on Rodriguez that might somehow allow them to claim that an injury, such as the broken hand he suffered in August, has caused him to deteriorate far beyond the simple effects of aging.
Similarly, I’m wondering whether there’s a big tax bonus in the offing if the Yankees decide to release Rodriguez sometime before the end of the five years left on his contract. Sure, they’d have to pay him what Kepner reports is the remaining $114 million due on the contract, but wouldn’t they benefit from being able to write off his value in one tax year? Imagine if the star who became emblematic of baseball’s crazed big-money contracts became a tax write-off legend.
Speaking of the Yankees and money, I saw a whole bunch of empty seats in the premium section at Yankee Stadium behind home plate during Friday evening’s fifth and deciding division play-off game. Sunday’s American League championship game also had lots of empty seats. How come?
Last point about baseball: What does Rodriguez’s apparent fall with so much left to be paid out on his bonanza deal mean for other superstars who are coming on the free-agent market this year or next and are looking to lock in long-term contracts?
3. United Airlines and Delta:
Last February, I praised Bloomberg Businessweek’s insider story
of how United Airlines and Continental Airlines were tackling the nuts and bolts of their merger. Well, it’s now clear that however carefully they may have planned everything down to the last detail (or however carefully they told Bloomberg Businessweek
they were planning it all), the logistics associated with the marriage have been a huge flop. As has been widely reported, the merged reservation and gate allocation systems have repeatedly failed, causing all kinds of customer grief. Bloomberg Businessweek
needs to go back and tell us how these best-laid plans failed so miserably.
Meantime, as United suffers from these merger travails and American Airlines is in a tailspin mostly related to labor troubles while it sits in bankruptcy, Delta Airlines may be going in the opposite direction. From my own experience on some recent flights, as well as what I’ve heard from a few friends, Delta seems to be on the upsurge in terms of customer service and on time performance. Is that true? If so, why?
PHOTO: An elections official demonstrates a touch-screen voting machine at the Fairfax County Governmental Center in Fairfax, Virginia, October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
OCT 9, 2012 18:31 UTC
1. The remaining debates: Tell us the rules
Two weeks ago there was an interesting story in the Huffington Post about how the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates are likely to be highly detailed, down to the permissible lighting and camera shots, how the moderators are supposed to ensure a balance in each candidate’s allotted time during any back-and-forth, and even a provision for the screening of notepaper the combatants could bring to the podium (to make sure it was blank).
The HuffPo report drew on a leaked 31-page contract the commission executed with the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and noted that “eighteen good-governance and media watchdog groups” have now demanded that this year’s contract be publicly disclosed.
But why is the press waiting for the commission and the campaigns to disclose what they obviously want to keep under wraps? Why hasn’t some reporter pried loose the text or at least the highlights of the 2012 contract? There must be a half-dozen or more operatives in each camp, plus at least as many debate commission officials, who know.
With the controversy over moderator Jim Lehrer’s allegedly too-laid-back performance in the first Obama-Romney debate, the actual rules seem more relevant now than ever. This is especially true because the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, has a town hall format. That means that beyond the moderator’s stipulated role, there are all kinds of issues related to the choice of the audience, the nature and selection of the questions they can ask, and what kind of follow-up is allowed from the citizen-questioners or the moderator. Any of these dynamics could be pivotal, which is why the 2004 contract included a whole series of special clauses governing only that town hall format.
These are the election’s most important events. Can’t one of the hundreds of reporters covering campaign 2012 find out what rules have been negotiated and what the moderator is supposed to do if they are violated?
2. Why do wounded vets need charity?
Lately I’ve been seeing lots of compelling television ads soliciting contributions for Wounded Warrior Project, Inc, a Jacksonville, Florida-based non-profit that, according to the ads and its mission statement, supplies financial aid and rehabilitative services to “honor and empower wounded warriors.”
No, this is not a suggestion for a story investigating whether the charity is a rip-off. Yes, the annual Form 990 that this and other charitable organizations file with the IRS reveals that Wounded Warrior’s top executive, Steven Nardizzi, made $341,000 in the fiscal year ending September 2011, and seven other officials made in excess of $160,000 each. And the non-profit actually recorded an operating income of $16 million on $74 million in revenues, including donations – or 22%. But these salaries seem appropriate for an organization of this scope, and this kind of surplus is normal for a growing non-profit. Moreover, Wounded Warrior has attracted a blue-ribbon board of directors that includes decorated veterans of all ranks and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, who is unpaid.
Rather, for me the very existence of the organization and its activities raise a more fundamental question: How did it come to be that the people who have so selflessly served our country have to rely on private charity for the kinds of rehabilitation and social work services that Wounded Warrior provides? Indeed, as I was watching one of its commercials pitching for donations to help the thousands of veterans who have been blinded or paralyzed or who must learn how to live in wheelchairs or with prosthetic devices, I imagined that sitting next to me was someone from another country. How embarrassed would I be explaining that our government doesn’t provide all of these services in full – and, therefore, that our veterans had to form an organization to pass a tin cup around?
What’s the Obama administration’s explanation for Wounded Warrior’s existence? How about the Republicans who control Congress? If it’s the case that the Wounded Warrior Project is centered on important and laudable supplemental services (such as “family support” or the “stress relief events” for hospital doctors and nurses described in the IRS filing) on top of the billions the government already provides, then someone needs to explain the seemingly basic services, such as physical therapy and counseling, that dominate the commercials and that are also described in the IRS filing.
Beyond that, if these are predominantly supplementary services meant to provide aid beyond what government can do, then why not put the arm on those in the private sector who profit the most when our soldiers go off to war?
