Gutsy Reporting Is a Good-Government Issue

William CockerhamThe recent passing of longtime Hartford Courant reporter William Cockerham, one of the Connecticut’s most fearless and memorable reporters for nearly a quarter of a century, raises the question of what readers want in a reporter and in a news organization. I suspect that consumers and good-government advocates, on the whole, want at least a few of his kind of pro-active and occasionally judgmental voices as reporters, both on the streets and in corridors of power.

Yet his style has become increasingly rare. Timid, debt-burdened newspapers and broadcasting stations across the state and nation have scant space or institutional memory to report on their localities. Even as an obit, the Courant could muster only a death notice purchased by his widow.

Cockerham died from a heart attack July 26 after a high-impact career extending from 1968 until 1992. Beginning in the 1980s, he was the paper’s roving New England reporter. Portrayed above right on Cape Cod in a family photo, his work was widely reprinted in other newspapers around the country because of his entertaining style and nose for news .

“Not only was Bill a great reporter,” recalls Owen McNally, who retired after an illustrious 40-year career as a Courant editor and jazz critic, “but he was also a consummately gifted writer blessed with a wonderful, natural voice all his own, always clear and fluent, compelling — and with a definite point of view advocating justice and fairness for all.” To frame the issue more squarely: Does the public want reporters who care about “fairness for all?” Or is it better to have, in the more modern way, a more button-down style in which reporters understand that it’s not their place to have opinions or to make news except in narrowly circumscribed ways?
Cockerham wrote his own script as much as one reasonably could and still hold a job. Upon joining the Courant’s city staff in 1968 after Army service, he persuaded editors to let him infiltrate a group trying to revive the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut. He attended weekly meetings with robe-clad bigots burning crosses in the woods, and then exposed the operation so thoroughly that the group disbanded and its leaders left the state. I worked in the same newsroom with him from 1970 to 1984. Editors occasionally paired us on stories, and so I saw him in action first-hand.

For one organized crime story, we went to a Wethersfield residence to find a man who had been ducking our inquiries. “He’s not home,” said a hostile-sounding woman who came to the door. “What do you want to see him about?” Cockerham replied with one word, “Counterfeiting,” in a no-nonsense style that was right out of the movies. He then handed her his card and we walked away. His brevity in that situation underscored his message that we had the story, and so ducking us wasn’t going to kill it.

But he used the full reporter’s tool kit in the mid-1970s to break the story of how organized crime had infiltrated local “Las Vegas Night” fund-raisers across Connecticut soon after the legislature legalized such gambling. The General Assembly’s goal had been to enable local charities to raise funds in small-time events. Instead, smooth-talking hoodlums were infiltrating the games, leaving some local organizations in financial ruin.
Cockerham schmoozed far into many nights with high-rollers (including some who were well-known in Connecticut public life), charity leaders, dealers and suspected mobsters and their groupies to get documentation for the theme of the series: Con men and crooks may introduce themselves as nice guys, but don’t change their ways just because they’re supposed to be helping local charities.

“Virtually everything Bill wrote was well-worth reading, including, of course, his delightful classics as a roving reporter on the road,” McNally continued. The former editor was one of many former Courant colleagues, including several former top-ranking editors, who volunteered glowing comments about Cockerham after the Justice Integrity Project I lead published a column last week about the reporter’s passing. It prompted more reader comments than anything the Project has published in two years about national events. Among other things, the column reported for the first time Cockerham’s role in helping topple Hartford Probate Judge James Kinsella from office three decades ago in one of state’s major corruption scandals of modern times.

But work like that can take its toll. Radio host and Courant blogger Colin McEnroe provided context on why the most daring of reporters can sometimes be a threat to themselves, their employers and other powers-that-be. “He was, as was said of Byron,” the Yale-educated McEnroe wrote of Cockerham, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment

Below are columns referenced above plus significant articles for this week on legal reform and related political, security and media factors. The articles, including a strong representation from independent blogs and other media, contain a sample of news. See the full article by clicking the link.

