It’s now a full month since Bob Sullivan of MSNBC broke the Choicepoint story. I’d like to think back, and ask, why does this story have legs? Why are reporters still covering it?
There are a couple of important trends which combine to make this a perfect storm, attractive to editors and readers. (It’s useful to understand that editors like to run stories on things their readers are familiar with. If a US paper wants to do a story on the impact of Everest climbers on Nepal, they have to devote a lot of effort to Nepal pre-Everst climbers, because Americans don’t know about Nepal.)
The Choicepoint story ties into other stories and themes in a number of important ways. First is the corporate malfeasance story. We have Bernie Ebbers, Richard Scrushy, and Dennis Kozlowski on trial. We have Martha Stewart being released from jail. So no one needs a primer on corporate malfeasance. We have concerns about privacy, and our lives being out of control. We have Congressional hearings going on. Clearly, this is important!
Incidentally, it means that Choicepoint needs to take dramatic action if they’d like to have any influence on the stories. Because a story that leads “Arrogant CEO ____ sells stock as the company he built stumbles” is almost pre-written for the reporter. The CEO who’s taking home more money this year than Joe Reader will make in his lifetime is a natural villain. Thus, these stories are, in a way, only incidentally about Choicepoint. They need to change that if they’d like to influence what happens to their company. Because while the stories may be incidental, the new laws won’t be.
The apparent insider trading aspect of the story isn’t the only bit of corporate arrogance here. There’s the partial disclosures, the claims that this only hurt Californians. There’s the claim that this hadn’t happened before. There’s the claim that Choicepoint is a victim, too. All of this arrogance combines to make a great many people want to throw bricks.
The story is about privacy concerns, but its not only people compiling data in a way that Americans are deeply ambivalent about, or the right to be left alone. It’s about our ability to control our own lives. It’s about trying to get a mortgage, only to discover that someone in Topeka skipped out on an apartment in your name. It’s about a minister being arrested at a routine traffic stop for drug dealing warrants in New Jersey. It’s about a black grandmother being refused the right to get onto an airplane because of a white skinhead who used a name that sounds like hers. He was on the FBI’s most wanted list, now he’s in prison, and she’s still suffering. These database companies are profiting deeply while being very cavalier about data quality, and that directly affects our lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness. All so Derek Smith can sell $13.6 million dollars of stock?
Then there are issues of fairness. Americans love thinking we have an unfair advantage, but we hate being on the flip side of that. And we were all treated to the experience of being on the waiting list. Why are Californians special here? Was I one of the 110,000? Our attorneys general had to rip into Choicepoint for us to find out. And those who did find out now face “a lifetime of vigilance” because of Choicepoint. “Who? Choicepoint.” There’s a deep irony in that no one had ever heard of Choicepoint before this, and that irony drives the story. Choicepoint had lots of privacy, while invading yours. This fundamental unfairness prompts lots of people to sputtering anger.
Speaking of sputtering anger, cleansing the Florida voting rolls of Democrats doesn’t help. If a reporter doesn’t have enough to talk about, they’ll always have Florida to fill out 850 words. Voting is a big concern for the folks in Congress, which leads us to our final point.
Congressional hearings are rare events. Its not that Congress doesn’t hold hearings every day of the week. They do. But there are lots more issues with angry people calling their Congressman than there are days of the week. We all understand that a Congressman’s time is valuable, and they spend it on issues that are broad and important to their constituents. Most stories that a reporter covers don’t have multiple hearings planned. There’s a real feeling that treating Californians differently isn’t what this country is about. And thus, the final reason that the story has legs is that there’s real anger at Choicepoint, Seisent (Lexis Nexis) and the rest of the industry. It’s not going to go away quickly.