Wounded Warrior spent $57.7 million in fiscal 2011, according to its IRS report. The Defense Department spends about $350 billion a year on all private contractors. That produces one of the most prosperous sectors of the private economy, yielding, for example, much of the $3.8 billion in operating income enjoyed last year by Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor.
If those contractors kicked in, say, five one-hundredths of one percent of what they get from the Pentagon – a nickel for every hundred dollars – the Wounded Warrior budget would be quadrupled. Why not ask some of the defense contractor CEOs if they’d be willing to do that?
3. Why wasn’t JPMorgan indemnified for the sins of Bear Stearns?
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s sued JPMorgan last week over alleged fraud by its Bear Stearns subsidiary in the marketing of mortgage-backed securities leading up to the Wall Street meltdown. Since then, the general narrative of JPM’s defense has been that the bank had bought the sinking Bear Stearns at the behest of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, which hoped to avoid a systemwide meltdown. Thus, from JPMorgan’s perspective this is an example of no good deed going unpunished.
However, as Bloomberg’s William Cohan argued on Monday
, another thread of the JPM-Bear narrative has to do with how hard JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon bargained to get a fire-sale deal when he took over Bear. Therefore, according to Cohan, Dimon and his bank should be responsible for the risks they took on along with the valuable assets they got at a lowball price.
Leaving aside who’s right, I have one basic question that I hope a reporter asks Dimon: If the government was so desperate for you to rescue Bear, why didn’t you insist that it indemnify you from suits exactly like this one? Did you and your lawyers screw up? Or, as I suspect is more likely, if you tried to get indemnification but couldn’t, how can you argue now that you didn’t willingly assume the risks?
PHOTO: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shakes hands with President Barack Obama as moderator Jim Lehrer gets up at the end of the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate, in Denver, October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Reynolds/Pool
OCT 2, 2012 11:33 UTC
1. The Obama TARP fiasco Romney can’t use:
If the dynamics of the presidential campaign were different, a book called Bailout by Neil Barofsky would be getting a lot more attention. Barofsky left a post in late 2008 as a top federal financial fraud prosecutor in New York to become the special inspector general overseeing the $700 billion TARP bailout program. He’s written a Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington-like account of how even after TARP was turned over to a Democratic administration – in fact more so after the Democrats took over – TARP money was dispensed and TARP rules were written almost completely for the benefit of the bankers who drove America into a ditch.
For example, there’s Barofsky’s blow-by-blow description of how the rules written by the Obama administration for its much-heralded $50 billion program to help homeowners whose mortgages were underwater were so tilted in favor of the banks and against homeowners actually being able to get relief that only $1.4 billion of the $50 billion was dispensed, with few homeowners getting any help. And Barofsky is not writing about compromises the Obama administration had to make with banker-sympathetic Republicans in Congress; this is all about internal decisions that unfailingly seemed to put the needs and mindset of Wall Street above those of Main Street consumers.
A presidential campaign that wanted to call out the Obama administration for being too friendly to Wall Street and the banks at the expense of Main Street would be using Bailout as the cheat sheet that keeps on giving. But with the Romney campaign’s attack coming from the opposite direction – that the president and his team have killed the economy by shackling Wall Street – and with Romney on record in favor of allowing the mortgage crisis to “bottom out” with no government intervention, the former Massachusetts governor and his team have no use for Bailout.
That doesn’t mean reporters covering Wall Street and financial regulation shouldn’t be digging in, if not now, then after the voting. I want to read a story challenging officials, such as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, to offer their response to Barofsky’s detailed and convincing indictment.
Did Geithner really refuse repeatedly to meet with Barofsky and try time and again to torpedo his investigations into fraud at TARP or his efforts to write rules that would prevent fraud? Did the Obama White House and the Treasury Department really argue to Barofsky that implementing what seem to me to be commonsense reporting and auditing rules for those accepting TARP money would scare off the banks from taking these handouts?
Did both the White House and Treasury constantly try to undercut their inspector general with leaks to the press portraying him as an ambitious partisan, when in fact he is a Democrat and was a relatively obscure if accomplished prosecutor with no previous predilection for showboating?
Did Geithner deputy Herbert Allison, a veteran Wall Street banker, really take Barofsky to lunch at a D.C. power restaurant after Barofsky had issued a series of reports critical of Treasury’s administration of TARP’s billions (which is an inspector general’s ostensible job), during which he delivered a clichéd “You’ll never work in this town again” speech?
According to Barofsky, Allison observed that Barofsky was “a young man, just starting out with a family, and obviously this job isn’t going to last forever. Have you thought at all about what you’ll be doing next?” After which he added, writes Barofsky, “I’m telling you, you’re doing yourself real harm. Out there in the market there are consequences for some of the things you’re saying.”
Worse, according to Barofsky, by dessert Allison had asked if he was looking for “something else in government? A judgeship?”
There’s lots more, including Barofsky’s account of capitulations the Obama team has made in the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that has rendered some of its key provisions relatively toothless. Again, that’s not something the Romney folks would criticize. Nor would they be terribly exercised over Barofsky’s explanation of how the rules governing the way TARP money was to be used and accounted for were so watered down that they never required or even encouraged the bailed-out banks actually to lend it out and thereby help revive the economy.
Reporters on the beat ought to get out there and tell us if Barofsky’s stories hold up. And they should use his description of these crucial, but often arcane, in-the-weeds issues, as a road map for future coverage no matter who wins in November.
2. Do CEOs ever pay the price?
Last week’s announcement that Bank of America was going to pay $2.4 billion in a shareholders’ class-action suit brought as a result of the bank’s disastrous 2008 purchase of Merrill Lynch reminds me that I wish I could read something explaining who actually benefits (other than the plaintiffs’ lawyers) when massive shareholder suits like these are settled or get decided for the plaintiffs. More important, who actually pays?
