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'Fooling the People'
Keynote speech for 2006 National FOI Day conference, March 16

By Hodding Carter III
University of North Carolina
03.20.06

Editor's note: This text reflects minor editing changes of the speech as delivered.

For those who care about a government of laws, a democracy based on the informed consent of the governed, these are times that should try our souls.

These are days in which basic tenets of this democratic republic are being subjected to unrelenting, full-court assault.

In ways unseen for the last half-century — since the height of the Cold War — government is systematically shutting down the taps, drying up the flow of information to the American people, cutting back on the intent and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act — and the Bill of Rights.

In a nation created on the basic proposition that the people are sovereign — every man a king, no man wears a crown — government once again suggests by deed and word that it is entitled to the privileges of unchecked royalty.

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother maintained a state of constant war to justify a state of constant oppression. Well, Americans beat Big Brother twice, first in World War II, second in the Cold War, and it is bitter irony to see Big Brother’s justifications mouthed by democracy’s leaders.

And we all know it.

We know it, regularly bemoan it and some of us have organized ourselves to speak out against it, campaign-style, once a year.

But others are too sophisticated, too indifferent or too much the lone rangers of journalism to lend themselves to a systematic, sustained campaign of unrelenting resistance to home-grown Big Brotherism.

Some even seem to suggest by their silence that declarative sentences about freedom of information, about openness, about the people's need to know — are juvenile, irrelevant, unworthy of modern journalists and offensive to modern sensibilities. Others dismiss them with cold cynicism as politically inspired.

What we offer, it is implied, are clichés, truisms and turn-offs.

Such is the oh-so-wise, or wise-guy, reaction to freedom-of-information campaigns. What is worse, it is what too many in the news business fear from the public when we try something like Sunshine Week — or when we seek improvements in the Freedom of Information Act. And when we demand rollbacks in the tidal flood of classification that has spread across virtually every government agency, domestic no less than within the national security cone.

“Inside baseball,” they intone. The people don’t care, they don’t agree, they won’t respond.

So let’s try a few other clichés, a few other slogans, a few other code words, to put matters in perspective.

“Freedom” … “Liberty.”

“Self-government.”

“Accountability.”

“Transparency.”

“The Constitution.”

People died for these words. Wars were fought because of these words.

History was made by these words.

And we are too sophisticated to invoke them, to demand them? If we are, democracy is doomed — not today, not tomorrow, but not in some far-off future, either.

Americans are exhorted regularly to spend blood and money abroad to make the world safe for democracy. But our even more pressing task, today as always, is to keep America safe for democracy, for freedom itself.

Let’s try a categorical dictum: Representative government depends on the free flow of news and information about what government is doing in the people's name.

Who here remembers the origin of that phrase — “the free flow of news and information”?

It is the clause we forced the Soviet Union to accept in the Helsinki accords back in the reign of good Jerry Ford, a phrase that hastened the fall of that monstrous regime as surely as any missile system.

What was good enough to demand of Moscow is good enough to demand of Washington.

What has happened to our capacity for outrage?

Now try a little Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Are we in the vineyards of the press really too sophisticated to rage? Do we think it unseemly for well-educated men and women in business suits to behave like a revolutionary rabble?

Or are we simply too comfortable, too acclimated to bending with each new wind that blows from Capitol Hill, from the White House and — most of all — the transient polls? Is it simply that going along is the best way to get along in a city in which the richest morsels are fed to those most ready to play docilely by the new rules?

Ronald Reagan once famously overlooked the Berlin Wall and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Where are our Reagans to demand on behalf of democracy, “Mr. Bush, tear down these walls”? Where are our refuseniks to say no to a government determined to shackle the people's right to the raw materials of freedom?

The urge to hide information is bipartisan. It is the bureaucratic imperative. It is the power-hungry’s favored tactic. It is the hidey-hole of the corrupt. It is the ultimate defense perimeter for the inefficient. It is the brick wall sealing off public knowledge of the government’s mistakes and embarrassments.

The urge to secrecy is as old as human nature itself. Remember Adam and Eve — the apple and God?

But the march toward openness is the inseparable partner of the march toward freedom. Accountability is indispensable to the preservation of freedom. Madison’s dictum, by now one of those denigrated clichés, has never been more relevant than today:

“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or, perhaps, both.”

Alan Barth was one of the great men of journalistic conscience in the 20th Century. As he put it in the Lucius Nieman lecture at Marquette in 1962:

“The men who established the American Republic sought censorship of government by the press rather than censorship of the press by government.” (A notion that preceded the founding of the nation).

"The first Continental Congress referred to liberty of the press as a means 'whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable or more just modes of conducting affairs. ...' [T]he founders of the republic … desired a press which would operate as a tribune of the people.”

