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Bicknell Op-ed Published in The Daily Caller

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Backlash Against Sharing Economy Worthy Of The Luddite Label

Many successful ventures in the sharing economy, such as Uber and Airbnb, have come under fire from liberal politicians in recent years. These all-knowing politicians believe they need to protect Americans from the potentially bad choices they might make, but could it be that their real goal is protecting favored constituencies and defending the crusty industries that support entrenched politicians?

John Bicknell, Executive Editor of Watchdog.org, published an op-ed about the issue in The Daily Caller:

Is the brief bloom of the sharing economy about to be trampled under the feet of big government? In Austin, Chicago and New York, it certainly appears that way.

Elegist Thomas Gray foresaw this in the mid-18th century:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But not even George II, Gray’s sovereign at the time of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” was as imperious as the politicians who presume to tell you who can sleep in your home.

Read the full story in The Daily Caller.

Finding America’s Unsung Heroes

By
Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

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The news is so full of pontificating politicians, talking heads, and statements from spokespeople that it’s easy to lose sight of the American people who are supposed to be at the heart of it all. As it turns out, however, there are many citizens who are working hard to stand up for their freedom and keep government abuse in check. To highlight and celebrate their accomplishments on behalf of their communities and their country, The Washington Times has been running a series of stories by Watchdog reporters featuring America’s “Unsung Heroes” – citizens across the country who are successfully fighting for responsible government and individual rights.

Meet the “cookie ladies”

Kriss Marion was an organic farmer, not a fighter. But Wisconsin’s restrictive law on homemade baked goods forced this peaceful sustainable homesteader to fight back.

Like a lot of small farmers, Marion is constantly looking for ways to monetize her farm. Organic veggies don’t have a big profit margin, so she and others in her circle turned to baking. Before the business could get off the ground, however, Marion learned that in Wisconsin, selling muffins, cookies, brownies or any other such homemade baked goods could get her into trouble. In fact, she was told by inspectors at the Dane County Farmers Market not to do it – otherwise she would face a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

It didn’t make sense to Marion that she could serve someone a muffin legally, but could not sell a muffin legally, so she became an activist against the absurd rule, helping to lobby legislators to pass the so-called “cookie bills.” The first proposal in 2013 failed, despite bipartisan support, so Marion is taking the fight to the courts, where the legal battle is moving through the slow discovery process.

Read more about Marion’s story in The Washington Times.

Mississippi activist making a difference for liberty

A mere three years ago, Elaine Vechorik didn’t imagine herself becoming a political activist. She was a small business owner, satisfied with making a success of her motorcycle restoration and parts shop. Then she decided to get involved in the political process.

Mississippi hasn’t been the same since.

Rather than focus on national issues, Vechorik prefers to stick with ones that directly affect Mississippi taxpayers. She’s done a lot to save her fellow citizens money. One of her biggest successes was helping to kill the state’s inspection sticker law, which charged $5 per sticker and cost the state money every year. For several years, the Mississippi House had passed bills to end the program, which gave garages $3 for the cursory inspection and $2 back to the state, but each year the bills died in the Senate. Vechorik’s photo illustrations and persistent calls to key legislators for action finally helped goad the Legislature into killing the program in 2015, a statewide election year.

Read more about Vechorik’s story at Watchdog.org.

Kristi Rosenquist tilts at windmills

Minnesota resident Kristi Rosenquist isn’t one to rest on her laurels.

This past spring, for example, she was hard at work battling the wind industry (yet again), trying to persuade members of the Minnesota Legislature that the state needs better noise standards for siting wind turbines because those spinning noise-makers are now allowed as close as 500 feet from residents’ homes.

The problem is that the state uses noise standards not designed for turbines, Rosenquist argues. She said the Minnesota needs to eliminate the standard and create a new one.

“That means, in my opinion, they shouldn’t build any more turbines until they have new siting standards,” she said.

This latest fight is just one of a long list of Herculean efforts by Rosenquist in the fight against big government and the green energy industry. The battle began with a personal battle to protect her own hobby farm…

Read more about Rosenquist’s story at Watchdog.org.

Help us find more heroes!

