Adam uncovers a blast from the past

Adam Beam of The State Tweeted this over the weekend:

Adam Beam
Adam Beam

@BradWarthen Look what I

Adam must have been spending Saturday at the office going through old drawers in the newsroom. There are a number of these scattered about here and there.

This is the special reprint we did early in 1992 of the Power Failure series that I had spent most of the previous year directing.

Power Failure was something I dreamed up in 1990. As governmental affairs editor that summer, I had been going nuts keeping up with an unbelievable string of scandals in and around state government, the most memorable of which was the Lost Trust investigation, which led to indictments against a tenth of the Legislature.

In the midst of it all, then-executive editor Gil Thelen stopped by my desk one day to wonder, What could we do to give our readers a positive way to respond? What could be done to make state government better, rather than just wallowing in the bad news day after day?

The answer I came up with was a project highlighting all of the deep, structural flaws in South Carolina’s system of government — flaws that set South Carolina apart from every other state. Flaws that made our system particularly resistant to change.

These flaws are difficult to summarize briefly, but all of the problems — the weak executive, weak local governments, centralization of authority, fragmentation of that central authority, almost complete lack of accountability (in terms of anyone being able to hire and fire key officials), and on and on — were vestiges of a constitutional system originally designed to put all authority in the hands of the landed, slaveholding antebellum gentry, and to fragment that power across that whole class of people, so that no one person could make important decisions. For instance, not only did departments that in other states reported to the governor (an official elected by all of the state’s people) report to a separately elected official, or to a board or commission appointed by the Legislature, but even decades after the passage of Home Rule, lawmakers still retained a surprising degree of control over local government services.

As I said, it’s difficult to summarize briefly, although we tried with the tagline, “The Government that Answers to No One.” To explain it, I conceived of a 17-installment series, each installment filling several full pages of newsprint (back in the day when pages were much bigger than they are now), totaling well over 100 articles. Gil and Paula Ellis, then the managing editor, essentially laid the resources of the newsroom at my disposal for most of 1991. Reporters came and went from the project, depending on which subject area we were dealing with at the time.

Were there results? Yes, but nowhere near what we were seeking. A partial restructuring of state government in 1993 put about a third of the executive branch under the governor. That third of a loaf, though, was great success when you consider that huge areas that were just as important — Home Rule, education governance, reducing the number of statewide elected officials — were pretty much ignored.

As for me — I was ruined as a governmental affairs editor, since the project was an unprecedented sort of news/editorial hybrid — for instance, I had written opinion columns advocating all of these changes throughout the series. I spent a couple of years supervising this or that non-political team (although I retained control of the Washington Bureau) until I made the move to editorial at the start of 1994 — where I spent the next 15 years continuing to advocate these reforms. Most of the items I listed in my last column for The State, “South Carolina’s unfinished business,” was to a great extent a recap of Power Failure.

Recently, we saw one tiny piece of the reform picture fall into place, with the legislation putting the governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket advancing. Hoorah for small victories.

It’s been frustrating, but hey, this system had been in place in one form or another for 300 years — and the one great characteristic that it possessed all that time was a profound resistance to change. That is still the hallmark of government in South Carolina.

20 thoughts on “Adam uncovers a blast from the past

  1. Lynn

    So, how’s this working out…SC Press >0 SC Voters 0 and elected pols 20. The more things change the more they remain the same.
    Oh yes and we changed parties.

  2. bud

    Were there results? Yes, but nowhere near what we were seeking. A partial restructuring of state government in 1993 put about a third of the executive branch under the governor.

    Here we go again. A trip down Memory Lane. (Or perhaps Fantasy Lane would be more accurate). Only problem, the truth is not so kind as The State newspaper led it’s readers to believe. And since The State was so heavily vested in this legislation they dared not say ANYTHING that would suggest it was anything but a glowing success.

    Sadly, the old South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation was split into 3 (4 initially) agencies that had a dickens of a time coordinating their efforts. Three HRs were needed where only one existed before. Same for IT, payroll and a host of other support units. The predictable result was a staggering decline in efficiency and the loss of several years of progress in making our highways safer.

