Much ado over nothing was made this past week regarding a technical glitch (or control room error) during the first of two televised Democratic presidential debates where one pair of moderators’ mics was accidentally left on and extraneous, unintended speech leaked into the broadcast. It distracted the other pair of moderators enough to cause a modest procedural disruption. Big deal. This was not the modal case of a hot mic where someone, e.g., a politician, swears (a big no-no despite the shock value being almost completely erased in today’s media landscape) or accidentally reveals callous attitudes (or worse) thinking that no one important was listening or recording. Hot mics in the past have led to public outrage and criminal investigations. One recent example that still sticks in everyone’s craw was a novice political candidate who revealed he could use his fame and impudent nerve to “grab ’em by the pussy.” Turned out not to be the career killer everyone thought it would be.

The latest minor furor over a hot mic got me thinking, however, about inadvertent revelation of matters of genuine public interest. Three genres spring to mind: documentary films, whistle-blowing, and investigative journalism, that last including category outliers such as Wikileaks. Whereas a gaffe on a hot mic usually means the leaker/speaker exposes him- or herself and thus has no one else to blame, disclosures occurring in the other three categories are often against the will of those exposed. It’s obviously in the public interest to know about corruption, misbehavior, and malfeasance in corporate and political life, but the manner in which such information is made public is controversial. Those who expose others suffer harassment and persecution. Documentarians probably fare the best with respect to being left alone following release of information. Michael Moore, for all his absurd though entertaining theatrics, is free (so far as I know) to go about his business and do as he pleases. However, gestures to protect whistle-blowers are just that: gestures. Those who have leaked classified government information in particular, because they gained access to such information through security clearances and signed nondisclosure agreements (before knowing what secrets they were obliged to keep, which is frankly the way such obligations work), are especially prone to reprisal and prosecution. Such information is literally not theirs to disclose, but when keeping others’ secrets is heinous enough, some people feel their conscience and more duty is superior to job security and other risks involved. Opinions vary, sometimes passionately. And now even journalists who uncover or merely come into possession of evidence of wrongdoing and later publish it — again, decidedly in the public interest — are subject to (malicious?) prosecution. Julian Assange is the current test case.

The free speech aspect of revealing someone else’s amoral and criminal acts is a fraught argument. However, it’s clear that as soon as damaging information comes to light, focus shifts away from the acts and their perpetrators to those who publish the information. Shifting the focus is a miserable yet well-established precedent by now, the result being that most folks who might consider coming forward to speak up now keep things to themselves rather than suffer entirely foreseeable consequences. In that light, when someone comes forward anyway, knowing that they will be hounded, vilified, arrested, and worse, he or she deserved more respect for courage and self-sacrifice than generally occurs in the aftermath of disclosure. The flip side — condemnation, prosecution, and death threats — are already abundant in the public sphere.

Some time after reports of torture at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram went public, a handful of low-level servicemen (“bad apples” used to deflect attention down the command hierarchy) were prosecuted, but high-level officials (e.g., former U.S. presidents Bush and Obama, anyone in their respective administrations, and commanding officers on site) were essentially immunized from prosecution. That example is not quite the same as going after truth-tellers, but it’s a rather egregious instance of bad actors going unprosecuted. I’m still incensed by it. And that’s why I’m blogging about the hot mic. Lots of awful things go on behind the scenes without public knowledge or sanction. Those who commit high crimes (including war crimes) clearly know what they’re doing is wrong. Claims of national security are often invoked and gag laws are legislated into existence on behalf of private industry. When leaks do inevitably occur, those accused immediately attack the accuser, often with the aid of others in the media. Denials may also be issued (sometimes not — why bother?), but most bad actors hide successfully behind the deflecting shift of focus. When will those acting in the shadows against the public interest and in defiance of domestic and international law ever be brought to justice? I daresay the soul of the nation is at stake, and as long as officialdom escapes all but temporary public relations problems to be spun, the pride everyone wants to take as Americans eludes us. In the meantime, there’s a lot to answer for, and it keeps piling up.

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Comments
  1. Steve says:

    Good piece on the divide between public and private discourse. I’ll address only one of your points on outrage. Maybe the decline in outrage is a good thing. Perhaps the public is finally growing up and coming to understand that whoever is behind the hot mic shits and farts like every other human on the planet.

    We like to fool ourselves into believing our politicians are somehow better (or should be better) than us as individuals, smarter and morally superior. They are not. We should stop believing that our side is blameless and does not have many things to answer for (as you point out).

    Biden was crushed by the direct attack by Harris on his record. What he has not going for him is his long record which obviously will contain episodes where he was on the wrong side (of being smarter and morally superior) more than once. The younger politicians have clean records because they are not very long.

    Mayor Pete was right in owning his mistakes AND explaining what happened and his role in it, clearly and firmly (fired the black police chief because the guy broke the law (not said at the debate but elsewhere), and getting to diversified police force not for lack of trying (seems to have conveyed that message clearly)). People can relate to that. A leader needs to be a communicator not a marketer of BS.

    Biden with his folksy stories of his father and the values that he stands for (or would like to stand) seemed pale on the debate stage. I like Joe very much and hope that he learns from this misstep to better respond. Experience both good and bad is worth a lot and should be valued. Ticket: Biden/Harris? (maybe not because of the attack), Biden/Buttigieg?

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