Connecticut’s tradition of vigorous civic institutions remains intact as a force for reform, I saw during my lecture tour there last week.
This is good news for the rest of the country. Given the decline of the nation’s watchdog institutions located in the capital, remedial action can only come “bottom up” from grassroots. Grassroots volunteerism is different from the phony “grasstop” organizations that special interests in Washington create whereby pseudo-populist groups manipulate public opinion.
My Connecticut trip June 18-20 was to discuss Presidential Puppetry, the first book about the Obama administration’s second term. The strong civic institutions I saw and their reaction revealed positive signs amid discouraging news about national officials and the mainstream media.
In a message similar to my own these days, the prominent investigative editor Charles Lewis, for example, told a National Press Club audience June 24 in Washington, DC that “lying” by government officials has become standard operating procedure.
Lewis was announcing his memoir 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Integrity at the 25th anniversary of the Center for Public Integrity. In 1989, he founded the pioneering (and now Pulitzer-winning) non-partisan, non-profit group in a spare room of his house after he resigned in frustration from hidden corporate pressures he had experienced as a producer for the top-rated CBS News show “60 Minutes.”
Asked about the “commonalities” he has observed since then as a reporter and journalism professor, Lewis, shown at left, responded, “Not to be glib, but the commonalities are that if you were listening to government officials they were usually lying, or at least being non-responsive and kicking the problem down the road.”
My column today compares his expert observations over his three decades with what I observed in Connecticut, where I began my reporting career in 1970 with 14 years at the Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper.
I started by observing the annual awards luncheon of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI) and hearing how civic volunteers are fighting secrecy in government. I wanted to hear especially the award presentation for columnist Andy Thibault, a fierce fighter against injustice who also kindly volunteered to arrange my lectures.
Next, I participated in the process by lectures and interviews that drew from Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters. The subtitle reflects its focus on what the mainstream media has missed about power brokers and such Republican officials as the Romney and Bush families, not just Democrats.
From these experiences, I share recommended measures for reform, as well as traps for the unwary. Some of these obstacles arise from masters of political intrigue who undertake despicable deeds with impunity because they can be confident that few are exposing their corruption in ways noticed by the public.
The work of the freedom of information council, CCFOI, is a great place to start our discussion.
Council Chairman James Herbert Smith, a longtime editor at the Courant and several other Connecticut newspapers, is shown at right presenting to Thibault the group’s annual award to a journalist whose work best fostered open government during the previous year.