Sunshine key in age of shady truth
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 11:53 AM
Many years ago, I stopped a mayor outside City Hall to get his view on a controversial vote that had just occurred at a council meeting. He wasn’t anxious to answer my questions, and finally a council member/friend who was the only person with him advised the mayor to say whatever he wanted and if it didn’t go over well, he could claim he was misquoted since the comments weren’t being made in a public forum.
The council member laughed when he said this, but I think he was serious as he tended to have a cynical view and always seemed a bit shady to me.
The mayor didn’t take his advice, the council member didn’t last another term and he isn’t even living in the community anymore. Still, the exchange sticks with me today because it is a chilling thought since, had he followed the advice, it could have led to a “he said, she said” situation questioning my integrity. If that, in turn, became a pattern of the mayor or council, it could have led to a lengthy battle entangling local reporting and politics, creating a real mess.
The potential mess could have been a preview of what is happening today in our nation’s highest office where truth is whatever the president says it is.
Now, a president has a right to nominate a conservative justice, choose his Cabinet, endorse a wall, issue a legal travel ban, promote trade tariffs and try to move the country in the opposite direction of the previous administration, but he doesn’t have the right to his own truth.
False claims without any proof to back them up have become a trademark of President Donald Trump.
For example, he has repeatedly claimed he won a “landslide” victory in the Electoral College, even though statistics show his margin actually ranks on the low end of the scale. He also claimed that he would have won the popular vote if not for widespread voter fraud, of which he has never offered proof.
He also claimed his inauguration had the largest audience ever, despite visual and other evidence that showed this wasn’t true.
Most recently, he claimed former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the campaign. As of Monday morning, he had offered no proof of this claim, although pressure was mounting on him, even from his own party, to provide proof or make a retraction.
The questionable statements are so frequent that it appears people are becoming OK with them, even expecting Trump to voice obvious falsehoods.
For example, Trump had always been critical of the positive jobs reports released when Obama was president, questioning their legitimacy. However, when the same report had glowing news for his first month in office, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, with a laugh, that Trump said the report “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
And, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a strong Trump supporter, responded to reporters’ questions about Trump’s allegations of Obama’s wiretapping by saying “a lot of the things he says, you guys take literally.”
In other words, take it easy, we all realize Trump isn’t going to be truthful. He’s always going to have “alternative facts” cited by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway in an interview about Trump’s basis for his fictitious inauguration attendance.
The problem is how do we know if he ever is truthful when so many of his claims come into question, especially since Trump isn’t known for transparency?
He blames the leakers, not the alleged wrong-doers, when sensitive information paints his administration in a bad light. He won’t release his tax returns, citing an audit, even though there is no law preventing the release of tax returns under audit. In 1973, Richard Nixon released his tax returns despite being under an IRS audit then.
Trump claimed only reporters care about his tax returns. However, a Pew Research Center survey released Jan. 10 showed 60 percent of Americans say Trump has a responsibility to release his tax returns.
The Trump saga will continue as the president is unlikely to change, creating many potential ramifications for our nation at home and across the globe.
However, what effect his actions may have on local politicians is also a concern.
Although nothing like my exchange with the former mayor has cropped up since that incident decades ago, questions about the legitimacy of the local press recently surfaced in a council meeting one of our reporters was covering. It didn’t amount to anything, but those thoughts of the press being the enemy of the people or media manufacturing fake news have filtered down to even the local level, thanks to our president.
At the same time, local and state government are becoming less transparent.
The Star Tribune newspaper recently did a comprehensive story on how the Legislature, at the urging of local government, is constantly chipping away at the state’s public records law, creating numerous exceptions.
For example, the state has given $72 million in tax cuts to hundreds of Minnesota businesses, but it keeps secret which companies received the subsidies. Even inspection reports about commercial dog and cat breeders or complete disaster plans detailing the potential aftermath of a train derailment are secret.
Branding the news media as unreliable, even enemies, while reducing access to public records is a good way to usher in an authoritarian government, or at a minimum, government that isn’t responsive to the will of the people.
That’s why our newspaper each year promotes Sunshine Week, which is March 12 to 18 this year. It is a good time to remind people of the importance of allowing the sun to shine on the workings of government.
Blocking the sunshine on public records isn’t just an obstruction to journalists doing their job. It also compromises the integrity of our way of life. As the Washington Post reminds people on its front page each week, “Democracy dies in darkness.”