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Common Cause Magazine



From 1980 to 1996 Common Cause published a magazine featuring investigative journalism. The following article about the magazine was written by Common Cause volunteer Robert Trautman. Articles from the magazine are available online at Look Smart/Find Articles: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1554




Common Cause magazine, the illustrious muckraking publication of the Common Cause, ended its 16 years of existence as it began – with exposes. In its first issue, in 1980, it detailed the congressional double standard, how the legislature writes laws for all the country, including civil rights and equal pay legislation, but exempts itself. And in its last issue, it detailed how a "country club" of powerful and rich individuals, corporations and trade unions shape national policy through huge gifts of money to the two national political parties.


The magazine’s initial issue, as a bimonthly, appeared in October 1980, replacing two other Common Cause publications, Frontline and In Common.  The aim of the new magazine was to broaden Common Cause’s coverage of vital political issues that were not being dealt with adequately by the conventional press, as well as improving the organization’s communications with its membership. It aimed to give its nationwide membership an unflinching look at Washington – the "inside the beltway" dance between the Capitol Hill politicians and "K Street" lobbyists -- plus the nuts and bolts information of what Common Cause the organization was doing and how it was doing it. The magazine’s regular columns included a political Q and A, Money in Politics and news of Common Cause’s state chapters.


To remain above reproach, the magazine accepted no advertising; it was run on funds from Common Cause and sent free to its members.


The founding editor, Florence Graves, said when the magazine was launched: "I could see an enormous opportunity for a magazine to be able to break major articles that were not being broken and followed up on in the major media. I wanted people to feel like they had a front row seat in the theater of Washington." And that was the way it was. In the inaugural issue, and in subsequent ones, Common Cause magazine rolled over Washington stones, turned on its light, and wrote about what that light exposed. The lead story in that first issue was "The Congressional Double Standard", by Ms. Graves. She found that Congress over the years had written myriad laws that cover people nationwide, but not these working inside the Capitol. Congress voted itself immunity from laws covering racial discrimination, minimum wages, overtime pay, equal pay for women, occupational safety, and Social Security coverage.


The stories for the next 16 years were equally hard-hitting:


  • The post-Watergate political reforms, how some worked and how some didn’t, and why new laws were needed, especially on campaign spending.
  • How in Washington, lobbying money was rapidly becoming more powerful than the vote.
  • Why and how the people, through Congress, paid defense contractor bills for the lobbying they did to get Congress to buy the weapons they built, and would Congress pick up similar bills for a citizens to fly to Washington to lobby against buying those expensive fighters or bombers?
  • How the Wall Street investments of lawmakers often coincided with their Congressional votes, and their pocketbooks, and how the ethics laws Congress writes do little to prevent or punish conflicts of interest.


A good number of its stories explored the close – and often hidden – link between special interest money and how Congress votes, an abiding concern of Common Cause that eventually led to the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.


The Columbia Journalism Review once described Common Cause magazine as a model of "in depth coverage year after year." The American Journalism Review headed a story about it "The Little Magazine That Could". The review, in the story marking Common Cause’s last days, noted the muckraking magazine won more than two dozen journalism awards, including five from Investigative Reporters & Editors, as well as a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Its stories also prompted a number of Congressional investigations.


Behind this excellence were reporters and editors who ate and slept exposé, with many going on to jobs with major national media: Peter Overby with National Public Radio, Vicki Kemper with the Los Angeles Times and Viveca Novak with Time Magazine. Founding editor Ms. Graves went on to break major stories in the Washington Post and the Nation.


Despite the magazine’s record of expose and awards, the economic downturn in the 1980s took its toll on the Common Cause organization as it did the rest of the country, and the magazine, in 1991 was cut from a bi-monthly to a quarterly. The first magazine each year was sent to the entire membership, but subsequent editions only on request; its staff was cut from seven reporters and editors to one reporter and one editor. The days of big investigations were over, but the magazine did shorter items that brought to light conditions – subcommittee actions and pending bills, for instance – that were being overlooked by the mainstream press. Ms. Graves acknowledged, just before the magazine’s demise, that while more and more reporters are covering Congress, "there’s not enough ‘un-covering’ of what’s going on."


In 1996, the magazine was shut down. It was a wrenching decision for Common Cause. The organization was very committed to the magazine, very proud of the recognition it received and the people who worked there.