    If we go down the restructuring road again let’s try to do it right. Too often government makes changes that throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. The 1992 restructuring legislation was a classic example of that.

  3. Juan Caruso

    What has been more rare than even a non-lawyer S.C. governor?

    Answer: A female reformer, non-lawyer governor.

  4. Mark Stewart

    It’s not Just the legislature that is resistant to change. Where did we get such a hidebound streak of cultural character? Even agricultural economies were based upon competition and innovation – and the disemination of evolutionary best practices.

    What is this state so afraid of? It’s shadow? Did the worst traits of the Scotch-Irish settlers find an easy combination with the worst impulses of the plantation economy? Or is the foundation of thi

  5. Mark Stewart

    … this civic fear of progress something that developed from the despair of defeat (c. 1863)? Certainly it had to predate Jim Crow.

    Government is not a leadership mechanism. Government follows; people lead. We have to decide we want to demand more of ourselves – if we want to break out of the legislative morass.

  6. bud

    For Brad and all the other journalist types let me just ask a candid question. If a news organization becomes heavily involved in reporting and editorializing an issue especially if it takes a particular side doesn’t that make it virtually impossible to impartially evaluate that issue later?

  7. Ralph Hightower

    “A female reformer, non-lawyer governor.” ???


    SC Governot Nikki Haley, during her primary and election campaign, pledged to end the “Good Ol’ Boy” system.

    Instead of ending it, she’s become one of the “Good Ol’ Boys” herself.

  8. Brad

    No, Juan is right. There’s nothing rarer than that, which is why we haven’t seen one.

    Ah, but here’s the contradiction: Note that the only member of the House Ethics Committee that wanted the panel to do its job is a woman who is a lawyer.

  9. `Kathryn Braun

    The light bulb has to want to change. The powers that be see no problem, and to change, you first must admit there’s a problem.

  10. Brad

    Bud, I’ll answer your question in two parts:

    First, you need to understand the extent to which this project was a revolutionary departure from journalistic norms. We went places newsrooms don’t usually go — in fact, have strict rules against. It was a weird sort of moment, the juxtaposition of several factors. One, I personally was tired of the “news” paradigm. I was moving toward a belief that “objective” news writing kept an honest journalist from telling the truth (my standard analogy for explaining that — “objective” journalism would give you a story in which one source said the sky was white and another said the sky was black, but the journalist would be barred from telling the reader that the sky was blue, even though he could clearly see it was). And I wanted to tell some truth.

    In this case, there was obvious truth to tell. Every disinterested knowledgeable observer, over the course of many years, had pointed out the deep flaws in our system of government. The only folks who disagreed were those heavily invested in the status quo. Unfortunately, they controlled the means for effecting change. The purpose of this project was to undertake the heavy lifting of explaining to the average voter what was wrong, and creating a swell of political pressure to finally bring about change.

    Also, it was an unusual moment in the history of The State when the top guy in the newsroom was very interested in innovation, with trying things outside the mold.

    All of these factors, and a few others, conspired to make us do something none of us had done before, or would ever do again: Use the resources of a newsroom to make the case for an advocacy position.

    It was a rare instance of a newsroom doing what detractors accuse newsrooms of doing, but which they almost never do — support an editorial position. (In fact, the editorial board found itself in the weird position of following our lead on an editorial position. This caused some tension.)

    This is what I mean by saying I was thus ruined for news work — and therefore spent the next couple of years as a sort of utility infielder editor, awaiting the opportunity to move to editorial.

    OK, that was my first point. My second point is this: Most of the people in the newsroom weren’t all that invested in the position. Even before Gil and Paula left the paper, the folks who actually wrote about state government had enough turnover that they hadn’t even been involved with Power Failure. Even those who HAD been involved hadn’t really compromised themselves. They wrote factual stories. I was the one who tied them together into a seamless whole that, taken together, formed a discernible pattern that supported the theses of the project. (Each installment featured a short column by me, which we called the “thread,” that related the facts reported in that installment to all of the others, and showed how they fit the overall pattern.)