Dispatches like this one did a good job of explaining what the claims were – that BofA and Merrill Lynch executives hid the nature of Merrill Lynch’s near-total meltdown as BofA shareholders were being asked to approve the merger. And some, such as this New York Times story, provided a snapshot of who will get the settlement money: “those who owned Bank of America shares or call options from September 2008 to January 2009,” which was the period that began when the deal was announced and ended when it was voted on by the shareholders.
But that leaves lots of questions. A shareholders’ suit is supposedly brought on behalf of shareholders who own a company. Yet the prime defendant is the company. So it is the company that pays the settlement, which would mean that the shareholders’ assets are being used to pay the shareholders.
Of course, if I owned shares between September 2008 and January 2009 and sold them later in January 2009, I’d only be on the receiving end. But if I still own the shares, wouldn’t I be paying myself with my own assets (and with the plaintiffs’ lawyers taking their cut on the way through this round trip)?
More important, it is the company’s lead executives, such as then-BofA CEO Kenneth Lewis, who allegedly misled the shareholders. They are also defendants in these cases. But I haven’t read anything about them paying anything. Did they? Or did the company indemnify them from such suits and/or provide company-paid insurance to cover any personal liability? Did the company or company-paid insurance cover their legal fees? If so, then what’s the point of suing them?
And, as long as we’re talking about harm done to shareholders, why wouldn’t we now see a new, post-settlement shareholders’ suit not against the company but targeted only at Lewis and some of his former colleagues who got Bank of America into this jam in the first place and just caused it to pay out $2.4 billion? (The plaintiffs here could be any current shareholders, because they are the ones who are writing the $2.4 billion check.) Again, did the company indemnify Lewis and other executives against shareholder suits, meaning that if a shareholder now sues Lewis over this $2.4 billion settlement, the shareholder is once again only suing himself?
Can someone please sort this out?
PHOTO: Neil Barofsky, special inspector general, Troubled Asset Relief Program, speaks at the Reuters Washington Summit September 21, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
SEP 25, 2012 11:25 UTC
1. How does ProPublica do it? Can it scale?
I received an intriguing email alert last week from ProPublica – the non-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, does “journalism in the public interest.” The email announced that ProPublica’s “nursing home inspection” tool now has a completely searchable database of “140,000-plus” reports from government inspections of these facilities for seniors, many of which have been plagued by charges of poor or even abusive care.
That reminded me that as its fifth anniversary approaches, ProPublica deserves full-blown feature treatment.
The small, New York-based organization, which has already won two Pulitzer Prizes, has done a slew of amazing reporting projects that have combined old-fashioned shoe leather with ingenious use of modern technology to gather and present compelling stories and provide ongoing resource materials. It has tackled subjects ranging from political ad spending to doctors getting payments from drug companies to presidential pardons to this nursing home project. And that’s all in addition to an array of killer one-off stories, such as its report on speaking fees paid to Chicago Tribune editorial board member and syndicated columnist Clarence Page by a group lobbying to be removed from a State Department terrorist list, or the story about Magnetar, the secretive financial firm.
ProPublica was founded in late 2007 with a $10 million grant from Herbert and Marion Sandler, the former Golden West Financial Corp chief executives who made a fortune when they sold the giant savings and loan to Wachovia Bank just before the mortgage bubble burst. Under the leadership of Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who conceived the project with the Sandlers, ProPublica has since attracted grants from other major foundations, as well as several hundred smaller individual donations.
Steiger now deploys 34 reporters, researchers and what he calls “data journalists.” Their impact is magnified not only by how cleverly they mine and present data related to important issues but also by the partnerships Steiger and his team have forged with other news organizations, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and Politico. These outlets, which often contribute reporters to supplement ProPublica’s resources, co-publish the resulting work through their own channels.
I’d like to see a story about how Steiger and his team conceive projects, use technology (especially data mining and social media), assess the impact of their work and control quality. I’d also like to know how they divide editorial responsibility with their publishing partners and what mechanisms, if any, they have built in to hold themselves accountable to those who dispute their reports. After all, a non-profit that focuses on targets like nursing homes, major financial institutions or hydro-fracking (the alleged dangers of which have been a near obsession at ProPublica) could easily develop a God complex and consider itself infallible.
Beyond that, I’d like to know how ProPublica manages its finances and what its long-term business plan is. According to ProPublica’s website: “We spend more than 85 cents out of every dollar on news – almost the exact opposite of traditional print news organizations, even very good ones, that devote about 15 cents of each dollar spent to news.”
Of course that’s in large part because ProPublica doesn’t print or deliver physical products or pay squadrons of ad sales people.
Equally important, ProPublica can pick its spots rather than cover everything a typical newspaper feels compelled to report on. There’s a lot more I’d like to know about that model. Its reporters are paid well, so I suspect the discipline of targeting carefully is the key. That could suggest important strategic lessons for more conventional news publishers who, at a time of declining resources, have typically chosen to spread those resources lightly across all beats, even-lighter news and news covered by everyone else, rather than focusing on harder reporting that counts and that people will remember.
ProPublica’s annual report
says it runs on a yearly budget of about $10 million, and the funds seem to come mostly from year-to-year donations. Are there plans to build an endowment to ensure that the organization will be more than a passing trend subject to the whims and fortunes of annual donors?
