The Whispers Blog
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I didn’t lose weight or paint the stairwell, but I did keep one of my 2019 resolutions: cutting the cable. My husband and I quit subscribing to satellite TV early this year and, in addition to saving money, we find ourselves awash in entertainment options from streaming services.
On Amazon’s Prime Video service I recently rediscovered “The Closer,” a series that I loved during its original run on TBS from 2005-12. It’s a police procedural drama with an ensemble cast built around Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a CIA-trained interrogator from Atlanta who takes charge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite homicide investigation team.
Yeah, there are some plot holes — no police department anywhere is ever going to let a police reporter observe suspect interrogation — but the dialogue is terrific. And binge-watching reminded me of the excellent management lessons to be gleaned from Brenda Leigh, which I wrote about in this space back in 2011:
► Assess your team’s strengths and weaknesses and make assignments accordingly. Even people who have the same titles, degrees or seniority are not interchangeable. Brenda Leigh knows which detective to send when diplomacy is needed and which to send when muscle might be in order.
► Understand everyone’s job, even if you can’t do it as well as she can. Deputy Chief Johnson could personally perform any assignment she gives to one of her detectives (except maybe driving confidently around the unfamiliar streets of Los Angeles), and they know that she knows exactly what she’s asking them to do.
► Recognize the line between personal and professional. A good manager understands and appreciates that subordinates are human beings with personal lives and problems to deal with, but she doesn’t allow those personal lives to overwhelm the unit’s professional goals. Brenda is friendly and collegial with her detectives, but you never see her socializing with any of them unless the entire team is celebrating together.
► Don’t play favorites or hold grudges. Brenda Leigh Johnson actually does have a favorite member of her squad, but when Sgt. Gabriel screwed up, she disciplined him as promptly and severely as she would anyone else. Conversely, she went to bat for Lt. Flynn when the detective who had given her the hardest time deserved a champion with the higher-ups. The result is a team that is unshakably loyal but never tries to take advantage of the chief.
► Share the misery. Brenda doesn’t immunize herself from the most unpleasant chores, like notifying the families of murder victims or observing autopsies. (In fact, it is her second-in-command, retirement-age Lt. Provenza, who tends to give other people the grunt work. Brenda should have a word with him about that.)
► Marry well. Fritz Howard, the FBI agent Brenda married in the fourth season, is patient and indulgent and supportive of her career, but fully capable of telling her where to get off. (In this way, I identify with Brenda Leigh.)
While Netflix is getting a lot of attention for its new original film “The Irishman,” I can’t seem to commit to a 3½-hour movie. I can recommend Prime Video’s “The Report,” in which Adam Driver plays real-life congressional staffer Daniel Jones, who devoted five years to investigating the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorism suspects after 9/11.
It is a gruesome subject and the movie itself is more educational than entertaining. But since none of us is likely to read Jones’ 6,700-page report, it’s worth investing two hours to get a basic understanding of why traditional rapport-building techniques — the kind Brenda Leigh Johnson deploys to get confessions in “The Closer” — were abandoned in favor of torture-by-another-name.
Jones was an adviser on the film, and it is also based in part on a 2007 Vanity Fair article called “Rorschach & Awe,” by Katherine Eban. I don’t think I heard anything about it when it was first published, but it is a stunning piece of journalism. It turns out that torture will make suspects talk, but it won’t make them tell the truth.
The best exchange of dialogue in “The Closer” history:
Chief Will Pope: “What can I do to make you agree with me?”
Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson: “Stop being wrong.”
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I enjoy Christmas because I refuse to let it take over my life. But there is one thing that ramps up the stress at this time of year: health insurance decision-making.
I’ve been on my company’s benefits committee for most of the past 20 years. Most of what we do is decide whether to stay with the same health insurance provider for another year — which sounds so simple, but I suspect Arkansas Business readers know that it is anything but.
Last week, Publisher Mitch Bettis and I were going over competing insurance proposals from Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield, QualChoice and UnitedHealthcare. Arkansas Business Publishing Group has for several years allowed employees to choose between low and high-deductibles, which adds to the difficulty factor. Plus, some only need coverage for themselves, while others need to cover a spouse and/or children.
Immodestly speaking, I’m pretty smart and I’m way above average in understanding how insurance works. Still, I was getting tongue-tangled talking about premiums, per-person deductibles (embedded and non-embedded), out-of-pocket maximums, and whether copayments for four different tiers of prescription drugs applied to the deductibles or just to the out-of-pocket maximums.
