“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” – Scottie Nell Hughes, CNN commentator on The Diane Rehm Show, Dec. 2, 2016.
In November of 2013, I was busy. I had been busy since August, chasing down a series of simple media inquiries about an island I’d never heard of in the Northern Mariana Islands. In fact, I didn’t even know that CNMI was the proper name of the island chain that’s home to Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and more.
I had a rather unusual job of being an active duty Combat Correspondent working for Stars and Stripes, a civilian-run newspaper subsidized by the Department of Defense. This put me in a tricky position of being bound to U.S. military regulations and “message,” while trying to produce what I thought were unbiased news stories relevant to the Pacific media audience.
While perusing Twitter and social media for something interesting, something to establish me as a legitimate reporter, I came across reports of scandal: the U.S. Navy was hulking about the CNMI, hunting for yet another pristine tropical paradise to bomb into a chunk of charred, probably irradiated, and definitely uninhabited rubble. The island they’d set their sights on is called Pagan, a volcanic oasis that at the time was only occupied seasonally by a few dozen fishermen. Naturally, it had the lack of resident population and perfect terrain features to make an excellent training site for the Navy and Marines to rehearse amphibious landings, bombings, etc.
Pagan is also home to a number of endangered bird species, as well as myriad other flora and fauna unique to the South Pacific. The long and the short of it was, CNMI residents and environmental biologists alike foresaw a future for Pagan that looked a whole lot like the uninhabitable, demolished Kahoolawe in Hawaii.
I was journalist, so I did my due diligence. I pulled the government-sponsored Environmental Impact Statement (http://www.cnmijointmilitarytrainingeis.com/), I contacted one of the lead biologists who conducted long-term study of Pagan and interviewed him via e-mail, and I contacted the appropriate military Public Affairs Office with questions to get their side of the story. In my mind, the PAO statements were critical. The interview with the biologist was scathing. Without a solid interview on the “pro” side, my story would leave the reader with only half of the information. Yes, the military does have a history of environmental irresponsibility, however today’s Marine Corps is an outstanding steward of clean energy and environmental protection. The U.S. Navy had plans to invest funding and effort into rehabilitating a neighboring CNMI uninhabited island and turning it into a protected nature reserve, in addition to creating jobs exclusive to CNMI residents on Pagan Island.
But then my grand, balanced story stalled: the military public affairs had no interest in responding to my inquiries, and when they finally did, the answers they provided were curt, uninformative, and dodgy. When compared side-by-side with the biology professor’s informed, passionate statements, the military took on the countenance of a villain. But I knew, from experience dealing with other military environmental projects as well as through my own extremely thorough reading of the Environmental Impact Statement and town hall transcripts, that the PAO’s responses were wrong.
I called and e-mailed and called again, continuously putting off my editors that I had not finished thoroughly vetting my research. I pleaded with my contact at the U.S. Pacific Command Public Affairs Office that I had an interview with a biology professor from the University of Hawaii that was going to make the U.S. Navy look like the pollution monster from Ferngully. Finally, my contact came through. She knew what was wrong and how to fix it, and she helped the PAO answer my questions accurately, fairly, and thoroughly enough to actually make a case for the military’s acquisition of this island.
After all that hard work, my several-thousand word story was condensed into a few lines and tacked onto a better-liked journalist’s story (https://www.stripes.com/news/us-wants-to-expand-training-exercises-in-western-pacific-1.250588). You win some, you lose some. But at the end of the day, I did my due diligence and did not release a one-sided, inaccurate story despite pressure from all sides to release it and drop it.
In case you’re wondering, the island is still up for grabs (http://progressive.org/dispatches/protecting-paradise-pagan-island/).
What is government transparency and why do I care?
“Without transparency, there can be no accountability, and no effective check on misguided policies or governmental abuses of power.” – The Brennan Center (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/transparency-accountability)
Transparency is a concept that’s been around since, well, the dawn of formal government and was even written into our Constitution (http://democracyweb.org/node/43). The modern concept of government transparency and the media developed in the late 1960’s and 70’s, between increased media coverage of a contentious war and the transparency capstone that defined a decade: Watergate.