Do you know an unsung hero in your state? Our friends at State Policy Network are currently accepting nominations for the sixth annual Unsung Hero Award, generously sponsored by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

The Unsung Hero Award honors an individual whose work defines entrepreneurial public policy action in the spirit of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation’s founder and president, Helen Krieble. The winner will receive a cash prize of $25,000, an all-expense paid trip to this year’s Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN, and recognition during the conference. Additionally, the nominating organization will receive a $5,000 prize.

To nominate someone for SPN’s Unsung Hero Award, please submit your form here by July 6, 2016. All nomination details and response questions are available here.

The rise of the Google Administration

By
Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Google colors

A White House regular

Watchdog rocked the news cycle last week when content editor Johnny Kampis reported that Google has enjoyed unrivaled access to the White House during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The story found that Johanna Shelton, Google’s director of public policy (effectively the company’s top lobbyist), had visited officials from the White House a whopping 128 times since Obama took office in 2009.

If that sounds like a lot, well, that’s because it is. As a comparison, consider that the top lobbyists from other companies in the telecommunications and cable industry such as Comcast, Facebook, Amazon, and Verizon have visited the White House a total of 124 times over the same period.

Drudge Report picked up the story, and the Internet responded in outrage.

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, for example, had a few simple questions:

Actor Rob Lowe also chimed in:

Watchdog’s findings stem from information uncovered by the Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project. The Campaign for Accountability is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to expose corporate influence on government. In this case, that meant identifying the 50 biggest lobbying spenders’ policy pushers and tracking the number of times they appeared in White House visitor logs. In 2015 Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. spent $16.6 million on lobbying – the twelfth most of any company and more than any other technology firm. All told, visits to the Obama White House by employees of Google and its related companies over the past seven years add up to 427. That’s an average of more than once a week while Obama has been in office.

Many of these meetings have been with high-level officials. At least 21 included Obama himself, and about an equal number included higher-ups like White House chief of staff Denis McDonough; former chiefs of staff Jack Lew, Bill Daley, Pete Rouse, and Rahm Emanuel; senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and economic adviser Jeffrey Zients.

“You don’t know what the meetings are about, but the fact that someone has that level of access at the White House is revealing,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. “It certainly suggests a level of influence.”

The visitor logs are only the beginning of the story here. The White House isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so the public can’t verify that the logs reveal all such visits.

Antitrust allegations drag on

Information from the White House visitor logs suggests that some of those visits could have been particularly helpful to Google in 2011 and 2012, when the company was navigating a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was investigating the company’s search-engine practices over concerns that Google was gaming search results to favor its services over competitors. The FTC found no wrongdoing, but Google reached a settlement with the commission in 2013 that granted its competitors access to important standardized technologies necessary for devices like phones and laptops.

Around the time the FTC was considering the case in 2011, Google Transparency Project found that Sheldon and a number of other top Google representatives held a flurry of meetings at the White House. In his story for Watchdog, Kampis highlighted one in particular that stands out: “Shelton, Google director of product management Hunter Walk and Raben Group lobbyist Courtney Snowden met with White House domestic policy counsel Steve Robinson on April 17, 2012. Raben Group was one of the lobbying firms Google retained to help with the FTC antitrust case.”

Even with the 2013 settlement, however, Google may not quite be out of the woods with the FTC. As Politico recently reported, officials from the FTC are again questioning whether Google has “abused its dominance in the search engine market.” Sources said this may be a sign that the agency intends to reopen the investigation.

The company currently faces a similar situation in an antitrust case with the European Commission. That legal battle has dragged on since 2010 as the company has repeatedly sought to reach a settlement with the European Commission. If no settlement is reached, which looks increasingly unlikely, it could result in Google being slammed with a 3 billion euro fine (around $3.4 billion in US dollars). That would be three times as large as the previous largest antitrust fine.

Read more from Watchdog’s series The Google Administration

Mark Levin cites Watchdog report on Medicaid expansion

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Author and talk radio host Mark Levin read through a report by Ohio Watchdog reporter Jason Hart nearly word-for-word on air on April 4. The story explained how Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare has cost taxpayers $7 billion in a little more than two years. Kasich claims his embrace of Medicaid is a fiscally responsible way to keep drug addicts and the mentally ill out of prison, but costs are zooming past his projections – the expansion was $1.5 billion over budget after just 18 months.

