With television fixated on the O.J. Simpson story, we're awash in "news" broadcasts that are sensational, entertaining — and ultimately quite pointless.
As with previous TV spectacles — Tonya and Nancy, John and Lorena, Joey and Amy — no matter how the story ends, our lives will go on unchanged.
But other news events can change our lives forever. These stories are often sensational — involving massive raids on our bank accounts — without sex or violence.
Two new blockbuster reports have been virtually ignored by network TV during this O.J. summer. These scoops didn't result from parking a camera inside a courtroom. They required dogged investigations by print journalists willing to fight their way through documents and official smoke screens.
That's how Richard Keil of Associated Press uncovered malfeasance at the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency in charge of the savings-and-loan bailout — slated to cost generations of taxpayers several hundred billion dollars.
Back in 1989, when Congress and the White House approved the S&L bailout, influential news outlets joined in a sigh of relief. "It provides substantial assurance," editorialized the Washington Post, "that this immensely expensive assault on the U.S. Treasury won't be repeated."
But five years later, that "assault on the U.S. Treasury" continues — with the help of the cleanup crew.
As Keil reported in AP dispatches on July 10 and 11, the RTC is a big part of the problem. The agency has regularly sold off real estate from failed S&Ls at far below market value — to buyers who were able to quickly resell the properties at much higher prices. As usual, our tax dollars are subsidizing someone else's profit.
Keil unearthed many irregularities, including these: Last December, the RTC sold an Arizona property — once owned by convicted S&L operator Charles Keating — for $875,000. "The same day, the buyer resold the parcel to other buyers for $1.225 million, a one-day profit of 40 percent." In February 1993, the RTC sold a luxury office complex near Dallas to the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team for $22.6 million. The new owner has reportedly made a deal to resell the property "for about $36 million — a 59 percent return." In late 1991, the agency sold its interest in Keating's Phoenician hotel outside Phoenix to a Kuwaiti investment group, which later resold it to ITT-Sheraton at a profit. Taxpayers lost up to $35 million on the deal.
Keil told us it took him six weeks to piece the story together, especially since the RTC was "totally unhelpful."
No TV network has yet contacted Keil about picking up the story, although it certainly offers the kind of "visuals" that television savors. Keil's description of the undervalued Phoenician hotel — "with its mother-of-pearl swimming pool tiles, gold ceiling inlays and marble columns" — sounds like a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" TV segment.
A second blockbuster story appeared on the Wall Street Journal's front page June 30. The report by Timothy Aeppel explained that the effort to "clean up" America's nuclear weapons complex — with 17 key plants and labs nationwide — has become a nightmare.
"The cost is expected to make the savings-and-loan bailout look like a bargain," Aeppel wrote. He quoted an Energy Department spokesman who said: "We're talking about an expenditure that will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars."
Savings-and-loan bailout a bargain! When we called Aeppel, he referred to the nuclear cleanup as "an unfundable item that has to be funded somehow."
Aeppel's article focused on the ill-fated "cleanup" of the Fernald uranium plant, located amid dairy farms near Cincinnati: "The slurry pond, where liquefied wastes were dumped over the years, was allowed to overflow regularly into a stream... Fernald's dust catchers were poorly monitored for many years, allowing radioactive dust into the air... Uranium had seeped into the groundwater, spreading contamination far beyond the factory gates..."
If TV networks love horror stories, why have they missed this new one? It's got visuals straight out of "Toxic Avenger."
"Farther down the road," wrote Aeppel, "past Fernald's radioactive slurry pond, is the really nasty stuff: Two silos holding 9,700 tons of radioactive ooze... The silos are so deteriorated that workers long ago piled dirt around them to shore them up."
According to Aeppel, many other weapons plants are "in much worse shape than Fernald."
Aeppel's reporting is the kind that can inform action-minded citizens. They might begin by asking the federal government — which hasn't a clue how to clean up its nuclear complex — why it continues to develop new atomic bombs. Or why taxpayers are footing the bill for messes left by nuclear weapons contractors like GE and Westinghouse.
Don't get us wrong. Escapist TV news stories have their place.
But if we don't get coverage of the ways that big business and government are raiding our pocketbooks, the day may come when we won't be able to afford a television.
Syndicated columnists Cohen and Solomon are the authors of "Adventures in Medialand: Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits."