The Dutch have a term for this kind of leader, derived from its seafaring past. Recht door Zee means, roughly speaking in English, “Right straight ahead!” This was a command in the olden days by harbor navigators as they guided ships to the open sea. More generally, the term applies to leaders who are “straight-shooters” and blunt-speaking truth tellers as explained by my friend Eelco Dykstra, a medical doctor and futurist. His 2006 Dutch-language book Recht door Zee called for global leadership to prevent repetition elsewhere of the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Andy Thibault is such a leader. We need many more like him.
I’ve seen him in action for years writing not simply with talent but with a rare and unusually generous commitment to the public interest without petty calculation of the personal cost.
“Cool Justice” is his ironic description for a system that is anything but just. His first chapter makes that point powerfully in recounting the successful fight he championed to free Bonnie Foreshaw, a Connecticut woman who served 27 ½ years in prison on an unmerited murder charge.
These days, by contrast, many reporters want to put someone in prison. A guilty verdict can help an ambitious reporter and management win a seal of approval for an investigative story, thereby advancing careers. Fewer seem to aspire to free a prisoner unjustly convicted. For one thing, how would a reporter ever learn that someone might be innocent? Few reporters have time to cover cases in any detail. Furthermore, police, prosecutors, wardens and judges running the legal
system have little incentive to encourage pesky reporters. Neither do cost-conscious editors who need their staffers to churn out large quantities of easy-to-read stories.
Those who have followed Andy Thibault’s work for more than four decades did not need to read about Foreshaw to know he charts his own course. As a syndicated columnist, he reviewed my recent book, Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters, a controversial study of under-reported stories. For no clear reason aside from a generous spirit, he also activated his wide network of colleagues to arrange for me several lectures and broadcast interviews in Connecticut’s state capital and western Connecticut regions. His was an extraordinary display of volunteer effort expertly done. No discernible benefit went to him. To the contrary, it could have hurt him because Puppetry targets powerful people, institutions and some of their adherents. The news coverage necessarily involved also my previous book, Spiked, a case history of biased news stories and other shortcomings in the Connecticut and national media.
None of these are career-building topics for those working in the news business or counting on it for news coverage.
Over the course of a four decades career in journalism and law, I have worked with hundreds of reporters in Washington and elsewhere. I belong to a half dozen journalism and legal organizations. Most protect their management and member self-interest as top priority. High-minded mission statements fall lower on the priority lists. “And that’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite used to say in a different context.
But for some, like Andy Thibault, it’s full speed ahead. Recht door zee.
To take a broader picture, disasters that are even greater than Katrina have been occurring around the world with inadequate coverage, in part because even major reporters shy away from tough targets and topics. Corporate-friendly media always call the 2010 BP oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico a “spill” or “leak.” What happened in the Gulf, however, was more like a “volcano” than an overturned teacup.
On a national level, we are still working through the consequences of 9/11, foreign wars and the 2007-2008 economic crack-up. Lingering also are many other pocketbook, justice, safety net, foreign policy and political disasters that require attention and accountability.
Breakdowns in effective government and watchdog institutions are putting real reform out of reach. This endangers core values of freedom, justice and democracy itself. Congress, supposedly our most representative branch, has an approval rating of about 14 percent. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll indicated that those Americans identifying themselves as in “the lower class” has jumped from 25 to 40 cent in the years since 2008 with a corresponding drop in “the middle class.”
Those high stakes arise in part because the news industry has pulled back from the kind of watchdog reporting encompassed in more COOL JUSTICE. Lack of accountability on a local level leads to out-of-control government and corporations nationally in a process threatening just about every goal and value most of us cherish.
Before amplifying on that dire threat, a portrait of the messenger is in order.
Thibault has a graying, neatly trimmed beard and a slight limp from a painful back condition. There are his badges, in effect, of his many years’ experience on the reporting trail. He began at 17 in high school as a sports correspondent for two local papers, the Norwich Bulletin and Groton News.
