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President John F. Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
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In recent weeks the public debate has been dominated by discussions about our Second Amendment rights, fueled by the terror attacks in Orlando where an ISIS-inspired terrorist executed 49 Americans in a cold-blooded and vicious attack on America and our values. The resultant public discourse has unfortunately driven divisions among us rather than unite us against our common enemy. This is what terrorism does. Terrorists measure their success not only in body counts, but in their ability to drive our behaviors, restrict our liberties, and set us against ourselves. By that measure, Mr. Omar Mateen has been wildly successful.
But the bigger threat to our values is not the questioning of our Second Amendment rights. The First Amendment, perhaps the one Article that defines America more than all the others, has been under steady attack for a number of years and is in great jeopardy today. Look at the presidential race. One candidate has kept the media at bay practically from the beginning. No interviews of substance, reporters segregated from the main activity, “white noise” to drown out conversations. While the other candidate openly degrades and bullies the media to the cheers of supporters, and bans reporters from events. News organizations whose credentials have been revoked include the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Politico along with nearly a dozen others.
And in case you missed it, the Society of Professional Journalists, representing a coalition of more than 50 journalism and government accountability organizations, several months ago sent another letter to the White House, outlining their concerns about continued lack of transparency and ever-escalating restrictions on information flow to the public being exercised by the White House and agencies throughout the Administration and government.
In the letter, published on SPJ.org, the coalition argues that the government’s restrictive practices “have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades. Surveys of journalists and public information officers (PIOs) demonstrate that the restraints have become pervasive across the country; that some PIOs admit to blocking certain reporters when they don’t like what is written; and that most Washington reporters say the public is not getting the information it needs because of constraints.”
“President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled,” said David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.
While on the surface this letter is targeted at President Obama and his White House communications staff, there are lessons for all of us in the public information business.
Since I’ve left the government public affairs world, I’ve heard these same sentiments expressed many times by colleagues in both the news media and public affairs profession. Written responses to questions are replacing interviews; prepared statements are replacing press briefings; background briefings are replacing on-the-record attribution; social media postings are replacing true media engagement. The last four-to-five years have seen a steady retreat by many government agencies away from engagement and transparency, including the Pentagon, which has in my opinion the best blueprint for public information – the DoD Principles of Information and Principles of News Media Coverage.
Those principles are the basis of the DoD Public Affairs doctrine often expressed as “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” These principles were my charter when I was an Army Public Affairs Officer, they guided my decisions while leading OSDPA, and they remain central to my personal and professional strategy today as I lead a global public affairs practice.
Public Affairs Officers at all levels of government need to take notice. More importantly, their leaders need to take notice. We need to read the studies, listen to the criticism, check our practices, and ask – are we doing our jobs; are we serving the public; are we living up to the principles handed down to us by the framers of the Constitution?
PAO’s can’t change the way presidential candidates behave, but we can affect the way we conduct business ourselves and the way our commands behave.
The Freedom of Information Act has been law for 49 years. But this issue is not about law; it’s about our values and who we are as a people. In a free and democratic society there can be no substitute for maximum disclosure with minimum delay.
Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, was often attacked in and by the press on many occasions. Yet the early American thought leader remained unwavering in his defense of freedom of the press. He wrote, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
– Robert T. Hastings