With that in mind, how about a sidebar or another story exploring why, in light of ProPublica’s success in supplementing the dwindling resources and resolve of for-profit news organizations to do ProPublica’s high-octane reporting, someone like Steiger couldn’t scale this model dramatically. Why not try to go to 20 or 30 billionaires and remind them that democracy, good government and free markets depend on the honest-broker information that good journalism provides and get them to endow an average of $1 billion each to create a $20 billion “Democracy Through Journalism” Fund? Assuming a 5 percent annual return, that would allow for a billion dollars a year – 100 times what ProPublica now spends – and put 3,000 to 4,000 serious journalists on beats across the country. Could that work?
(Conflict note: ProPublica, uses Press+, the publishing e-commerce system that I co-founded and of which I am co-CEO, to solicit donations on its website.)
2. Defanging Ryan:
This important story by Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin and Jake Sherman published in Politico over the weekend is the best of many raising questions about Paul Ryan’s role in the Romney campaign. Rather than Ryan becoming the guy who offers conservative policy specifics to supplement Mitt Romney’s more general stump speech appeals, “the congressman’s supporters fear just the opposite has happened … The congressman’s role now is … a dutiful No. 2, tossing out attack lines … [M]any Republicans believe the solution is not more Mitt, but more Ryan.”
Well, I hope some campaign reporter is not going to make me wait for “Game Change II” or the next installment of the Politico e-book series about the campaign to take me inside and tell me who in the Romney campaign (or was it Romney himself?) had what conversations with Ryan before (or was it after?) he was chosen and told him he was going to have to lose all that wonky specificity because specifics were not the campaign’s strategy.
This is not only a matter of curiosity – of wanting to be a fly on the wall during what could have been some dramatic conversations. Knowing what happened here will tell us a lot about Ryan. There’s been much written and said by Ryan’s critics that what he epitomizes more than ideological determination is a Washington-style careerism that saw him arrive at the Capitol as an intern and make all the right moves and connections to become a leader of the congressional Republicans. How he reacted if he was told before he was chosen that he would have to change his act to get the number two spot is likely to shed some light on that, as would how he handled it, and continues to handle it, if he was only given those orders after he was chosen.
PHOTO: Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan waves to supporters while holding a cup of coffee during a campaign stop at Cuban restaurant and coffee shop, Versailles, in Miami, Florida, September 22, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
SEP 18, 2012 10:32 UTC
1. The beef against ABC:
Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.” Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade. Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did eleven separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.” It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel “The Jungle” that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early twentieth century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.
These multiple reports — hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets — and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.
Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint
Beef Products quickly lost 60% of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.
Most of the modest press coverage of the filing of the suit acknowledged the huge hurdles any plaintiff has in a country where the First Amendment protects not only free expression, but those, like ABC, whose expression angers its targets and even causes them ruinous economic harm. That’s true.
Some of the coverage, like this Wall Street Journal report, also focused on Beef Products’ invocation of a South Dakota law “that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized,” and noted that beef producers had tried unsuccessfully to sue Oprah Winfrey in Texas using the same type of argument that she had disparaged meat products. That’s true, too.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. This case is not likely to go away quickly.
Sure, the meat disparagement claims obviously will not and should not survive First Amendment scrutiny, nor will Beef Products’ absurd claim that by cheering on a boycott of its products ABC was “tortiously interfering” with the company’s contracts with its customers. (Actually, Beef Products claims that ABC called for the boycotts, which is not true. But even if it had, its First Amendment right to do so would easily trump this interference with contracts claim.)
But – and this is a big but – there are 13 counts alleging defamation in this complaint, and they are compellingly persuasive. In fact, they make ABC look terrible.
To be sure, the great fun in writing about litigation is that if both sides have good lawyers (and Beef Products’ lawyer is heavyweight former Chicago federal prosecutor Dan Webb), one side’s arguments can look persuasive until challenged by the other side. So, maybe Beef Products’ case will evaporate when ABC answers.
But as an aficionado of these cases, I can report that this is the most detailed, persuasive complaint of its kind that I have ever read.
After reading it — and, in fact, reading and re-reading its painstaking explanation of how the plaintiff’s product is produced and used — and then looking back at some of the ABC reports, I began to believe that it was Beef Products that was slimed. I actually found myself believing that this may not be “The Jungle, Part Two”; that what the company produces really is the “lean, finally textured beef,” or “LFTB” that Beef Products’ complaint says it is; that it is real meat, not “filler” or “gelatin,” as it was described on ABC; and that it is safe and has been deemed so by federal inspectors and officials who were not paid off or unduly influenced by corporate politics and lobbying.
Moreover, I was especially intrigued by the claims that ABC had blown off all the evidence Beef Products presented to the network’s producers saying that their first reports were wrong, and that ABC not only did not correct them on air, but stepped up its campaign against “pink slime.” If that’s true, it could establish the kind of “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth that would put ABC in real legal jeopardy. Indeed, for me this is the most compelling part of the complaint: Beef Products alleges that it provided ABC with all kinds of evidence — including research papers from respected independent agencies and even testimony from the head of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Safety Institute – refuting ABC’s take on “pink slime.”
Given the alarm sounded against “pink slime” by ABC and then by so many other news outlets and consumer groups that piled on, my buying into the idea that what Beef Products puts on our grocery shelves is actually “lean, finally textured beef” probably makes it seem like some of the slime has gotten into my brain. But I’ve read the 256-page complaint – which is a good place for a reporter to start before digging in and seeing what ABC’s answers are, including whether and why it chose to ignore the countervailing evidence that Beef Products offered.
Whichever side is right, there is already enough beef here for a terrific story that pushes beyond the ABC PR department’s standard response so far; that the suit “is without merit” and “we will contest it vigorously.”