Listen to the segment here:

Vermont’s environmental civil war

By
Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Solar panels vermont

With its beautiful northeastern scenery and idyllic towns, the state of Vermont has long been a bastion of environmental rectitude and environmentally-conscious policies. But whatever sort of coherence there may have been in the environmental movement in prior decades has been shattered in recent years. The rift in environmental priorities springs from the state’s ambitious goal of achieving 90 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by the year 2050. This staggering aim entails a massive expansion of green power sources like wind and solar, but these technologies have downsides. Vast solar arrays create unsightly breaks amid Vermont’s landscape, and wind power can be a noisy annoyance when sited near a community – not to mention the danger it poses to birds in the area.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the expansion of renewable energy in Vermont doesn’t always sit well with citizens – even those that place a high value on preserving the environment. The environmentalist movement thus finds itself in a civil war, of sorts, in which Big Renewables is pitted against average citizens and local municipalities.

More than one hundred towns in Vermont have banded together to form an “Energy Rebellion” against the unchecked spread of Big Renewables. Fueled by citizens and activists tired of moneyed interest groups disrupting their homes and their way of life, these towns are pushing back against the installments of vast solar arrays that take up acres of forests or farmland, and they’re resisting the construction of wind turbines that threaten local bird populations and make a lot of noise near residential areas.

wind turbine vermontTheir main concern is that the state’s Public Service Board is essentially rubber stamping the siting of new renewable energy projects without regard to the well-being of local citizens who might be affected by such projects. Since the Vermont Energy Rebellion began gaining steam, only one proposed project site has been rejected by the PSB, but activists worry that it doesn’t signify any meaningful change of priorities by the decision-makers at the PSB. The procedural process for towns that want to oppose the siting of proposed renewable energy projects remains complex, and towns still have virtually no authority of their own to counter the will of the PSB.

Legislation has been introduced in the statehouse to give the PSB incentives to choose locations that won’t harm rich farm land, property values, or, ironically, the environment. But activists again worry that it does little to actually grant towns more control of where and how new energy projects are sited.

Indeed, despite these limited victories, money and political will has not been on the side of local activists, and that is not likely to change. Renewable energy projects qualify for massive federal and state subsidies, making them quite lucrative. And with the pressure for Vermont to achieve 90 percent renewable energy use by 2050, government officials are eager to bring as many new renewable energy projects as possible online.

Could this clash between local environmentalists and Big Renewables be a portent of things to come in the rest of the country? Vermont is unique among states in its 90 percent renewables goal, but similar concerns over the unintended environmental effects of renewable energy projects, such as wind turbines, have been raised elsewhere.

Download Watchdog’s in-depth whitepaper to learn more about Vermont’s energy siting war

Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

By
Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Ghost man stock

Pennsylvania may be full of ghost stories, but a much more tangible kind of “ghost” has been haunting the state’s school districts lately. These ghosts are found in the form of teachers working for their local teachers union – nowhere to be found in the classrooms in which they were originally hired to teach.

The term “ghost teachers” (also known, more tactfully, as “release time” or “official time”) refers to a practice common in school districts across the country of allowing teachers to leave the classroom to work full time for their local teachers union. This is problematic from the perspective of taxpayers because those teachers remain employed and paid by the school district even though they aren’t spending any time teaching.

Philadelphia schools, for example, paid at least 18 teachers $1.7 million while they worked for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last year. For many of these teachers, it’s been years since they taught in the classroom; some have even been on release time for decades. The school district’s rules currently allow the PFT to pull up to 63 teachers from the classroom each year for union purposes. The PFT has said most of those teachers simply work as information officers, but it later revealed that some work as political operatives.

