Pro-Active Reporting Is a Consumer Issue

August 8, 2011
William Cockerham (Donald Cockerham Photo)

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 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. His work was widely reprinted in other newspapers around the country because of his entertaining style and nose for news. He is portrayed above 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.”

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? Readers here know that CT Watchdog’s founder, George Gombossy, has courageously fought this fight in his own way.

But Cockerham also 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.  The column prompted more reader comments than anything we’ve 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.”

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