Media's Public

‘Tell the press. Don’t tell the press. It’s entirely up to you.’

By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita

The public official decides when to talk and when to clam up to news reporters. Until the law or the court compels disclosure — or someone from inside leaks the information.

THEY HAVE this big secret that only 14 people know about: fictional U.S. president Josia Bartlet in the TV political drama “The West Wing” has been suffering for seven years from a “relapsing remitting case” of multiple sclerosis. And they’ve been hiding his MS from the rest of the world, including most of his co-workers in the White House.

Abbey Bartlet, the president’s wife, pressed by a key staffer who is out of the loop, says the famous line in the episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” (year 2000). The quote is one of the Sorkinisms (after its creator-writer Aaron Sorkin) from the hugely successful NBC serial. During its 10-year run (1999-2006), “The West Wing” won three Golden Globes and 26 Emmys and was #10 in the Writers Guild of America list of 101 Best-Written TV Series.

Right to clam up

Abbey Bartlet’s rule can apply to any public official who is asked questions by a journalist. The public official can tell or not tell. And it’s “entirely up to him.”

How about freedom of the press? It doesn’t include the right of the news reporter to compel a public official to open his mouth. In fact, not speaking is part of his right. The right to speak out necessarily includes the right to clam up.

One often hears reporters griping about this public official dodging them or that public official refusing to answer or not giving information in his answer.

Nature of the secret

Lest it be misunderstood, a public official’s right to be silent doesn’t apply to such secrets as having a life-threatening ailment as MS and hiding it from the public official’s constituents. That Bartlet was elected without the voters knowing about it and later sought reelection despite the ailment, Bartlet in a way defrauded his public.

He got away with it, in fiction, most likely not in real life.

Bottom-line though, it’s the right of the public official to decide when to talk and when not to.

Authoritative voice

While a president is supposed to speak through spokespersons and surrogates, in actual practice, the public doesn’t take seriously what they say or explain, they wait for U.S. President Trump or Philippine President Duterte himself to speak up.

The voice of the White House, through press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Malacañang, through spokesman Harry Roque or communications chief Martin Andanar is not as authoritative as the voice of Trump or Duterte himself.

Thus Americans trust Trump’s impulsive tweets and Filipinos Duterte’s off-the-cuff remarks as sounding board of their thoughts than what their publicists spin out.

Pros, cons

Not telling has its advantages to the public official withholding information, including: putting off embarrassment or awkwardness and buying time to study strategy or drafting the answer, hoping the controversy will pass and people forget as other crises come.

But it has costs such as: suspicion of wrongdoing and cover-up, impression that the public official is handicapped in communicating, and increased hostility from those outraged by the concealment.

Telling promptly reflects openness, honesty and “nothing to hide” candidness.

Still, it’s the public official’s call: when and the information will be released. Just don’t wait for the law or the court to compel release of the information — for some insider to leak it. The fallout would more damaging.

(publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com)

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