One proposal would cost everyone a bit more than they have been paying; one proposal would cost some people less and others more. Another proposal would save on premiums but increase the maximum risk for one group — while making it less likely that members of that group would actually reach the out-of-pocket maximum.
Minutes later, with my head still spinning, my 29-year-old son called for advice on a flexible spending account. Except he first called it a health savings account, which is a different animal, so we ended up having to go through the decision-making process all over again. My younger son’s employer has been sold to a giant national company, so he and I walked through his new choices a few weeks ago, both of us glazing over.
Health insurance is crazy complicated. How many of your employees truly understand one of their biggest expenses?
It’s also crazy expensive. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in September that the average cost for employer-sponsored family coverage nationally has reached $20,576, almost $10 for every hour a full-time employee works in a year. The average for an individual employee is $7,188, almost $3.50 an hour. How those costs are shared by the employee and employer varies widely, but money spent on health insurance premiums cannot be spent on anything else. And that doesn’t include the deductibles and copays.
Since I’m not ideological about these things, the idea of “Medicare for All” doesn’t offend me any more than Medicare for seniors. I don’t buy the idea that private insurance is more beloved than single-payer government coverage would be, especially if Americans never again had to wonder if or how they would access insurance. But politically, I think it’s a nonstarter.
I remain intrigued by the universal catastrophic coverage idea, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any traction. Ed Dolan, a health care analyst for the traditionally libertarian Niskanen Center think tank and a UCC proponent, has written positively about the Fair Care Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark.
“The Fair Care Act is much more than another repeal-and-replace effort,” Dolan wrote last month. “It would retain, but reform, all of the major building blocks of current health care policy: the [Affordable Care Act], Medicare, Medicaid, and employer-sponsored health insurance” — although no employers would be required to offer insurance.
I would prefer to decouple health insurance from employment altogether — I’m tired of making these annual decisions for my co-workers — but only if an affordable alternative was guaranteed.
Westerman’s bill “retains but modifies the ACA’s approach of making coverage in the individual market affordable through income-based premium assistance and cost-sharing reductions,” Dolan wrote. That’s a striking acknowledgement that Obamacare was right about the necessity of government subsidizing private health insurance for vast numbers of Americans.
If employers opt out of sharing the cost, as the Fair Care Act would allow, the number of Americans accessing those subsidies could balloon. It sounds to me like a no man’s land, in which Americans have no guaranteed coverage, public or private, but a lot of the heavy lifting will still fall on the government. Another complicated patchwork with cracks for sick people to fall through, all because a simpler, universal system of government insurance is political poison.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
The best thing about checking out e-books and audiobooks from the Central Arkansas Library System is the deadline to get them read before they vanish from my Kindle tablet. Yes, physical books have due dates, but for a few cents you can give yourself an extra week or two. Or three. The electronic versions will disappear mid-sentence and never add to the stack of books catching dust on my dresser.
Lately I’ve been plowing through some thought-provoking nonfiction. In this space I’ve already recommended “She Said,” the account by two New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, of breaking the story of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse in October 2017. I followed that with Ronan Farrow’s “Catch & Kill,” which recounts his simultaneous work to uncover Weinstein’s abuses. Kantor and Twohey ended up scooping Farrow by five days because his employer, NBC, slow-walked his project and finally declined to air it.
The techniques used to commit journalism are always going to be fascinating to me, but the contrast between the New York Times and NBC was disturbing.
The Times had found a novel way to move beyond the “he said-she said” problem of reporting on sexual harassment: Instead of reporting the allegations and denials, reporters Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt documented millions of dollars in financial settlements that Fox News and host Bill O’Reilly had paid to female accusers over the years. That story, in April 2017, led to the prompt cancellation of O’Reilly’s top-rated show and served as a model for Kantor and Twohey’s months-long pursuit of Weinstein, whose aggressive lawyers had confounded the efforts of numerous reporters over the years, allowing him to victimize more and more women.
Meanwhile, NBC News ran hot and cold on the Weinstein story, allowing Farrow and a production team to spend months and resources on reporting and video production only to conclude that the reporting didn’t meet its journalistic standards. Farrow was able to take the same facts and evidence to The New Yorker for print publication, and to share a Pulitzer Prize with Kantor and Twohey.
The month after the Weinstein revelations supercharged the #MeToo movement, Farrow learned why NBC might have been hesitant to be part of the story: Matt Lauer, NBC’s $25 million-a-year Today Show host, was suddenly fired for his sexual behavior toward a coworker. More victims emerged there too.
