Also, the paper retains outstanding journalists with high personal standards, including several I regard as among the best in the country at what they do. So we're painting with a broad brush here. Nonetheless, the pressures at such papers are enormous. The Courant outsourced much of its copy editing to the Tribune's Chicago HQ in 2009, for example, to cut costs and Connecticut staff.
Want to hear more about why you're reading OpEd News? The gist is that timid, debt-burdened corporate-controlled newspapers and broadcasting stations across the nation have scant space or institutional memory to report on their localities, much less national news. Five newspaper chains closed their Washington bureaus in 2009 and 2010. The Courant couldn't even muster space for an obituary for Cockerham, one of its best-known writers and one who had risked his safety repeatedly to get a story in potentially life-threatening situations. Instead, his widow paid for a death notice.
If this sounds too much like "Potterville" in It's a Wonderful Life for you to enjoy let's turn to scenes from an earlier Courant era -- even though every period has its stresses and setbacks, just like in the movie.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 he 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 to me after the Justice Integrity Project I lead published a column last week about the reporter's passing. The column, a profile with different material than this article, prompted more reader comments than any other topic for our Project since our 2009 investigation showing how the Bush administration framed former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman on corruption charges.
The interest, in my view, is because readers want a fighter on their behalf, even if the battles were in the past.
Mad and Bad
But work like Cockerham's can take its toll. Connecticut public radio host and Courant blogger Colin McEnroe provided context on why the most daring of reporters can be a threat to themselves, their employers and other powers-that-be.
"He was, as was said of Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know," said the Yale-educated McEnroe of his late colleague. "He was a type of reporter who doesn't really exist anymore, and, on his best days, he was as good as anybody you ever saw."
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