He is usually soft-spoken and modest, as when he gave just a brief speech in June 2014 in accepting the annual freedom of information award for a journalist, the Stephen Collins Award. The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information bestowed the award in honor of a Connecticut editorial writer who led the successful campaign to enact a 1975 law enabling access to public records. The Council is a private group supporting freedom of information, with an annual lunch at the Hartford Club attended by other award winners and top editors and former editors of the state’s media. Andy is well-known and respected within the group, and easily could have used as much time as other recipients. Instead, he confined his remarks largely to a gracious thanks.
Andy saved his fighting spirit for an occasion a month later. He has worked as a state-licensed boxing judge as well as a state Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer and commissioner. In blunt terms, he denounced at a state meeting a hearing officer for failing to protect the public by suppressing evidence. He fears that the law is gradually being rolled back, a threat explored here in Chapter Six, “Stealing democracy: The assault on Freedom of Information.”
That’s the kind of author you are about to learn more about here.
We share a common background in beginning our careers as journalists in Connecticut and working our way up, first as reporters covering the basics of local government. We met briefly once nearly four decades ago when I covered federal courts for the Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper. He was beginning what became an impressive career that would lead him to positions with the Courant, a half dozen other newspapers, Connecticut Magazine and Fox61 Connecticut News.
We lost touch until we independently returned to new kinds of court coverage to fill a news void in Connecticut and elsewhere. The gaps comes from the demise of regular coverage of court proceedings – and many similar government bodies, including state and federal agencies and even Congress. These government actions sometimes hold extraordinary impact on the public that only a regular observer can discern. Yet all too often, the importance remains neglected, if not suppressed.
Financial difficulties in the news industry and evolving public tastes toward entertainment instead of news spelled the end of “newspaper of record” coverage. The problem is everywhere, and beyond any of our powers to correct except by adapting. In that spirit, Andy became a Connecticut-based columnist, with occasional national forays that specialized in the hard-hitting, in-depth story. From my base in Washington, DC, I founded the Justice Integrity Project, which examines allegations of high-level misconduct in major court cases and their congressional and media oversight.
Several years ago, our paths crossed again when I learned of his sleuthing to solve the mystery of a New Yorker who disappeared four decades ago on a business trip to New Orleans. “Who killed Gabe Caporino?” is the chapter here that portrays that mystery, which neither the family nor reporter will give up on.
The tireless, low-key persistence of such efforts makes me think of him as a real-life Detective Lt. Columbo. Later chapters portray a range of cases that include a blunt treatment of the Woody Allen sex scandal allegations, other celebrity shenanigans and a lot of insight you won’t easily get elsewhere about what happens to ordinary people caught up in the legal process. The often dire case histories – each important in their own way – are broken up with reflections on some of his personal passions, including boxing and music. Readers are not just getting a finger-pointer here, but a complete personality.
Two last thoughts before I get out of the way to let you enjoy the book:
First, these case histories are primarily Connecticut-based. But please assure yourself that they reflect nationwide problems. Further, there is no other way to resurrect a system of sustained news coverage and citizen accountability that once existed within our recent working careers. Its disappearance almost to the point of vanishing has very serious consequences. The void locally and nationally frees government autocrats and business titans to do whatever they want. Neither the Internet, social media nor national news can replace all the newspaper reporters who used to cover events. These reporters formerly undertook their local newspaper work with far more confidence that professional standards could support independent reporting free from career reprisal. That local reporting provided the basis for radio, wire service and television coverage.
Second, and most importantly, what do we do about such problems?
We must know what we face, whether in the courts or the rest of government. Then comes some combination of helping yourself and others overcome the problems. In terms of solutions, my advice is to become active in community, workplace, faith, school and similar organizations. That way you are not simply an individual who can be ignored easily. If you volunteer for the speaker or funding committee of a group you will at some point have a fair chance to help both yourself and others similarly situated. This advice is relatively simple and easy to execute –
except for those too overwhelmed with their own direct problems, which can occur easily these days.
That’s our world, as portrayed so well in more COOL JUSTICE.
One way or another, we must fight back!
Andrew Kreig is the author of “Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters” and “Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper.” Kreig leads the Justice Integrity Project of Washington, D.C., a non-partisan legal reform group that investigates official misconduct.