Tribune of the people.

How trite. How corny. How vital.

Another great Washington newsman of the time, Russ Wiggins of The Washington Post, wrote in Freedom or Secrecy: “To diminish the people’s information about government is to diminish the people’s participation in government. The consequences of secrecy are not less because the reasons for secrecy are more. The ill effects are the same whether the reasons for secrecy are good or bad. The arguments for more secrecy … are … arguments for less freedom.”

Lord Acton, that hard-headed observer of the effects of unchecked power, powerfully wrote:

“Everything secret degenerates. Nothing is safe that does not show it can bear discussion and publicity.”

The God of history knows well the contempt and fear in which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon held the press. And yet it was in the presidencies of Johnson and Nixon that the first Freedom of Information Act was enacted and its indispensable toughening and tightening occurred.

Johnson and Nixon. If those examples don’t suffice, try these:

In Principles of Information, his interpretation of the government’s responsibilities to freedom of information, then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney officially proclaimed the following for the military under his leadership some 16 years ago:

“The provisions of the Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both letter and spirit. … It is the policy of the Department of Defense to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, Congress and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy.”

(As an aside, let me note that the same doctrinal paper declared that “the sole purpose” of military public-affairs activity “is to expedite the flow of information to the public; propaganda has no place in Department of Defense public affairs programs.”)

To repeat: “letter and spirit” adherence to the provisions of the FOIA. “Timely and accurate” information to the public. “Propaganda has no place.”

He sounded like Paul McMasters.

Such a fine document 15 years ago. What a great policy it would be in 2006. Too bad someone is masquerading as Dick Cheney these days.

Let us be clear. As John Podesta, late of the Clinton White House, has put it, “Secrecy is government regulation.”

It is big government gone amuck (my phrase, not his). It is Big Brother in Big Brother’s clothing.

It is also a profound repudiation of a central conservative tenet about government and the nature of power. Conservatives have long maintained, accurately, that when government is free of meaningful checks, it will inevitably abuse power.

In a free society, information is the most vital of checks. To curb the flow of information to the people is reactionary. ["I am the state" — "L’état, c’est moi." Louis XIV, the Sun King.

It is not just reactionary. It is un-American.

The great words were long ago said and written, though they are too rarely taught these days. Nothing we say here can illuminate our task and our obligation any better than those of our predecessors, the Founders.

The necessity of giving life to their words and precepts is as recent as right now, right here — and all the right nows and right heres to come.

About which more in a moment.

Let me pause for the obligatory bow. In times of peril, government’s first obligation is to the nation’s security. Period.

But let me say something else. As a Marine lieutenant breaking top-secret material in the 2nd Marine Division in Camp LeJeune 48 years ago, as a State Department spokesman who read more classified material than was good for anyone about 30 years ago, I can say categorically that the vast majority of all the information squirreled away behind the classification stamp has nothing to do with national security. Nothing. You could throw 90 percent of it out the windows up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and nothing of value to national security would be lost.

Most people who have had to deal with classified material agree. Even a ranking Rumsfeld assistant recently set the unnecessary classification figure at 50 percent — and he works for this administration.

Ronald Reagan said something else that resonates in this context: “Trust but verify.”

On this one, on verification, the people have to depend on the press, on the media. Their rights are at stake. We — you — of the press have the means to protect them.

But the occasional speech won’t hack it, or the once-every-so-often editorial, or the ever-so-civilized murmuring over brandy at a bureau meeting with a headliner.

More is required. Much more. Recollect Alan Barth’s phrase: “tribune of the people.” That is the high calling of the media, in all its wondrous guises.

Kick back, take names. Be relentless. Be consistent.

That is our duty, our obligation. It is not easy, it is often uncomfortable and it doesn’t win plaudits from those who hold power.

But that kind of courage and consistency is what we routinely demand of all the other players in the ongoing historical drama that is America. And it is what we routinely do not offer enough in the face of government’s implacable drive to avoid public scrutiny.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who knew something of closed societies and courage, admonished the slave-state lapdogs of the Writers Union of the Russian Republic as follows:

“Publicity and openness, honest and complete … that is the prime condition for the health of every society. The man who does not want publicity and openness (glasnost) for his fatherland does not want to cleanse it of its diseases but to drive them inside, so they may rot there.”

Tribunes of the people, folks. Tribunes of the people.


Related

Challenge to government: Stop shutting off info

By Eugenia Harris Former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter charges journalists to work harder against official secrecy. 03.16.06

Audio from 2006 National FOI Day conference
Audio of speeches, excerpts from panels during 2006 National FOI Day conference, March 16. 03.17.06

'Fooling the People' — Hodding Carter


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