    As time went by, the only people who felt really deeply invested in the project were Cindi Scoppe and me. And we had both moved to editorial by 1997.

    Neither of us has ever seen any reason to change our minds. And of course, since in general most of the proposals have not even been tried, there exists no proof that we are wrong.

    One more point: Based on things you’ve said, you seem to believe that a) the partial restructuring of 1993 implemented what we were calling for, and b) that we heartily endorsed that plan.

    That ignores the fact that from the beginning, I was pretty dismissive of the 1993 changes, because they fell SO far short of what needed to be done. I didn’t completely trash it, because it was remarkable that the Legislature did THAT much, and I hated to criticize those who had sincerely worked hard to make it happen. But to me it was a disappointment. It simply wasn’t the revolution that I believed South Carolina needed to jolt it out of its historical malaise.

    1. Mab

      “I was the one who tied them together into a seamless whole…”

      Sorry to be digging up bones on Sunday — but that really sounds more like script writing — not that there’s anything wrong with script writing…

  11. bud

    journalism would give you a story in which one source said the sky was white and another said the sky was black, but the journalist would be barred from telling the reader that the sky was blue, even though he could clearly see it was). And I wanted to tell some truth.

    I can relate to that analogy with the ongoing journalistic paradigm that seems to mandate that both left and right be treated as equals when it comes to partisan bickering. I’ve never seen it as even remotely close to being equal. Thanks for that analogy I may borrow it at some future time.

  12. Brad

    About the lightbulb not wanting to change…

    We got a LOT of pushback from folks invested in the status quo, many of them good people who sincerely wanted the best for SC. We got so much of it that I worried about it negating any good effect we were having. So part of the project was a series of lunches that we hosted with about 25 such stakeholders at each. We invited lawmakers, other officeholders, representatives of issue advocacy groups, lobbyists, senior state employees, and engaged them in dialogue. Part of the purpose was to help them understand that this wasn’t some anti-government thing. We weren’t criticizing them for being part of the system. We were criticizing the system for being one that undermined their best efforts.

    While I thought that should have been self-evident from what we were putting in the paper, I was looking at what we were publishing in a holistic way, knowing about all the installments that had yet to run. I always had my eye on the big picture, while readers tended to just see the most recent installment. I guess. Another way of looking at it was this: I’ve noticed that when somebody challenges me with a question about something in the paper, even if all I say to them is exactly what I said in the paper, somehow they get it better when you say it to their faces. Human nature, I suppose.

    I don’t know how many hearts and minds we won in those sessions, but we lowered the temperature by listening.

  13. `Kathryn Braun

    Everybody thinks s/he wants the best for the state, etc. They just think their way IS the best–the way it’s always been done….

    I think reform seldom comes from within. I’m not fond of incumbent-bashing, but that is one of the problems with long-term incumbency.

  14. bud

    .. there exists no proof that we are wrong.

    Perhaps the idea of restructuring was a good one but the actual restructuring bill that passed was very definately proven to have done a great disservice to the citizens of South Carolina. And that’s my point. I just don’t think the folks at the State COULD be dispationate enough to EVER consider ANY evidence that may have suggested there was a problem. I just don’t see how it could even be possible to do so.

    (This is not a knock on Brad and Cindi as it is just an observation about human nature. Frankly I’m not sure I would ever be able to be critical of the outcome had I been the one to write so passionately about something)

  15. Brad

    I’m glad you like the analogy, Bud.

    Of course, I feel the same way about left and right, Democrat and Republican. Neither side fully describes the world accurately, which is why I disassociate myself from them.

  16. Juan Caruso

    “Note that the only member of the House Ethics Committee that wanted the panel to do its job is a woman who is a lawyer.” – Brad

    Brad, your point might be valid if the only Ethics Committee member who wanted the panel to “do its job” were a Republican lawyer. As a Democrat lawyer the lady is a partisan, and that has never been rare in SC or DC.


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