2. Romney as debater:
As explained here in June
, I’m still hoping for a good report on what exactly the rules are for the upcoming presidential debates
and what the points of contention were when the two sides negotiated them. Who wanted the candidates seated versus standing at a podium? Who wanted more or less structure? Did both sides agree from the start that the second debate (on October 16) would be a town hall format?
Who wanted which debate subjects to come first, second, and third? (It seems to me that President Obama won that negotiation, if there was one; foreign policy, which seems to be his strong suit and underscores his status as President, is the third debate topic, on October 22. That means it will be the debate closest in viewers’ memories as they think about their votes 15 days later.)
I’d also like to see a report reviewing how Romney did in his other one-on-one debates: when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the senate in 1994 and when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. We know he generally handled himself well in the multi-candidate primary debates this year, but how does he do when the focus is solely on him and one other opponent?
PHOTO: The beef product known as pink slime or lean finely textured beef is frozen on large drums as part of the manufacturing process at the Beef Products Inc. plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Nati Harnik/Pool
SEP 11, 2012 11:42 UTC
I always tell my students that the best stories come from what you’re most curious about. And for all the coverage of the presidential campaign we’ve been getting in print, online and on cable, my curiosity about what’s really going on in the battleground states and in their most evenly divided precincts hasn’t come close to being satisfied. With all the time and money CNN, Politico and the major newspapers are spending letting the usual suspects opine on the horse race, they should zero in on the people who count by doing some of the following:
a. The voters: Why haven’t the news organizations most heavily invested in campaign coverage selected representative samples of voters (undecided, as well as voters leaning to one side or the other) in three or four battleground precincts across the country – from Colorado to Ohio and New Hampshire to Florida – to ask them in focus groups what, if anything, is persuading them or turning them off? This should be video programming, but that doesn’t mean Politico or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (or even Reuters or Bloomberg) – in addition to the cable news networks – couldn’t do it, given that they all now have robust online video programming. There’s almost an infinite number of questions I’d want to hear these voters asked, among them:
Have field workers called or knocked on their doors? If so, what are the canvassers saying? Is it persuasive?
Which of the television ads bombarding these voters have had the most positive effect? Which have turned them off? Are they even still listening to any of them? Which is most memorable and why?
What speakers at the convention appealed to them or turned them off? Do they even know about the Clint Eastwood fiasco, much less care? Who made a more effective appeal to women or Hispanics?
What effect did Bill Clinton’s speech have? How about Marco Rubio or Chris Christie?
What effect has Governor Romney’s refusal to release a larger set of tax returns had? Have they heard and do they care about his Cayman Islands partnerships or Swiss bank accounts? Do any think that President Obama is a Muslim, and do they care? What about the Solyndra scandal?
Do they share the media’s verdict that Paul Ryan stretched the truth in his convention speech, or that his budget plan could hurt future Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries? (Of course, the question should be asked a lot more neutrally than that, as in: “Did you watch Paul Ryan’s speech or hear about it? What did you think of it, and what do you think of his budget plan?”) Do they even know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and understand the unambiguous severity of the Republican’s Medicaid proposals?
What’s their sense of the economy and its progress or lack thereof, and how much does it matter to them? Do they believe Governor Romney can cut the deficit, as he promises, without further burdening the middle class?
How much of an issue is abortion or gay marriage? What about Israel? Or terrorism and the killing of Osama bin Laden?
What about the likability of the two candidates and their running mates? And how much does that matter?
As they think about casting their votes, what do they pinpoint as the most important deciding factor in their decisions? If each had to explain his or her vote to a close friend, what would they say?
What about showing up to vote? Who might sit it out, and why? What could persuade them to turn out? A phone call that day? An offer of a ride to the polls? The option to vote early?
In fact, because the campaign will likely depend as much on turnout as on the late decisions of undecided voters, these focus groups should be sure to include registered voters weakly committed to one side or the other and unsure if they will vote at all, as well as true undecided voters.
Sure, we often see some of these questions covered in national or even statewide polls, but poll-results stories have little meaning and texture without this kind of personal, qualitative probing. They’re not nearly as interesting, and they tell us little compared with hearing the people who are actually going to decide the country’s path explain their take on all of these issues. In fact, presented with the right production packaging (perhaps splitting it into daily 10- or 15-minute doses over a week or two), this coverage could be downright compelling.
Besides, it’s a good bet that the campaigns themselves are doing exactly this kind of focus group research. Why should they know more than we know?
(Which reminds me: I’d also like to see a story comparing how the two sides’ focus groups of these voters compare. Did they produce the same conclusions that the losing side was just unable to act on effectively? Or did they draw differing conclusions, resulting in the losing side taking some wrong turns? Realistically, it will probably not be until after the election that this view from inside the campaigns’ most protected research is doable.)
b. The ground troops: What do the Romney and Obama troops in the field do all day?
How are they organized and scripted? How does what they say differ, if at all, from what the campaigns would want the rest of us to know they are saying? To what degree, if at all, do their targeted messages become pandering or appeals that would embarrass the national campaign?
How is what they hear fed back to the campaign strategists and to what effect?
What do they get paid, and how are they held accountable for productivity? How important are the unions in providing troops for the Democrats, and how important are business interests in providing people for the Republicans? What about the churches?
c. The money: With campaigns that together will spend in the billions before it’s all over and with so much of it concentrated on a relative sliver of the country, the economic effects on these localities have to be enormous (or, depending on your view of the role of money in politics, obscene).
Can a local car dealer advertise a sale in Toledo, Ohio or Jefferson County, Colorado on his cable system’s ESPN channel next week, or has he been crowded out of the market?
Which caterers are cashing in?
