Lying to the Press Has Become Too Comfortable

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, October 31, 1986

A few weeks ago, there was a big fuss about the Reagan administration’s “disinformation” campaign on Libya; Bob Woodward of the Washington Post revealed, with solid documentation, that the White House had been telling the press lies, as a matter of official policy, about Moammar Gadhafi, et al. 

The fuss has died down, but the issue remains with us — and there is no reason to imagine that the dissemination of baloney is limited to Libya or to the White House. 

In New York City, perhaps tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars are spent every year to finance the public relations offices of city officials and city agencies. Some of the money is spent telling the whole truth. Most of it is spent giving the press a partial, glossy, self-serving picture of what is being accomplished and how government works. And finally, some of it is spent on the deliberate mission of misleading us and even telling plain, old-fashioned lies.

According to the lessons in our old civics books, the job of the press is to separate the wheat from the chaff, cut through the bushwah, dig behind the official press releases and, eureka, give us the unvarnished truth. Well, I hope it doesn’t surprise anybody when I say this doesn’t quite always happen. We’re sometimes inefficient, dyspeptic, mopish and even lazy. Much of the time, the advantage lies with the press offices of big government, big business and the other big institutions we’re supposed to cover — for no one wants you to know the whole truth about their imperfect selves, and therefore much energy is spent trying to keep us from finding things out.

Usually what they’re trying to keep from us involves nonfeasance — the failure to accomplish stated goals. But sometimes it has to do with darker subjects — kickbacks, payoffs, skimming, scamming and other scuzzy behavior.

The city corruption scandal we are now watching unfold in court and elsewhere is emblematic of the problem. There is little astonishing in the municipal grand larceny currently surfacing, years after the fact. It was sitting there all along, ripe for the reporting. But we in the press were out to lunch, napping, even shrugging over the practice of municipal business as usual. We saw all those contracts oozing their way through the Board of Estimate, but somehow nothing exploded to launch us into combat mode. We were too receptive to the official disinformation. We were told that what we were seeing was the way things worked and we were not energized to challenge that “system.”

Stanley Friedman, the Bronx Democratic chief who was one of the mayor’s key political allies and who is now on trial for stuffing his pockets, offered as his defense the maxim that he had merely been conducting himself according to the established code of conduct. He beseeches us to tell him why he should be punished now for following those accepted tenets.

As he put it: “When you do something the same way all your life, you feel that’s the right way to do it. I played by the rules, and then they changed the rules in the middle of the game.”

Maybe Friedman thought those rules passed for good government, but there’s no reason why the press should share that notion or allow it to go unchallenged.

One problem is that reporters, like most everyone else, would like to believe that people are telling them the truth or at least not lying outright to them. But wanting to be able to believe and having a basis for that trust are two very different things.

For example, very often high officials will grant interviews to reporters only if the reporters accept certain ground rules, such as that the interview must be “off-the-record” — which means that the particular official cannot be identified by name or position or even description of the nature of his role in the government. In other words, he agrees to provide information — i.e., truth — if we will agree to keep any hint of his fingerprints out of the story.

This happens all the time. You read important stories on the front page that are attributed to “knowledgeable sources” or “senior officials” or “sources familiar with the situation.” For years, Henry Kissinger, a master at disinformation, was identified as “a senior official traveling in the secretary of state’s party.”

We use them and they use us, and it’s a way, albeit flawed, of gathering needed information – that is our justification for going along with this system. But what this rationale leaves out is the obligation the government official has to tell the truth — being “off-the-record” is not a license to be off the truth.

I have long believed that if the government official — or any other source, for that matter — departs from the truth in an off-the-record interview and lapses into disinformation, the official has broken the pact and the reporter is relieved of his obligation to abide by the ground rules. In short, the reporter can then blow the official’s cover and proceed to describe, in his story, the attempt to dissemble. This is by no means a universally held view in press circles, and we probably could benefit from an open debate on the subject.

But meanwhile, all too frequently, we in the press come very late to important stories because we remain captives not only to Stanley Friedman’s old rules but to our own old rules as well.

As long as we are passive in allowing government officials to cloud our minds, they will do so. They will not volunteer touchy information. They will volunteer disinformation instead. And we will have no grounds to be outraged — as some of us said we were recently, when the Reagan disinformation policy was exposed. 

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