A double-dose of Weinstein might be a bit much for anyone else. If you read only one of the books, make it “Catch & Kill.” But if you are looking for something completely different and mind-expanding, check out “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a fan of his books and his podcast, “Revisionist History.” The audiobook of “Talking to Strangers” is essentially an extended podcast, with recorded interviews and even a theme song.
As Gladwell explains from the get-go, he was inspired to research and write “Talking to Strangers” by the 2015 death of Sandra Bland. Bland, a young African American woman, killed herself in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, three days after she was arrested when an improper traffic stop escalated. But this book is not primarily about policing or civil rights. It’s about human failure to communicate and the problems that result, both common and extreme.
In his trademark style, Gladwell uses seemingly unrelated anecdotes to explain the big picture. A computer program working from arrest records is significantly better at predicting which suspects can safely be released on bond than judges who also eyeball the accused face to face. Spy agencies can be maddeningly slow to recognize double agents in their midst, like Ana Montes at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Why were pedophile coach Jerry Sandusky and Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff not stopped sooner?
The explanation in every case, as Gladwell explains it, is our human tendency to “default to truth” — we give people the benefit of the doubt. We assume we are being told the truth unless the evidence of a lie is sufficient to overcome that default. And sometimes (as I’ve noted in the impeachment hearings) we don’t want to accept that an admired person is lying, no matter how overwhelming the evidence.
While it seems like being on the lookout for lies would be a useful default setting, Gladwell disagrees. To be constantly suspicious and on guard, he argues, would be a miserable way to live when most people really are telling the truth most of the time.
People who are that suspicious should become auditors or FBI agents. Or journalists.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
Sometimes I think I’m missing out on something by not being a sports fan. And sometimes I think I’m lucky.
I read a 2016 article by Brian Barth in Nautilus, a science magazine, about the psychological and physiological effects of spectator sports on fans who are “highly identified” with a team. Winning gives male fans a burst of extra testosterone, which is associated with a feeling of self-esteem, that is similar to that experienced by the winning athletes.
Fans are more likely to wear team colors and gear the day after a win than after a loss. This phenomenon was given a name by Arizona State University psychology and marketing professor Robert Cialdini: basking in reflected glory, or “BIRGing.” Cialdini defined it as “publicly announcing one’s association with successful others even though [one] ... has done nothing to bring about the other’s success.”
Losing fans, meanwhile, have common coping mechanisms, starting with CORFing: cutting off reflected failure. “BIRGers will say, ‘We crushed them,’” Barth wrote, “while CORFers invariably distance themselves from the failure: ‘They blew it.’”
Building on Cialdini’s theories, Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University in Kentucky, has designed more than 20 studies of sports fans and concluded that identifying with a team really can enhance overall mental health. According to Barth’s article, Wann’s “Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model” identified nearly two dozen “well-being benefits” commonly associated with sports fans, including a sense of belonging, a greater feeling of trust and heightened self-worth. The more intense the fan’s identification with a team, the more pronounced the psychological effects.
Barth said similar phenomena “can be observed in other instances of strong identification with a group, whether a gang or a church congregation, though few cultural institutions today have as many die-hard adherents. (Political tribalism might be close. I definitely don’t think I’m missing anything there.)
While Barth’s article didn’t make this distinction, it’s my impression that disappointed fans are less willing to blame losses on college players — they’re kids and amateurs, after all — than on fabulously well-paid professional players. Instead, the blame, even for individual performance failures, rests with the fabulously well-paid coaches who are responsible for recruiting individual talent and for coaxing the best performance out of that talent. The coaching staff blew it, not the young athletes.
I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this. Arkansans generally are “highly identified” sports fans and have one unifying team: the Razorbacks. To live in Arkansas is to root for the Hogs or to be a perpetual outsider. Watching Arkansans over the past eight football seasons, since Bobby Petrino was fired for exceptionally good cause, it’s obvious that our state is suffering from some kind of testosterone deficit. There just haven’t been enough wins to keep those good feelings flowing — not even enough to keep hope alive.
So Chad Morris, hired with fanfare at the end of 2017, had to go, no matter the cost, which looks to be about $10 million (not including the $7 million he was already paid to lose 18 of 22 games). The buyout represents more than 200 years of earnings for the median Arkansas household.
Now, I understand that the emotional well-being of hundreds of thousands of Arkansans is a valuable commodity. I’ll even accept that a winning coach is a very expensive thing. But does a losing coach, one who creates such palpable misery, have to be so expensive? Is there no way to craft a contract that doesn’t add financial insult to psychological injury when the university makes a hiring mistake?
