Essential ingredient: public trust

We'd been willing to protest against wrongdoing, and I learned that was a

A newsman who once deplored the excessive spending of candidates as he covered presidential campaigns now is trying to do something about it. Paul Taylor - for many years a star in The Washington Post's stable of reporters - now heads an organization trying to persuade broadcasters to provide candidates free airtime to replace the 1 million or more political ads expected to run on TV next year. Much of the money that has to be raised now has to go to pay for all these ads.

What caught my eye was "A Message to America's Broadcasters," which had been inserted in The New York Times by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the organization for which Mr. Taylor is executive director. It is signed by Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Walter Cronkite. They're urging that in the national election the national networks broadcast brief nightly issue forums among the presidential candidates. They also ask that some free time be given by local stations to regional and local contests.

Their argument is compelling: "From whom much has been given, much is expected. Broadcasters have been given licenses valued at tens of millions of dollars, free of charge, to operate the public's airways. In return, you have pledged to serve the public interest."

To Taylor, who used to come to the Monitor breakfasts as a newsman, I want to say: You are providing a wonderful public service, yourself, and my hat is off to you. All this campaign spending is corrupting our system of government. As a breakfast guest the other day, Taylor told us he was making some progress with his project.

I'm often asked in different ways but along this line: Why do you so often write on subjects relating to government corruption and scandals?

Our democracy depends on public trust in government. Misuse of this public trust must be reported on and written about - so that it can be rooted out and corrected.

Very early in life I became interested in politics and the importance of exposing political wrongdoing. My father, the county surveyor, was on the ballot every four years along with local, state, and federal candidates. Indeed, as I've proudly noted in the past, my Dad "beat" Franklin D. Roosevelt by a dozen votes when he was reelected in 1932, while all other Republicans on the ballot were defeated by an FDR landslide that turned Champaign County, Ill., into a Democratic county for the first time in history. Except for Dad. He stayed on in that position for more than 40 years.

Dad taught me we shouldn't abide political wrongdoers. On two occasions he caught public officials "red-handed" taking money from contractors in return for accepting their road-construction bids. When he couldn't get the state's attorney interested in prosecuting, he went after them himself. I well remember how Dad wrote his eyewitness account of what he'd seen and then mimeographed hundreds of copies for me (a teenager) to distribute. I went door to door with them for days. People everywhere welcomed me, particularly the University of Illinois professors.

Well, I'd like to say that we were successful. We stirred up a lot of public indignation, which, we thought, showed up in the next local election. But, while at no point had the accused officeholders challenged Dad's story - they were allowed to stay on in their jobs. Dad just said, "politics." But I was left with a feeling of satisfaction that we, at least, had been willing to raise our voices in protest against wrongdoing. Dad taught me that was a good thing of itself.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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