Is there any evidence yet that Obama’s overall cash-haul shortfall compared with Romney’s is forcing the president’s people to pull back or to pay local bills more slowly?
Which ad from each side has run the most? And how does its run compare with high-dollar marketing for a commercial advertiser? (And can we hear from a credible marketing consultant or academic who has studied the laws of diminishing returns in television advertising?)
Have lawyers been retained, and at what cost, to deal with any Election Day voting fights?
In short, exactly how is all the money being spent? Can we see a pie chart of all the expenses by category?
I like pundit cable chatter as much as any political junkie. But it’s time for Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer and Bret Baier, as well as the folks from Politico and the national newspapers and networks, to do a lot more work out where the real action is. Take us to the front lines, and bring us the real story.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses supporters at a Labor Day campaign event at Scott High School in Toledo, Ohio September 3, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing
SEP 5, 2012 12:53 UTC
1. Use polls to monitor the effectiveness of campaign lies:
It’s great that many media organizations have been fact-checking the claims of the presidential candidates and holding them accountable for blatant distortions. But with all the money they are spending on polls, why can’t they poll whether the lies are working?
For example, why not ask voters whether they believe the charge that President Obama has eliminated the work requirement in the welfare program? Or if they now believe that Obama cut $700 billion from Medicare benefits? Or that the Romney/Ryan budget plan would actually gut the deficit instead of balloon it?
And although I don’t want to imply equivalency of misstatements in the two campaigns, because there isn’t, pollsters could also ask about this Obama-side whopper: whether people think Governor Romney’s Bain Capital indirectly caused the death of a woman by depriving her husband of health insurance?
2. 9/11 anniversary ideas:
As the 11th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks approaches, here are some ideas the press might want to pursue:
a. Mission creep and budget creep at the Department of Homeland Security.
I’ve written in prior columns
about how the Department of Homeland Security seems to keep expanding into areas not associated with securing the homeland
. Its spending seems to reflect that: The first DHS budget in 2003 was $37.7 billion. This year it’s $50 billion, and it’s up nearly 20 percent in just the last four years. How come?
b. Why not a permanent Victims Compensation Fund? Most of the players involved, including the families of the victims, agree that the federal fund, set up by President Bush and administered by Kenneth Feinberg to compensate survivors as well as families of victims of the attacks, successfully prevented a litigation nightmare in which the courts would have been clogged, victims would have had their payouts delayed and plaintiffs’ lawyers would have had a bonanza. Yet we’ve done nothing to apply the lessons of a government program that actually worked. Rather than depend on the vicissitudes of the politics of a chaotic moment, why haven’t we codified provisions for another fund to be implemented should another terrorist attack happen, with carefully defined guidelines of what defines an eligible terrorist attack and who would qualify as victims? Has anyone in Washington tried to do that? If not, why not? And what does Feinberg think?
c. A privatized TSA?
The current Republican platform calls for the functions of the Transportation Security Administration to be transferred to private corporations, which is how airport security was handled before 9/11. However, in the pre-9/11 world the airlines were in charge of hiring the private security firms that checked people through at the airports, with little government regulation and little attention paid to anything other than moving people through the lines with no hassles. The Republican platform would have the Department of Homeland Security strictly regulate the private companies that would replace the TSA employees – as is done at most airports in Europe.
In fact, a few airports in the United States, including San Francisco, have been allowed to experiment with that approach, and it seems to have worked, providing more cost-effective and customer-friendly service with no apparent security compromises.
It would be good to see stories exploring the merits and demerits of each approach.
d. Private-sector winners and losers. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, companies from Lockheed Martin to Raytheon to GE, as well as all of the major consulting firms and a slew of small businesses and startups, plunged into what quickly became a new homeland security industry. The new industry in turn created squadrons of lobbyists with a new specialty.
So who are the big winners? Who are the losers? How come? And which members of Congress sitting on newly important committees with jurisdiction over various aspects of homeland security accumulated new power?
3. Missing the nuts and bolts of the stimulus:
The New New Deal – a terrific book just out by Time senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald – is an encyclopedia of stories that most other reporters missed every day for the past three years because the stories were as unsexy as they were important. Grunwald zeroes in on the nuts and bolts and trials and tribulations of implementing the president’s 2009 stimulus package. (See, I told you it’s not sexy, just hugely important.)
His account explains how things work and don’t work in Washington. For example, I’ve always wondered how the Obama people blew even the simple branding of the stimulus, and Grunwald provides all the details, including how they ended up with a logo for the too-small signs that adorn the stimulus act’s projects that is as unappealing and indecipherable as the name of the act itself. (Seriously, why didn’t they use the title of Grunwald’s book instead of “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”?)
My favorite story is Grunwald’s six-page description of a program in the Department of Energy intended to create lots of jobs and make long-lasting, nationwide improvements in energy efficiency by weatherizing – as in caulking windows and doors – 600,000 low-income homes. It seemed like a simple, logical way to deploy $200 million of the stimulus. But it was sidetracked by a tangle of red tape and bureaucratic fights, into which was thrust Claire Broido Johnson, a hard-driving young Harvard MBA and entrepreneur lured into the Obama change mission.
In Grunwald’s fly-on-the-wall account, Johnson faces off against career bureaucrats who sneer at her fervor and delight in finding obstacles to put in her way. For example, they dredge up the question of whether a 1930s law, much beloved by labor unions, requiring the federal government to pay “prevailing wage” on federal construction projects applied to workers caulking windows and, if it did, how and how quickly that prevailing wage could be determined. (It took months.)