While the most notable fallout of the scandal was President Nixon’s resignation, the revelations uncovered by the media lead to Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1974 (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/foialeghistory/legistfoia.htm). These legal measures were intended to make it easier for the average American citizen to request public information.
Media intervention forced the curtains open and demanded that the government be held accountable to the American public. “In the evolution of journalism, however, [Lect. Michael] Keith sees Watergate as a critical milestone, especially for broadcast media. For the first time, he says, Americans could ‘enter into the chambers of government’ thanks to enterprising reporters and the unprecedented 300-plus hours television networks devoted to covering Watergate hearings and events.” (“Watergate’s Legacy,” Sean Smith, Boston College, http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/rvp/pubaf/chronicle/v5/My8/watergate.html).
The Environmental Impact Statement as described above is an example of successful government transparency. It explains what research was done prior to making a formal proposal for the island, who conducted the research, and what the short-term and long-term impacts of the proposal would be, positive and negative. The public affairs response was an example of mediocre at best transparency. Despite the information posing no security concern, being unclassified and immediately relevant to public interest, it was withheld. It took months of back and forth, arguing, wheedling and nearly begging personal connections to get the public affairs officer to admit that the Navy was also planning to restore a wildlife refuge. They didn’t even want to admit to doing something that most people would consider good.
This reluctance to uphold the principle of transparency doesn’t help anyone. The “people” in the “by the people, for the people” equation cannot make informed decisions if they don’t have all of the relevant information. When the government has the support of the local community, things tend to get easier. Anyone who’s ever been stationed in Okinawa can attest to the difficulties of trying to run a government operation in a place where the community really doesn’t like you.
It is in the government’s best interest to run a transparent operation (unless, you know, they’re up to weasel-y Watergate shenanigans), yet since the events of September 11, 2001, Federal government transparency has been in steady decline. In fact, analysts are citing the Obama administration as the most secretive in recent history, despite promises otherwise. Measures taken in response to 9/11 (the PATRIOT Act, increased security classification of documents) resulted in “record numbers of denials to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for agencies.” (https://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/09/02/how-should-history-measure-the-obama-administrations-record-on-transparency/).
It is important, however, to consider that there is no single measure of transparency. While there were a record number of FOIA denials, there was also a record increase in FOIA requests. The Obama administration gave more media interviews than any executive ever before, but those interviews were tightly controlled, set to specific topics geared toward specific audiences. (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2015/08/29/obama_meets_the_press_–_on_his_terms_127907.html). Despite those thousands of interviews and press conferences, the White House stopped giving one-on-one interviews with The Washington Post and New York Times in 2009, two significant media outlets that previously were granted on-the-record interviews.
“On each count, answers exist that contradict the Obama administration’s ‘most transparent ever’ claims — but context matters. In many ways, this administration not only compares well with history but has made history…This administration has made unprecedented releases of data with a measurable impact on many sectors of society at the same time that the White House and agencies have stonewalled the press asking tough questions.” (https://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/09/02/how-should-history-measure-the-obama-administrations-record-on-transparency/)
Government public affairs and public information officers and specialists play a critical role in transparency. We are generally the first line of defense when a member of the public – media or otherwise – wants information about a government agency. We prepare responses and talking points, facilitate interviews, even, in my case, conduct interviews and produce our own news-style stories in order to communicate accurate, relevant information.