Granted, in the case of Philadelphia, the PFT says it reimburses the school district for the salaries of teachers who spend their workdays with the union. But there’s still a catch for taxpayers. Ghost teachers continue to accrue seniority while working for their union, even though they aren’t gaining any experience teaching, and they continue to earn a pension because they are still technically employed by the school district. On top of that, students must pay the priceless opportunity cost of losing out on an education from qualified, experienced teachers. This is especially significant in Philadelphia, where the school district has openings for 200 full-time teaching positions and lacks enough subs to regularly fill classrooms when teachers are absent. There is also no official requirement that teachers unions reimburse taxpayers for ghost teachers.

classroom schoolWatchdog reporter Evan Grossman has covered multiple efforts over the past year to rein in the ghost teachers practice. The Fairness Center, a free legal service that represents employees with cases against unions, has two lawsuits making their way through the courts targeting ghost teachers in the school districts of Philadelphia and Allentown. Last year a judge ruled that the first lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia County Court, “lacked sufficient facts to support the case,” but the Fairness Center intends to appeal the ruling.

“Unfortunately, this ruling perpetuates the PFT’s abusive ‘ghost teacher’ scheme and turns a deaf ear to the voices of Philadelphia teachers,” said David Osborne, general counsel for the Fairness Center. “The PFT is intent on making teachers’ jobs even more difficult by raiding the classroom as a means to staff union offices. Teachers, students and taxpayers are harmed when union leaders are allowed to take school district employees out of the classroom for decades, even while they receive all incidences of district employment.”

In Allentown, the cash-strapped school district has dished out more than $1.4 million in public funds since 1999 to pay the salary of the president of the Allentown Education Association, the local teachers union. In response, the Fairness Center is bringing a lawsuit on behalf of Allentown taxpayers Steven Ramos and Scott Armstrong to end the practice of allowing the AEA president to work full-time for the union while drawing a salary and benefits from taxpayers.

“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” Ramos said in a statement. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”

The lawsuit, however, didn’t stop the Allentown Board of School Directors from forging ahead and approving a new teachers contract that keeps the practice of using ghost teachers intact. Out of the eight-person board of directors, only one voted against the contract, citing concerns over the release-time provision that continues to divert public funds away from classrooms.

In response to Watchdog’s reporting on the issue, Pennsylvania lawmakers in both the House and Senate have taken legislative action to try to end the practice. The latest attempt on this front is SB1140. Recently introduced by Sen. Pat Stefano, R-32nd district, it would ban the practice of using ghost teachers across the entire state.

“During an era of tight budgets and taxpayer concerns over increasing education costs, it is imperative that teachers on a school district’s payroll actually be in a classroom, teaching students,” Stefano said. “By banning this provision in collective bargaining agreements, this legislation will ensure a more effective use of public school resources and funds.”

A similar bill, HB1649, was introduced in the House last year by Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver/Washington, but it is still awaiting action in the House Education Committee.

“This measure will close a loophole that allows public school teachers to take leave from the classroom and work full-time for their union while they continue to earn salary, benefits, accrue seniority and time toward their pension,” Phillips-Hill said. Her office also noted that Watchdog’s reporting on the issue provided a “starting point” for crafting the bill.

Read the full series of stories and stay up to late with the latest news about Pennsylvania’s “ghost teachers” at Watchdog

Nicole Neily, President

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Nicole Neily headshot1Nicole Kurokawa Neily is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Prior to joining the Franklin Center, she was a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, a communications firm based in Washington DC, where she worked with Fortune 500 companies and trade associations to help them counter threats from regulatory overreach, litigation, NGO attacks, and crony capitalism.

She has previously served as executive director and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, and was both manager of external relations and media manager at the Cato Institute. In addition, she has worked as director of research analysis for the Winston Group, a public opinion and message design firm, and has authored several papers for the Illinois Policy Institute and Americans for Prosperity’s Illinois chapter. Nicole holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois, and a master’s of public policy from Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, she now lives in Austin with her husband Clark and two children.

Watchdog in the News: From the Big Apple to the blogger next door

By
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

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One of the driving factors in the creation of Watchdog.org was the need for substantive investigative journalism at the state and local level – especially as small- and medium-sized news outlets struggle to fund dedicated investigative journalism in the digital age. That’s why Watchdog has sought out strategic media partnerships with both local and national newspapers and websites. We want other news outlets to “steal our stuff,” so that citizens can get information about their government from journalists who don’t pull punches and go the extra mile beyond rehashing press releases.

