Smokey and the Bandit

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder wanted an unobstructed view of the Potomac River from his Maryland mansion, which would require cutting down trees in a park designated a national historic site. Snyder’s desire for that view ended up wrecking a park ranger’s career:

It was a small concession in the grand scheme of things, the kind that the rich and powerful frequently wheedle out of government, especially back then, during the presidency of George W. Bush, when such favors were flowing like booze in a skybox. But its discovery set off a decade-long campaign of bureaucratic retribution over two administrations that nearly sent an innocent man to prison. The story of that little favor wonderfully (if depressingly) encapsulates the essential character of our times, in which average people who play by the rules are made to suffer by the blithe manipulation of those rules by the people at the top.

Author: Tim Murphy
Published: Jan 1, 2014
Length: 12 minutes (3,145 words)

The War of Rape

A rape allegation helps change laws to aid victims. But what actually happened? The reporter on how the media covers stories:

“In June 2012, I attended the Washington, D.C., premier of Hot Coffee, along with Al Franken. During the event, producer Susan Saladoff informed the audience that the Jones trial was under way. Since I was unable to cover the trial in person, the dates had slipped my mind. But as I walked out of the theater and listened to people fuming about the injustice heaped on Jones and ticking off the damning evidence—the shipping container, the lost rape kit, etc.—I decided to look at the trial records to see what sort of smoking guns Jones’s lawyers had come up with.

“As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting.”

Published: Oct 21, 2013
Length: 43 minutes (10,935 words)

Special Deal

An examination of the American Medical Association’s special committee that meets three times a year to determine how much Medicare should pay doctors for the medical procedures they perform:

In a free market society, there’s a name for this kind of thing—for when a roomful of professionals from the same trade meet behind closed doors to agree on how much their services should be worth. It’s called price-fixing. And in any other industry, it’s illegal—grounds for a federal investigation into antitrust abuse, at the least.

But this, dear readers, is not any other industry. This is the health care industry, and here, this kind of ‘price-fixing’ is not only perfectly legal, it’s sanctioned by the U.S. government. At the end of each of these meetings, RUC members vote anonymously on a list of ‘recommended values,’ which are then sent to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that runs those programs. For the last twenty-two years, the CMS has accepted about 90 percent of the RUC’s recommended values—essentially transferring the committee’s decisions directly into law.

Published: Jul 11, 2013
Length: 24 minutes (6,017 words)

Last Call

How the rapidly consolidating beer industry could change the way America drinks:

“The United States, too, has seen vast consolidation of its alcohol industry, but as of yet, not the kind of complete vertical integration seen in the UK. One big reason is a little-known legacy of our experience with Prohibition. From civics class, you may remember that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution formally ended Prohibition in 1933. But while the amendment made it once again legal to sell and produce alcohol, it also contained a measure designed to ensure that America would never again have the horrible drinking problem it had before, which led to the passage of Prohibition in the first place.

“Specifically, the 21st Amendment grants state and local governments express power to regulate liquor sales within their own borders. Thus, the existence of dry counties and blue laws; of states where liquor is only retailed in government-run stores, as in New Hampshire; and of states like Arkansas where you can buy booze in drive-through liquor marts. More significantly, state and local regulation also extends to the wholesale distribution of liquor, creating a further barrier to the kind of vertical monopolies that dominated the United States before Prohibition and are now wreaking havoc in Britain.”

Published: Nov 16, 2012
Length: 19 minutes (4,879 words)

A Fish Story

The political battle over the disappearance of the menhaden, a silvery, six-inch fish that’s food for larger fish and farmed for omega-3 oils and fertilizer:

“Harvested by the billions and then processed into various industrial products, menhaden are extruded into feed pellets that make up the staple food product for a booming global aquaculture market, diluted into oil for omega-3 health supplements, and sold in various meals and liquids to companies that make pet food, livestock feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics. We have all consumed menhaden one way or another. Pound for pound, more menhaden are pulled from the sea than any other fish species in the continental United States, and 80 percent of the menhaden netted from the Atlantic are the property of a single company.”

Published: May 10, 2012
Length: 28 minutes (7,051 words)

We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran

Which would be worse: Iran developing a nuclear weapon, or waging a war to prevent it? An examination of both scenarios:

“Given the momentousness of such an endeavor and how much prominence the Iranian nuclear issue has been given, one might think that talk about exercising the military option would be backed up by extensive analysis of the threat in question and the different ways of responding to it. But it isn’t. Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.”

Published: Mar 2, 2012
Length: 20 minutes (5,084 words)

The Crackdown

How the uprising in Bahrain failed, and how the United States looked the other way:

“What this silence conceals is the story of what really happened in the Gulf kingdom last year, and the full story of America’s halfhearted attempts to intervene, which ultimately went nowhere. What it also obscures is that last year’s events may mark an ominous turning point in the tiny country’s history. Bahrain’s uprising grew out of a long-running conflict between the country’s Sunni ruling class and its marginalized Shiite majority. But its aftermath has taken on the dimensions of something darker still—a vastly asymmetrical battle that, in the words of Marina Ottaway, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has assumed the ‘ugly overtones of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment.'”

Published: Feb 15, 2012
Length: 24 minutes (6,183 words)

Shovel-Ready Clinics

As Congress and the president have acknowledged, the way to meet the flood of new patients coming down the pike is to expand the nation’s existing network of community health centers— nonprofit clinics that offer primary care to the medically under-served, often in rural areas or inner cities. But to get this done, there’s no need to appropriate billions more in direct government spending. Rather, there is a way to lure skittish banks into lending private capital to finance a health center construction boom in all fifty states, simply by tweaking the language of an existing federal lending program. Doing so would save money in the long run by providing cost-effective primary care to those who desperately need it. And it would quickly create tens of thousands of jobs, many of them in the hard-hit construction sector. Moreover, unlike the roads, bridges, and other complex infrastructure projects the Obama administration wants to fund, few of which are shovel ready, health center projects could get the hammers swinging in months, not years.

Published: Nov 1, 2011
Length: 11 minutes (2,841 words)

How the Other Half Tests

Most Americans think of the SAT as the ultimate high-stakes college admissions test, but the Accuplacer has more real claim to the title. (As it happens, the same company, the Education Testing Service, produces both exams.) When students apply to selective colleges, they’re evaluated based on high school transcripts, extracurricular pursuits, teacher recommendations, and other factors alongside their SAT scores. In open admissions colleges, placement tests typically trump everything else. If you bomb the SAT, the worst thing that can happen is you can’t go to the college of your choice. If you bomb the Accuplacer, you effectively can’t go to college at all. The remedial placement process is ground zero for college non-completion in America.

Published: Aug 29, 2011
Length: 13 minutes (3,417 words)

The Unquiet Life of Franz Gayl

“I’d been expecting something like this for years, but they finally found a way to make it happen,” he said. The flash drive is a red herring, he believes—another in a series of reprisals against him by the Marines for revealing what he calls unconscionable mismanagement in the high command. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Gayl went public with an account of how Pentagon delays in sending protective equipment there may have cost troops their lives. He appeared on PBS’s NewsHour and testified before Congress, and in doing so crossed many people more powerful than himself, including General James Mattis, now the chief of U.S. Central Command and one of the most important men in the military.

Published: Jul 1, 2011
Length: 22 minutes (5,744 words)