The recent passing of longtime Hartford Courant reporter William Cockerham, one of the paper's most fearless and memorable reporters for nearly a quarter of a century, raises the question of what readers want in a news organization.
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. His work was widely reprinted in other newspapers around the country because of his entertaining style and nose for news. He is portrayed above in a family photo at Cape Cod.
"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."
But does the public really demand that Mainstream Media (MSM) news managers retain reporters who care about "fairness for all?" Or is it better for them to keep reporters who know that it's not their place to have opinions affecting the news, except in narrowly circumscribed ways?
Readers here at this site appreciate, of course, that good government depends on an independent media, both on the streets and in corridors of power. Yet, like it or not, the hard-working but often time-pressured voting majority cannot be expected to know precisely how corporate titans have reshaped the MSM, much like well-funded groups have reorganized the federal judiciary and other watchdog institutions. And elected politicians of stature care most about the MSM because of its reach. That's the way it is, as Cronkite used to say.
But reformers and regular voters alike can understand through such examples as Cockerham and his newspaper why it is increasingly hard to find MSM reporters with time and space to publish a hard-hitting news story. It's not impossible, of course, but it's a lot harder than it should be given the scope of easily documented problems either locally or nationally.
Dan Rather's Lesson
Before Dan Rather's MSM career demise in 2004, I saw the CBS anchor and managing editor give a speech at the National Press Club in which he said "fear" was the biggest factor in broadcast news. More precisely, he said broadcasters feared that they would lose their job if they tackled a tough story.
He said he was not especially worried about his own security after his long career but he noted he still picked his stories carefully. Events proved him wrong when his staff relied on a cooked-up document it received about President Bush's military career that was easily shown after publication to have errors in its print fonts. Far more important than Rather's own job, the continued insults directed against him by critics for all these years after the Bush story serve as a dire warning for other reporters across the country to play it safe.
Let's examine how such factors play out at an important regional newspaper and the career of one of its star reporters. To be clear, this is about corporate-owned news organizations of substantial size (and debt), not web-based periodicals. Ironically, the Courant's early coverage of the Revolutionary War was by Constitution-shaping printer-publishers on broadsheets that resembled blogs far more than today's newspapers.
Like most modern metro daily reporters, Cockerham's focus was more local than the great issues normally addressed on OpEd News. But the journalistic spirit and pressures for newspaper reporters are similar in world and state capitals.
The Courant, the second largest newspaper in New England and the paper where I began my career in 1970, is now run by a top executive of Connecticut's Fox News TV affiliates in joint management arrangement with the state's Fox stations and three major "alternative" weekly newspapers in the state's largest cities.
A 3-2 party-line vote in December 2008 by Republicans on the outgoing Bush Federal Communications Commission waived TV-newspaper cross-ownership restrictions so that the neo-con real estate mogul Sam Zell could acquire the nationwide Tribune Co. chain of newspapers and broadcast outlets and work out their local management structures with such properties.
Under its new Tribune ownership, the Courant in 2009 soon fired George Gombossy, its high-profile consumer reporter. He had worked at the paper four decades, including as its business editor. His firing came after he tried to report that then-State Attorney Gen. Dick Blumenthal (now a Democratic U.S. Senator) was investigating complaints the paper's largest advertiser, Sleepy's, Inc., was selling used mattresses as new. One complaint alleged bedbugs in a "new" mattress.
The Courant disputes the reason for his dismissal, saying finances forced it to continue downsizing those like Gombossy. As disclosure, I sometimes publish on the CT Watchdog consumer news website that he founded to keep reporting.