So, where did Watchdog stories end up last year? Here are just a few examples of how our stories are shaping both the national news narrative and local debates in statehouses and cities.

Shaping the national narrative

Pennsylvania Watchdog reporter Andrew Staub was featured in The Wall Street Journal with a piece that explores the causes and effects of the state’s months-long budget impasse. At issue are tax increases, support for the state’s struggling school districts, and the years-long effort to privatize the state-run liquor monopoly – an idea popular with voters but bitterly opposed by public employee unions, and therefore a non-starter for Democrat Gov. Tom Wolfe.

The Washington Times carried a series of breaking stories Watchdog reporter Art Kane produced holding the controversial Export-Import Bank accountable. In the first, Kane revealed that many companies receiving aid from the Ex-Im Bank have already shipped thousands of jobs overseas – while demanding continued funding from the bank to keep them, they say, from doing just that. In a follow-up a few days later, Kane revealed that the Ex-Im Bank gave out more than $65 billion in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies that worked to keep nearly $458 billion in profits offshore.

Last June, Forbes published an in-depth investigation from Kane into the Small Business Administration, in which he uncovered more than $8 billion dollars in questionable SBA loans handed out over the past eight years, on which borrowers defaulted, leaving taxpayers on the hook. These loans were made to an assortment of luxury businesses including country clubs, boat dealers, and wineries. He also found defaulted, taxpayer-backed loans to liquor stores, bars and tobacco retailers.

California’s ongoing drought has been a topic of news and concern in recent years, and a rallying point for environmentalists keen to blame normal human activity. Watchdog’s five-part investigative series demonstrated that the water shortage is indeed a manmade problem – but one caused by the domination of the environmental lobby over key water decisions in the state, as well as by government mismanagement of major infrastructure facilities and subsidies. Newsweek was one of the top mainstream websites to pick up the story.

In your cities and states

Watchdog’s partnership with The Colorado Springs Gazette, Colorado’s second-largest circulation newspaper, began with a series from Art Kane about per diem abuse by state legislators that threatens to wreak further havoc on the state’s already-struggling public employee pension system. Kane broke the news that the per-diem payments issued to lawmakers as expense reimbursements are actually counted as salary for the purpose of their taxpayer- funded pension plans, artificially inflating their declared annual salaries and therefore their eventual pension benefits. Since then he has covered more stories for the Gazette about bills to make Colorado’s government more transparent and provide more access to judicial branch records.

Right Wisconsin, Wisconsin’s leading conservative site, picked up dozens of stories from Wisconsin Watchdog over the course of the year, drawing readers to the ongoing battle over a rogue prosecutor’s unconstitutional John Doe probe into conservatives and exposing abuse at the Tomah Veterans Affairs facility.

Pennsylvania Watchdog‘s reporting on the debate over liquor privatization in the state was a regular fixture at the York Daily Record. Andrew Staub wrote stories showing how nothing about unwinding and privatizing Pennsylvania’s government monopoly over wine and spirits sales is simple, and looking at the incoherence of proposals that would privatize wine sales but allow the state to continue to sell liquor.

In Texas, Watchdog reporter John Cassidy successfully defended Wallace Hall, a member of the University of Texas at Austin’s board of regents, who blew the whistle on powerful state legislators pulling strings to get family members and political friends admitted – and faced impeachment for it until Watchdog stepped in. Cassidy’s stories led to two official investigations – the second after he proved that the first underreported the problem by fully 90 percent – and led to the resignation of UT-Austin’s president this past June. No one in Texas media would touch the story until Watchdog covered it, prompting a columnist for The Dallas Observer to write that Texas Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy “has done most of the real digging on this story.”

Franklin Center gathers for 2015 Staff Retreat

By
Thursday, December 10th, 2015

This week Franklin Center and Watchdog staff gathered for our all-staff retreat. It was a great time to connect with coworkers and allies, celebrate our victories in 2015, and prepare to start the next year with strength and clarity as an organization.

Over the course of two days in Old Town Alexandria, reporters and staff heard from an inspiring slate of speakers about how we can move forward to promote liberty and transparency and better keep government accountable in 2016. Here are some of the highlights:

Reporters gather to hear opening remarks

FC staff reporters

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel shares about how his website, OhioCheckbook.com, has brought new levels of transparency to state spending and made government agencies think twice about how they use taxpayer dollars.