Books like this, written a year or more after the events, have multiple advantages. Perspective is easier to come by. And getting people to talk after they’ve left their jobs, or at least when they’re not in the thick of starting them, is also a lot easier. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of stories we should have been reading all along.
Unlike covering government agency announcements or congressional mud fights, or looking for leaks of personnel appointments or firings, these are the stories that make government correct itself in real time by raising issues and holding people accountable. And they’re the stories that give credit to and encourage people like Johnson – who made her 600,000-home goal but is quoted by Grunwald at the end of this section as saying: “I’ll never work for the federal government again.”
As we approach either a second Obama administration or a new Romney administration, editors and producers should be thinking about how to gear up for this kind of coverage. It really matters. If Grunwald’s work is any indication, it can make for a lot of good reads, too.
Conflict disclosure: Although I do not know Grunwald, his editor at Simon & Schuster is my editor and longtime friend. Also, in his reference notes in the book, he refers in a complimentary way to the book I wrote last year about education reform and President Obama’s Race to the Top.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (C) greets the audience at a campaign rally in Jacksonville, Florida September 1, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
AUG 28, 2012 15:31 UTC
In the wake of the Todd Akin firestorm, Mitt Romney and a flip-flopping Paul Ryan have emphasized that their anti-choice stance excludes rape. In a Romney administration, abortions would be outlawed except in the case of women who have been raped, the Republican ticket has promised.
So here’s an idea, first suggested by my daughter and one of her friends: Who’s going to be the first reporter to ask Romney or Ryan how that would work? How would they implement that exception?
Would a woman’s rapist have to be convicted in court? How would that work, given that in most criminal cases it takes longer than nine months from when the crime is committed to catch the criminal (assuming the criminal is caught), prepare charges and reach a verdict. In fact, the window would be significantly less than nine months; it would start from when the pregnancy is discovered and end somewhere around the 16 to 20 weeks left during which abortions can be performed most safely.
Or would the exception be triggered just on the woman’s say-so? (Maybe that’s part of what the mentally challenged Akin was talking about when he referred to “legitimate” rape.)
Or would there be some kind of new quasi-judicial process falling somewhere between a full-fledged trial and a simple statement of victimization? Would each state have to set up a new tribunal to handle these “cases”? Who would be the judges or juries? What evidence would be admissible? Would there be an adversary engaged to challenge the woman’s claim and whatever evidence she offers? Who would that be? Could those challenges include references to her prior sexual history? Would there be criminal penalties for perjury? And, if as the Republican platform decrees, the outlawing of abortion should be implemented via a “human life” amendment to the Constitution, would Romney suggest that language defining rape and how it would qualify for the exception also be written into the Constitution? How would he craft language establishing that a fetus that is the product of rape is not a human life?
If each of these scenarios seems so absurd that it leaves Romney or Ryan tongue-tied when asked these simple, practical questions, maybe that says something about getting the state involved in these decisions, let alone rewriting the Constitution to codify them.
Beginning in 1976, a federal statute known as the Hyde Amendment inserted government into a sliver of this issue, with results that cannot be satisfying to either side. The Hyde Amendment generally forbids federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when the woman’s life is in danger. The blog post last week by the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews found that states generally require a doctor’s certificate or a police report for women to qualify for the rape exception. However, Matthews reported, quoting from a study from Ibis Reproductive Health, that “over half of eligible abortions — that is, of pregnancies due to rape or incest or in cases where continuing the pregnancy would threaten the mother’s life — conducted for Medicaid beneficiaries were not reimbursed by the program. By and large, hospitals and doctors who did not get Medicaid reimbursements said that the paperwork for getting the money was too onerous, and it was easier to fund the procedures from nonprofit groups that focus on assisting low-income women with abortion funding.” In other words, the abortions happened anyway, but the exception provided for in the law was typically not implemented. In other cases, Matthews reported, women seeking coverage under the exception could not meet the paperwork requirements and, because they were not able to pay for an abortion, gave birth to babies they claimed were the product of rape.
Matthews concluded by quoting Stephanie Poggi, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, as saying: “Basically these exceptions don’t work. It’s really a myth that there is coverage that is still provided.”
The Romney-Ryan exception presents far greater challenges because it is not simply about insurance coverage. The only issue under the Hyde Amendment is who pays for an abortion for a woman on Medicaid, not whether any abortion for any woman can happen. Thus, women are exponentially more likely to seek the exception under the Romney-Ryan plan than they have under the Hyde Amendment. And those opposing abortions would be equally more likely to contest those exceptions to prevent what they view as murder.
So these are hardly tongue-in-cheek questions. Nor is the broader question, which only the late Tim Russert ever regularly asked anti-choice politicians: With Romney and Ryan planning to make any abortions that are not subject to their rape or incest exceptions a federal crime, what is the specific prison term they would impose on offending women? And if they would penalize only doctors, wouldn’t that undermine the enforceability of the law as well as their stated principle that abortion is murder?
AUG 22, 2012 15:48 UTC
Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”
I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”
Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague – Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show – get off with exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case, the theft was plagiarism.
As has been widely reported, it was discovered the week before last that Zakaria’s essay in that week’s edition of Time and on an accompanying blog post on CNN.com about gun control had a key, fact-filled paragraph that was almost identical to a paragraph in an April issue of the New Yorker by Harvard professor Jill Lepore. Two other important paragraphs, while not nearly as word-for-word, basically track what Lepore wrote. The three paragraphs – tracing the surprisingly long history of gun control laws in America – are by far the meatiest and seemingly most original parts of Zakaria’s 11-paragraph Time column.
