Tom Bennett, 76, journalist, held government’s feet to fire

Credit: courtesy of the family

Credit: courtesy of the family

Journalist Tom Bennett was a talented writer who helped throw sunshine on government public meetings and records across Georgia.

Whatever he tackled, from in-depth journalistic projects to fighting tirelessly for open and transparent government proceedings through “sunshine” laws, turned out well.

His trademarks were meticulous planning, organization, and a dose of wry humor.

Bennett at one point was assigned to write hundreds of obituaries during his 23 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Fellow former staffer Hank Ezell recalled that one series sketched the backgrounds of Georgia politicians who had been racists but later rued their behavior.

Ezell asked Bennett why he thought many had become apologetic.

“Tom said, with his tiny but meaningful smile, ’The closer they get to heaven, the more they want to arrive.’ "

Bennett, 76, a journalist, author, sports executive, columnist and press freedom advocate died of respiratory failure in North Carolina Dec. 28. Survivors include wife Lorraine Martin Bennett, brothers Timothy and Hal, and sister-in-law Marilee Powell.

Lorraine Bennett said an early interest in sports and sports journalism propelled her husband from high-school quarterback through a sports writing gig at the Atlanta Journal, then to public relations jobs with the Braves and Falcons.

A position with NFL Properties drew him to California, where he segued back into news, taking a job editing a suburban Los Angeles. weekly.

That turned into a classic David-and-Goliath battle and turning point said Bennett, a journalist herself.

His IrvineToday was up against the dominant Irvine World News, she recalled. “And he enjoyed that kind of fight.”

Bennett wrote columns spotlighting cozy relationships involving city officials, his competition, local developers and exposing dubious practices among those involved.

In one installment, he wryly noted that “It would be best that the planning commission didn’t go out for drinks with (developer) Irvine Company’s lobbyist.”

Said Lorraine, “Tom was like a bulldog. He would go after something or someone and never let go.”

The paper eventually folded. But the hard-news and open government bug remained.

Back in Atlanta in 1980, he rejoined the AJC and did yeoman work, coordinating the paper’s awards entries, producing the AJC’s political debates which aired on Georgia Public Broadcasting and coordinating moving the news department from one floor to another.

AJC metro columnist Bill Torpy said Bennett’s approach had enough military precision that it made Bennett the “Felix Unger” of the newsroom, referring to the fussy character in the Odd Couple play and TV series.

“He was well-organized to the point of being fastidious,” he said, recalling Bennett’s plan gathered in 3-ring binders chock-full of detailed notes.

Then there was his long-running project writing more than 400 pre-written obituaries on the likes of Billy Carter and Rosa Parks. He was credited with a deft and sensitive touch.

“Tom would gather string on people for a long time then gently approach them,” said Hyde Post, a former AJC editor. “You’d think that when someone is coming to you for permission to interview you for your (coming) obituary, that would not be the most comfortable conversation, but people were honored when he called them.”

First-amendment advocates painted Bennett as anything but deferential when it came to government conducting its work in the open and providing records of its actions for the public. That showed up in his work as founding secretary-treasurer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, formed in 1994 to promote education on open-government laws.

“I believe he felt it was his life’s calling,” said Hollie Manheimer, the group’s former executive director. “I think he came to view transparency as the path to democracy,”

One signature project involved writing a guide on open records for Georgia law-enforcement, which he co-authored with then-GBI director Vernon Keenan along with other law enforcers, the media and attorneys.

A firm open records supporter, Keenan said Bennett first called him after running into a roadblock on a records request.

“I sent him our GBI open records policy and he called back a couple of days later, saying he wished every law enforcement agency in the state would adopt it,“ said Keenan.

Bennett also collaborated on two other open records guidebooks, one for citizens and another for school officials. He led open-government surveys and training sessions and edited the group’s newsletter.

He retired from the AJC in 2006, but Bennett’s push for good journalism and government didn’t flag after a move to Murphy, North Carolina. Lorraine Bennett said he authored a long-running and award-winning environmental column for a weekly there.

His backers said Bennett’s work had a lasting impact on governmental transparency across the state.

“Whenever something needed to be done, he was more than willing-without any fanfare to put in the time and effort to make it happen,” said Peter Canfield, an Atlanta attorney and respected First Amendment authority.

“He had a very clear sense of right and wrong.”

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