No Place to Hide

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Is it safe for a politician, public official or public figure wannabe to be brutally frank in private anymore? Does the public benefit when any of the above speak candidly behind closed doors expecting that their private remarks will remain private?

The easy answer is yes, the public does benefit. We get a glimmer, albeit second or third hand of what “they” are really thinking rather than the vapid, platitudinous or totally predictable rhetoric we usually get. The expectation of privacy tends to facilitate dialogue.

The Internet, which has revolutionized communication, perversely may at the same time make the closed meeting a thing of the past. That make sound like a good thing—transparency and all—but the case can be made that the lack of privacy kills frank discussion and with it the kind of dialogue democracy depends on.

How so?

First a little background.

Back in the old days, which was any time before the Internet, politicians and public officials often let their hair down in private, especially if they were among people they thought they could trust or with reporters who understood the meaning of being “off the record”. That didn’t mean that they were necessarily safe. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz lost his job in 1976 after making a racist remark to a freelance writer for Rolling Stone who had been a high official in the Nixon administration. Butz thought he was among friends. More recently General Stanley McChrystal lost his job as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan after he and his staff make critical remarks about officials in the Obama administration once again in the presence of a writer for Rolling Stone. In McChrystal’s case, the general and his staff apparently assumed that because they were hanging out with the reporter for several days that it was understood that they were off the record.

Then, of course, we have GOP chairman Michael Steele making remarks about the war in Afghanistan’s being President Obama’s “war of choosing” and suggesting that the United States can’t win it. And, to add just one more, we had Virginia’s U.S. Senator George Allen describing a dark-skinned American citizen at one of his campaign rallies in 2006 as “Macaca”. Allen’s remark played a major role in his subsequent election loss.

To dispense with the obvious, all four of the above victims of their own bluntness used poor judgment, as they might say in apology, or—they just fell prey to their own stupidity. To say anything in front of a reporter that one wouldn’t want to say in print is always a mistake.

Michael Steele and George Allen might not have known a reporter was present. And a professional reporter may not have been. We might never have known about either incident but for modern technology.

That’s where the Internet comes in, because now anyone with a cell phone or a video or audio recorder can be a reporter. One no longer needs access to a newspaper, magazine, television or radio station to get the word out.

So?

That still doesn’t let Steele or Allen off the hook. They were speaking in public and had no presumption of privacy and no right to presume it. They either didn’t think a reporter was present or they didn’t understand how boneheaded what they were saying was.

On the other hand, when presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking before a closed gathering of what were supposed to be his supporters, made a remark about people in small towns who have fallen on hard times clinging “to guns and religion,” he did have and had a right to have had a presumption of privacy. His remark got out because a “citizen journalist” who ostensibly was an Obama supporter recorded his remarks and they were put out on the Internet.

In the days before the Internet, even if someone was in the room when an indiscreet or stupid remark was made, you learned about it third hand, if at all. Access to the media was limited. Now, there are no barriers. Anyone can publish.

Given the state of technology in the world we now live in, it is more than just possible that any sensible public person will think twice about saying anything controversial, even in private, for fear that it will get out—not because someone might blab, because that’s always a possible—but because dissemination no longer is a problem; and as a result, anything that anyone says anywhere about anything can “get out”.

There’s not much we can do about that, and some may not think that it’s a problem. But it seems hard enough already to get politicians, public officials or public figure wannabes to say something candid, honest and/or unpredictable now.

In his June 25 column, David Brooks writes about the “culture of exposure,” He cites as the latest example McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. The access that McChrystal gave Michael Hastings, the author of the piece, wasn’t, obviously, a good idea from the general’s point of view. It seems safe to predict that it will be a while before any general, admiral or high-ranking officer will again speak with anything remotely approaching frankness to a reporter. As Brooks points out, the net effect of this episode will be to drive public officials deeper underground where the public won’t know what they’re thinking or doing.

Now, with the advent of citizen journalists armed with digital video cameras, recorders or smart phones coupled with the Internet, the barrier to publication is gone.

The added chilling effect presented by the Internet’s capability to spread information virally may only aggravate an already lamentable situation. We may hear what we want to hear, but will we be able to know what we need to know?

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