FC staff Josh Mandel

Wisconsin Watchdog reporter Matt Kittle and Wisconsin political strategist Eric O’Keefe share the inside story of the state’s controversial (and ultimately unconstitutional) partisan John Doe probe that targeted and intimidated conservatives, leaving them with no recourse but the free press.

FC staff WI John Doe

Daily Signal editor Rob Bluey, Celeste LeCompte of ProPublica, and Scott Reeder of Illinois News Network share tips for establishing media partnerships to grow Watchdog readership.

FC staff DS PP IL

Watchdog’s Matt Kittle joins co-authors Guy Benson of Townhall.com and Mary Katherine Ham of HotAir to provide dinner entertainment with a rollicking discussion of their new book, End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).

The title explains it all.

FC staff Guy book

Beverly Hallberg of District Media Group shares tips for looking (and sounding) good on radio and TV.

FC staff polished tv radio

John Schilling of American Federation for Children, Hubbel Relat of American Energy Alliance, and Evan Swarztrauber of Tech Freedom introduce their organizations and highlight some of the most pressing school choice, technology, and energy issues facing America.

FC staff Tech SC Energy

Meet Watchdog editor John Bicknell: journalist, author, history buff

By
Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

10.16.15 004Watchdog’s new executive editor, John Bicknell, has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He came to Washington, D.C. in 1999 as an editor at Congressional Quarterly, where he led the production team for CQ Today and was a team editor for the publication. When CQ merged with Roll Call, he continued as national security editor, co-editor of the 2012 edition of “Politics in America” and eventually became editor of the opinion pages.

Bicknell’s hiring marks the latest step in the Franklin Center’s plan to expand beyond its 16 state bureaus, while growing staff in key states. As executive editor of Watchdog, he will work closely with our extensive network of investigative journalists and develop relationships with other media outlets.

Bicknell recently took a break from working with reporters to answer a few questions about his path to journalism and the state of today’s media:

Franklin Center: How did you first become interested in journalism, and what has kept you working in the industry for 30 years? 

John Bicknell: I grew up in a family very interested in politics and the news. And I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer. So, while I didn’t major in journalism in college, it was always in the back of my mind that I might go into journalism. I’ve survived for 30-plus years by always looking to do something new, something different every few years.

FC: In addition to journalism, you’ve written a book about the presidential campaign of 1844 and have another one in the works. Clearly you’re a history buff, so how does that inform your approach to journalism and today’s rapid-fire news cycle?

JB: Studying history helps provide a long-term view of issues. When somebody says “this is the dirtiest campaign ever run,” or “this is the most important election of our time,” knowing something about history can provide perspective, as well as a way to debunk such claims. My new book, for example, is about John C. Fremont’s 1856 presidential campaign, the first Republican campaign and the first in American history to involve women and blacks in a substantial way. It was contested in perhaps the most violent peacetime atmosphere of any U.S. election, and though Fremont lost, he set the template that Abraham Lincoln followed four years later in winning.

FC: What is one issue or story you wish more Americans were paying attention to?

JB: It’s hard to narrow it down to one, and I have a different answer every other day. I think people are generally paying attention to issues of national security, probably immigration, maybe even the debt. So today let’s say it’s the decline of the notion about what it means to be an American, the idea of citizenship with responsibility. That might have something to do with studying history closely and seeing how much progress we’ve made in 200 years. Too often, I think, people ignore progress because they benefit from the culture of complaint.

FC: What is the biggest obstacle or challenge facing journalists today? 

JB: The biggest challenge facing journalists today is a self-inflicted problem: too many activists with bylines posing as neutral observers, and they’ve been found out. Once you’ve destroyed your own credibility, it’s very difficult to get it back, and we see that in many, if not most, legacy newsrooms.

FC: What opportunities are you most excited about as you join Watchdog’s network of investigative journalists?

JB: As I said, our opportunity is to fill the wide, wide space left empty by legacy journalists who believe their job is to defend the status quo at the expense of reporting facts and explaining why things happened the way they happened.