Disappointed often enough, according to Cialdini’s theory, fans of losing teams will progress from CORFing to basking in reflected failure (“the underdog mentality”) and cutting off future failure, which is refusing to get one’s hopes up even when one’s favorite team starts to win. I’ve observed a lot of BIRFing and COFFing after decades of marriage to a long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but it seems that Razorbacks fans are not quite ready to embrace perpetual underdog status.
Photos of the anemic crowd that assembled in Fayetteville to see the Hogs blown out by the same Western Kentucky team that the University of Central Arkansas Bears beat in Bowling Green reminded me that only two University of Arkansas trustees voted against borrowing $120 million to expand Razorback Stadium back in 2016. David Pryor and Cliff Gibson seem smarter with every passing week, don’t they?
I feel compelled to make this point every year or two, since it is the most important lesson I’ve learned from two decades as your business editor: Wealth and the appearance of wealth are two different things.(1, 2, 3, 4) Some people who are living large are rich, others are in precipitous debt, still others are candidates for federal prison.
That fact was driven home again on Nov. 1, when I drove to Hot Springs and sat through the sentencing hearing for Berry R. Bishop. Just five years ago Bishop was the statewide president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Arkansas; come January, he will be an inmate of the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The sentencing hearing felt strangely familiar. It was five years ago in the same federal courthouse — maybe even the same courtroom — that I watched the same federal judge, Susan Hickey, give another prominent insurance agent, Steve Standridge, the same 60-month prison sentence. And while the details were different, Bishop’s crimes and Standridge’s were similar: Both defrauded banks by taking out fraudulent loans in the names of clients.
And here’s something else they had in common: Both Bishop and Standridge asserted under oath that they didn’t truly benefit from their crimes. And that’s true in the long run, obviously; the millions they misappropriated weren’t worth ending up as a convicted felon serving prison time and obligated to hand over any assets that are left.
I suspect it’s also true in the short term. Yes, both of them were able to keep the plates spinning longer because they had money they weren’t entitled to. But the stress of living a lie — especially a lie that depends on crime — has to be overwhelming. Maybe it was my imagination, but Berry Bishop came across as relieved, even as he described himself as “a broken man.”
Defense attorney Tyler Tapp said Bishop’s crimes began “years and years ago,” when Bishop took out a fraudulent loan when his business, Alliance Insurance Group, was short of cash.
I couldn’t get Tapp to be more specific about how long ago Bishop started depending on fraudulent loans to maintain his business and lifestyle, but it seems certain that it was long before February 2015, which was the start date of the specific crimes that Bishop acknowledged in his plea agreement.
That first criminal act, Tapp said, “led to many, many more.” He described a snowball of accumulating debt that required additional fraudulent loans just to service the interest.
Federal prosecutors pointed out that Bishop treated himself to the lifestyle of a successful business owner. He had a $490,000 home plus a $250,000 property on Lake Hamilton, a 2016 Land Rover, a 2013 Chevy Tahoe and a Cobalt boat. He paid himself $150,000 a year and also personally borrowed $1.5 million from his business.
While he was defrauding bankers he considered to be friends, Bishop was also indulging in the ultimate show of financial success in Arkansas: $10,000 annual contributions to the Razorback Foundation.
But Tapp told the court that Bishop had paid “several million dollars in interest” to the Bank of Prescott, one of three victim banks. Had he taken his lumps and never taken that first fraudulent loan, Bishop’s lifestyle “could have been far, far better,” his lawyer said.
Here’s a way the Bishop and Standridge sentencing hearings were very different: Bishop apologized to everyone he wronged — bankers, clients, employees, his family — and he told Judge Hickey that he wanted to be an example of accepting responsibility.
“The guilt and shame of this is totally my fault,” Bishop said.
Standridge, as I wrote at the time, was “conspicuously unapologetic.” Standridge blamed some of his crimes on the majority investor in his agency, who didn’t want him to keep his mother and mother-in-law on the payroll. He blamed other crimes on his desire to help a couple of longtime clients by taking out fraudulent loans. (The law saw Standridge’s altruism as a criminal conspiracy. Both clients also went to prison.)
Tapp’s comment about the Bank of Prescott profiting off Bishop’s fraudulent loans was the only false note the defense struck. Collecting interest on money loaned is what banks do. Bishop exploited his relationship with the bank, not the other way around.
Exactly how much restitution Bishop will ultimately owe the Bank of Prescott is not yet clear, but the loss started out at $2.15 million and it seems to have helped push the bank to sell to Farmers Bank & Trust of Magnolia. That sale was scheduled to close last Friday.
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