Bloomberg Exposes Conflict in Murdoch Internal Probe

Bloomberg, News Corp. Director Leading Phone-Hack Probe Has Personal Ties to Murdochs, Ronald Grover and Tom Schoenberg, Aug. 6, 2011.  News Corp.’s independent directors, obligated to assess Rupert Murdoch and other top executives’ handling of the company’s phone-hacking scandal, are relying for guidance on Viet Dinh, a board member with personal ties to the Murdoch family. Dinh, 43, is point man between the independent board members and a panel that New York-based News Corp. created to cooperate with authorities probing phone hacking by the defunct News of the World tabloid and to evaluate company standards. A Washington attorney and Georgetown University Law Center professor, Dinh has been a friend of Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch’s oldest son Lachlan since 2003 and is godfather to Lachlan’s second child. In 1992, a decade before they met, the South China Morning Post, then owned by Murdoch, helped Dinh free his sister from a Hong Kong refugee camp. “Usually it’s required that an investigation like this is undertaken by a committee of independent directors,” said Jay Lorsch, a Harvard Business School professor who has served on the boards of four publicly traded companies. “It’s very hard to be objective if you’re involved in any way -- financially or emotionally -- with the family of the chief executive you are supposed to be supervising.”  Dinh will update directors on the scandal at an Aug. 9 board meeting in Los Angeles, two people familiar with the situation said. The “management and standards” committee, established by News Corp. last month, reports to board member and Executive Vice President Joel Klein, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and New York City schools chief, who then reports to Dinh, the company said in a July 18 statement.

New Questions On Major Federal Anti-Corruption Case

Legal Schnauzer, Is Our Country Rotting From the Inside Out? Roger Shuler, Aug. 8, 2011. We are used to writing about dubious prosecutions from the George W. Bush era. But the electronic-bingo case is a production of the Barack Obama Justice Department, and that truly is unsettling. Not only are we rotting from the inside, we are rotting from both sides of the political aisle--from the Republicans and the Democrats. The case went to the jury over the weekend, and a verdict could come at any moment.  Regardless of the outcome, the case has been emitting foul odors for weeks. A reasonable citizen might observe the strange proceedings and ask, "What in the name of Eric Holder is the U.S. Justice Department doing with my taxpayer dollars?"

Washington Insiders Boost Suspect Iranian Group

Huffington Post, Mujahedin El-Khalq: Former U.S. Officials Make Millions Advocating For Terrorist Organization, Christina Wilkie, Aug. 8, 2011. The ornate ballroom of the Willard Hotel buzzed with activity on a Saturday morning in July. Crowded together on the stage sat a cadre of the nation's most influential former government officials, the kind whose names often appear in boldface, who've risen above daily politics to the realm of elder statesmen. They were perched, as they so often are, below a banner with a benign conference title on it, about to offer words of pricey wisdom to an audience with an agenda.

Series Examines Petters Ponzi Scheme

Politiva, Petters Fraud: The Scam and the Victims. It has been almost 3 years since the September 2008 FBI raids of the homes and offices of Tom Petters, a once prominent Minnesota businessman. Petters and a group of accomplices had orchestrated a massive Ponzi scheme, which had run successfully between the years 1995-2008, through his company Petters Companies, Incorporated (PCI).  The Ponzi scheme, which went all but unnoticed for more than a decade, was eventually pointed out by the vice president of operations for PCI, Deanna Coleman.  Today, investigations are still underway to uncover who the remaining players in this massive financial scam were and how a fraudulent operation this large went unnoticed for so long. So how did this $3.65 billion scam manage to operate successfully for so long?

New Jersey Defendant Cites Juror Remorse To Overturn Corruption Conviction

Newark Star-Ledger, Former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell seeks to overturn bribery conviction, citing juror who 'misunderstood' case, Jason Grant, August 6, 2011. Former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell's lawyers are hoping to get Elwell's bribery conviction overturned because the lawyers say a juror said he misunderstood the case. Pointing to an outspoken juror who they say clearly "misunderstood or misapplied the law," the lawyers for former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell filed papers in federal court Friday seeking to overturn the mayor’s recent bribery conviction. The conviction came after an 11-day corruption trial and was rendered as part of a controversial and, according to the lawyers, "confounding" split verdict.

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