After media reports – which started with a blog post by Newsbusters, a conservative media watchdog organization -detailed the apparent copying of Lepore’s work, Zakaria issued the following statement on August 10:
“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”
Following that statement, Time and CNN said they were suspending Zakaria pending their own investigations; both statements said or implied that they were seeking to find out how Zakaria’s “mistake” happened and, more important, whether any of his other work might have contained similar lapses. The Washington Post, noting that his column was “on vacation” in August, said it, too, would investigate his prior work but that his column was expected to resume in September.
Just six days later, Time and CNN announced that their investigations were over and Zakaria was being reinstated. Here’s what Time’s statement announcing that all is forgiven said:
“We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria’s columns for Time, and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized. We look forward to having Fareed’s thoughtful and important voice back in the magazine with his next column in the issue that comes out on September 7.”
Time, CNN and Zakaria owe their readers and viewers a lot more than that, and the rest of the press should be embarrassed if it lets those statements end the story.
What was the “unintentional error”? Other cases of plagiarism in the digital age have been explained by a writer cutting and pasting something someone else has written into what he or she is writing and then forgetting to put it in quotes and attribute it. That excuse is dubious enough, but here – as well documented by Atlantic.com (which attributed its discovery to a reference in a National Review Online article) – Zakaria’s self-described “mistake” or “lapse” was doctored a bit with slight changes in language in the key paragraph and with more changes in the offending paragraphs that followed. These alterations strongly suggest that this was no accident, that he intentionally used Lepore’s work, and instead of attributing it thought he would cover his tracks by tinkering with some of her words.
Or at least that’s what I will think until some reporter sits down and asks Zakaria exactly those questions and gets a full and verifiable explanation of exactly what his “lapse” was – and then asks Time and CNN to explain exactly what their six-day “investigations” consisted of.
On Monday, the New York Times took what was at best a perfunctory stab at pinning Zakaria down in a story by Christine Haughney, headlined, “A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson.” As with prior Times coverage , Haughney dwelled on the pressure Zakaria has put himself under as he juggles two columns, a TV show, regular tweeting, writing books and doing paid speaking gigs. “Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavors like writing books and public speaking,” she explained. The “lesson” Zakaria says he had learned from the incident, she concluded, was: “There’s got to be some stripping down” of his frantic schedule.
However, Haughney did spend one paragraph getting Zakaria to describe what his “mistake” was in plagiarizing Lepore:
“The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Ms. Lepore’s article – he said he often writes his research in longhand – with notes taken from ‘Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,’ by Adam Winkler (W.W. Norton, 2011), a copy of which was on his desk at his CNN office.”
That explanation raises more questions than it answers, none of which are covered in Haughney’s article, and which other reporters should pursue.
Zakaria’s chief offense was in using as his own Lepore’s description and analysis of what the Winkler book says. Even if the book was “on his desk,” did he read it? Does he actually have any notes from his having read the book? Or did he confuse what the source of his notes was because he misremembered reading the book? And how could the notes from Lepore’s New Yorker piece have been mistaken for notes taken from the Winkler book, if the notes refer to the book just the way Lepore does? Why would he think notes taken from a book would describe the book and its author?
Did the Times reporter ask to see those notes, not just to understand what happened but also to verify that they exist? Did the Times reporter ask to interview Zakaria’s editor or anyone else on the Time or CNN staffs? Did the reporter ask to interview the Time and CNN “investigators”? Someone should.
These may seem like tough questions, but imagine the mainstream press’s tough questions if a politician tried this kind of simple, trust-me explanation. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine critics of the mainstream media charging that the “lesson” Zakaria says he learned is not too far afield from Newt Gingrich’s explanation, mocked appropriately by the press, that he cheated on his wife because of all the pressures he was under trying to do good for his country.
Zakaria also told the Times that he had reluctantly hired a research assistant to help him handle the workload, but that the assistant did not draft his articles. If his more complete explanation turns out to be that he is taking the bullet for a research assistant, readers at CNN.com and Time deserve to know that, too, and deserve to know what he’s doing to cut down on his workload so that he can be fully responsible for the work that bears his name. And reporters deserve to know the name of the research assistant, not to embarrass him or her but so that they can interview him or her to verify the story.
However, if it turns out that this was more than a paper mix-up or a researcher’s rookie mistake, and that the pressures of all those paying gigs actually made Zakaria steal Lepore’s work – something for which he could have been thrown out of the two universities (Harvard and Yale) that adorn his resume – CNN and Time should explain why he’s being forgiven and what he’s doing to cut down on his workload and multiple payrolls. More than that, reporters should press CNN and Time on why even one commission of what, along with fabrication, is journalism’s most basic breach of trust gets a pass. Would I be able to explain to the police that my flat-screen might be stolen, but I swear everything else in my house was bought honestly?
The same Times story that initially referred to his busy schedule, noted that Zakaria had been criticized for giving basically the same paid graduation speech at two commencements this spring. I’m not sure how bad an offense that is, but it does raise another question: Where, other than at universities, has he been such a busy paid speaker? Has he been paid to speak to groups — such as those representing major industries or international constituencies (a group that seeks enhanced free-trade agreements, for example) — that have special interests related to issues he reports about or whose leaders have been covered in his writings or on his TV show?
A column by David Carr in the Times, also on Monday, compared Zakaria’s transgression to those of Jonah Lehrer, who was found to have plagiarized his own work by recycling it in the New Yorker, among other places, and also to have fabricated quotes in his best-selling book, Imagine. Declaring Lehrer to be the far worse actor – which based on all the available evidence is clearly true – Carr wrote this about Zakaria: “He apologized, was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on Thursday. End of story.”
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, Harpers, 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.
ANY OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THE AUTHOR’S OWN.