We have a four-point standard for information known as SAPP: Security, Accuracy, Propriety and Policy. First, is the information requested going to compromise security, such as detailed troop movements, flight schedules, etc.? Second, is the information we’re planning to communicate accurate? In the case of the “gagging” scandal, government scientific agencies have a responsibility to ensure that the information they’re communicating is correct and can be verified by facts. In an administration calling into question the factual veracity of existing scientific research, previously considered “accurate” information may come under further scrutiny for release (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/25/donald-trump-epa-gag-order-political-review). The third standard is propriety, which is a fancy way of weeding out things like foul language, inappropriate conduct, or other behavior that might reflect negatively on the agency. Propriety issues center around communication that is irrelevant, does not answer the information request, and serves only to damage the reputation of the agency in question. The last standard is policy. Is the information being communicated within the boundaries of existing rules and policies? Do the Marines in the photo have on all of their proper protective equipment? Does this agency have the proper authority to answer the information request (the National Park Service should not be responding to media inquiries about Naval aviation regulations)? Does this release of information meet FOIA standards?
Interpretation of these standards varies agency to agency, as does interpretation of how to facilitate transparency. As of March, the FBI will severely restrict the number of and method citizens may use to submit FOIA requests online (https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/06/fbi-foia-fax-march-2017/?ncid=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29&utm_content=FaceBook&sr_share=facebook). The changes enumerated on the FBI’s eFOIPA page clearly impede the average citizen’s ability to request public information in a timely manner, including limiting online requests to one per day and limiting the operating hours of the website. Whether or not these restrictions are lawful under FOIA remains to be interpreted by the courts.
Government transparency is an ongoing battle in murky waters, made all the murkier by the death of the Fairness Doctrine.
Great. What the holy heck is the Fairness Doctrine?
Since its first introduction in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine has been in and out of court and in and out of favor. The law “required that TV and radio stations holding FCC-issued broadcast licenses to (a) devote some of their programming to controversial issues of public importance and (b) allow the airing of opposing views on those issues. This meant that programs on politics were required to include opposing opinions on the topic under discussion.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-fairness-doctrine-in-one-post/2011/08/23/gIQAN8CXZJ_blog.html?utm_term=.40f02856069d). It’s been hailed as an accountability check for broadcasters who hold a government-issued FCC license, and criticized as an affront the First Amendment. The Reagan administration crippled the laws in 1987, leaving them unenforced in legal limbo until the formal revocation in 2011. Since 1987, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single summary of the issue that isn’t deeply biased one way or the other.
No matter which side of the coin you prefer, the death of the Fairness Doctrine – at least the enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine – in 1987 ushered in the explosion of politically-biased shows and entire outlets. Instead of expecting politically-driven programs to present both or multiple sides of an issue, the audience is expected to scour the media for the “other” perspective if they have a desire to hear more than one.
Today’s media landscape is the result of decades of battle over the media’s role in facilitating transparency and the Fairness Doctrine’s ability or inability to curtail private media outlets. With the internet boom and social media, this landscape is a trickier path to navigate than ever before. Without a solid understanding of transparency and the necessity for comparing news media reports, you might find yourself storming a pizza parlor with a loaded weapon to free Hillary Clinton’s child slaves. Or something.
Is it fake news? Maybe, maybe not. Bias does not make a news report inherently fake. If the source is a government official, who is presenting facts based on their own transparency policies that may or may not be the unfiltered truth, the story already has a built-in bias. That does not mean it is not presenting factually correct information.
However, presenting factually correct information does not mean that the story is unbiased and does not mean that the audience is getting a transparent view of the information. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, you might know that the U.S. Navy wanted to turn Pagan into a training facility, but without an extra effort at transparency and unbiased reporting, you might not know that the deal included the rehabilitation and environmental protection of another island.
Placing the onus of research responsibility on the audience is exhausting, and frankly most won’t take that extra step, which leaves the average American consuming single ingredients without the whole pie.
Slapping “fake news” on any media report that the audience finds distasteful, has inaccuracies, or has any suggestion of bias, is, itself fake news.
It’s rarely ever fake news. Its transparency is murky. Its source is a private media venture that may or may not have internal bias.
Veracity, however, is in the discerning eye and diligent research of the beholder.
We want to thank Lisa Tourtelot for this thoughtful and thorough piece on an important and relevant issue.