Sharing a Capital Feast for Ideas & Civic Reform
In the spirit of the recent holiday, today's column gives thanks for a recent feast of ideas.
Also, I share instruction on civic reform from two can-do pathfinders who showed on a daily basis how to make a better world. They were my first boss, Hartford Courant Managing Editor Irving Kravsow, and longtime George Mason University Professor Michael Kelley, both recently deceased.
The Justice Integrity Project necessarily reports on scandal in public life. That's our mission. But we like to report occasionally on how reform can be achieved.
First comes assessment of problems.
The Atlantic Magazine and its two major partners posted last week a video link to their Fifth Annual Washington Ideas Forum, which convened 60 opinion leaders from across the political spectrum to discuss major issues and proposed solutions. I attended the sessions Nov. 13-14 at the Newseum, one of the magazine's partners along with the Aspen Institute.
The first substantive session, for example, featured U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, shown at right in the photo as he responded to a question from Atlantic Senior Editor James Fallows.
Froman made the case for free trade agreements focused on non-Chinese Pacific Rim nations amid persistent concerns that such agreements might hurt our nation's hard-won safety net, including environmental protection and minimum wages.
"Is it going to be a race 'to the top?'" Froman asked. "A race to the bottom [in terms of working and environmental conditions, etc.] is not a race we want, or that we think we can win."
Whatever one concludes, I recommend watching the sessions to see key figures make illuminating arguments.
My publication later this week of more revelations about Washington's power structure prompt me to share background about how our Project conducts such research.
The goal of revelations, compiled also in my new book, Presidential Puppetry: Obama Romney and Their Masters, lead to civic reform.
Here is our formula, albeit for a task that is both challenging and necessary.
In Washington and elsewhere, I've tried to apply lessons learned for research when as I began my career in 1970. Fresh out of college, I became a $120 a week newspaper reporter for the Hartford Courant, Connecticut's largest newspaper and the oldest in the nation still in business.
As a history buff, I like to understand the background of my surroundings.
For example, the Courant's co-editor a century previous to my start was Charles Dudley Warner, a lawyer-journalist who was also a top editor at Harper's Magazine. Warner, right, lived from 1829 to 1900. He was regarded as a leading national literary figure during "The Gilded Age" (the title of a book he co-authored) as well as an effective city planner striving to create parks, among other things.
Warner was the first to devise the slogan (often wrongly attributed to his friend, neighbor and co-author Mark Twain), "Politics makes strange bedfellows."
That has often been my experience in more than two decades in Washington, mostly as an attorney and business advocate. Since 2008, I have returned to my roots as an investigative reporter.
On behalf of our non-partisan Project, I try to begin any research with an open attitude welcoming inputs from across the political spectrum in Washington and elsewhere.
I meet many news makers, including at events near our offices on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the Capitol and the White House. The Newseum is a frequent locale, as are the National Press Club and the National Archives. So are the libertarian Cato Institute, the liberal Center for American Progress, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Capitol Hill hearings and the region's courthouses are familiar venues. I often attend the national conventions of expert groups.
As regular readers know, our research usually begins with tips about serious abuses in the justice system. Scandals that persist usually involve complicity by powerful political players and their supporters and allies.
Most of us in this field hope that exposure will lead to publication reform.
But many participants in this process, sadly, are getting discouraged -- and for good reason. The system seems not only broken, but at times corrupt in ways that create vast harm to large numbers of victims across the country.
At the Ideas Forum, I encountered scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He is one of the most widely quoted experts on politics in the capital. Also, he is co-author with Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann of the 2012 book about Washington, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.
Ornstein joked to me about his best-seller, updated for paperback this fall, "We should call it, It's Even Worse Than We Thought."
With the outlook so dire, we all need to be inspired and effective in reform efforts, no matter what our specific goal.
To that end, I cite the example of two mentors who recently died after extraordinary lives.
One was my first boss at the Courant, former Managing Editor Irving Kravsow.
A tribute by Courant columnist and Connecticut radio personality Colin McEnroe described Kravsow as "a titanic figure in Connecticut journalism for decades."
More important, Kravsow was a strong force for the good, both for the public and those who learned from him.
The remembrances excerpted below are well worth reading in full about the man, his times, the way things were, and how the times should remain.
The other was Dr. Michael Kelley, right, a professor of English at George Mason University. Also, he founded and led The Capitol Connection, a company that innovated public affairs programming in Washington and nationally.
The programming included C-SPAN (which his company first delivered to the White House), as well as important Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meetings that anyone could watch remotely (including by Internet).
I came to know Mike through my work from 1996 to 2008 as president of the Wireless Communications Association. He was our only board member who continued throughout that period as we implemented a long-term vision to create a wireless Internet industry in the United States. The goal required complex regulatory strategies at the FCC, Congress and elsewhere and business acumen to transition airwaves once used exclusively for video and education to mixed uses that could support modern "broadband" services.
He worked closely with our expert lawyers and productively with many diverse allies on our board and elsewhere to make the vision a reality at his university and nationally.
Most instructive was how he juggled diverse roles so effectively and typically with a jovial yet perceptive demeanor.
For example, he was both as an educator and as a businessman. Also, he served also for many years on the C-SPAN board of directors even though his wireless service competed with the wired operators such as Comcast and Time Warner.
C-SPAN is a public affairs network funded by the wired cable industry that has proven especially valuable to the country with the demise of independent reporting by the traditional news media, as I plan to illustrate in my next column here about its unique coverage this month of President Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago. Kelley was also a board member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
C-SPAN Founder Brian Lamb will lead a memorial service Dec. 16 at the university, where I have been an affiliated research fellow at the law school's Information Economy Project since 2008 (although my investigative work for the Justice Integrity Project here is entirely separate).
Many eloquent and inspiring words will doubtless be shared at the memorial service about Mike Kelley's contributions and sterling character. But I can already predict and share here one of the most valid and inspiring concepts:
We need ideas, of course. But even more important are those with the character, commitment and know-how to implement them effectively in ways that help sustain families, employers, local communities, and the nation.
Related News Coverage
Atlantic.Live, Washington Ideas Forum, Staff video, Published Nov. 26, 2013 about the two-day event Nov. 13-14. In a partnership between the Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the Newseum, the fifth annual Washington Ideas Forum gathered an audience of over 1,400 across two and half days of distinctive social events, main stage plenary sessions, and curated breakout meetings, further cementing its distinct reputation as DC's destination for fostering creative thinking about critical issues by some of the most newsworthy figures of our day. To watch highlights of the event and read coverage of the program's conversations, visit TheAtlantic.com's dedicated Special Report.
United States Trade Representative Michael Froman with the Atlantic’s James Fallows: