An Inside View: How Trump Tears Down Global Transparency - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because U.S. influence matters in ways we don’t always see.

By Marguerite Hoxie Sullivan

Marguerite Hoxie Sullivan worked in three Republican administrations, served as executive director of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State, and is a member of the Republicans and Independents for Biden Coalition, an affiliate of the Lincoln Project.

“I’m only following what your President Donald Trump does.”

Such was the excuse of a senior official of a southeastern European country in pushing back against my urging to be open and responsive to all valid news media outlets, not just friendly, government-dominated ones.

I was in his country as part of a U.S. government program designed to support transparency and press freedoms in newer democracies around the world. Most are still shaking off the vestiges of communist or authoritarian rule — and old habits die hard. Nonetheless, the official’s brushoff stunned me. As the first term of the Trump administration continued, I would hear similar statements regarding press access from other officials overseas.

It wasn’t always this way. Over two decades and nearly 50 countries, I have worked on transparency and press freedom issues, particularly with governments but also civil society and media. As they aspired to be democratic societies, the U.S. was the ideal, with our constitutional principles of freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.

Our system has had a way of correcting itself, and a dogged press that informs the public plays a critical watchdog role in that correction. 

Many governments, emerging from an autocratic past, had no public information office or communications process. Their most familiar press policy was censorship. Irrespective of the popularity of our foreign policies at any given time, they wanted to know how we communicated with the citizenry through a free and independent press.

Now we have a president who labels mainstream media “fake news” and questions its very legitimacy as a source of information. Trump belittles and personally insults reporters when asked questions he doesn’t like. His aides coin terms like “alternative facts” — suggesting the truth is always fungible, regardless of evidence or reality. Trump’s recent diagnosis and hospitalization with COVID-19 has been accompanied by obfuscation and dissembling from the White House and apparently even the president’s medical team.

It has always been the case that governments want information presented in the most favorable light. That is not the same as exiling reporters, twisting — if not making up — facts, and outright obfuscating. I know how a government communication system is supposed to operate. I first worked as a journalist covering government, then in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, in addition to serving as a Cabinet member for a Republican governor. Every politician would vent at some point about negative — perceived as unfair — coverage or about particular reporters (Jim Acosta, meet Sam Donaldson).

Presidents eventually have had to own up to fact-based reality even when politically damaging — about the success of a war effort, response to a hurricane or the source of a terrorist attack on Americans. Our system has had a way of correcting itself, and a dogged press that informs the public plays a critical watchdog role in that correction. That was one of the central insights of our Founding Fathers in putting freedom of press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. One of those founders, James Madison, America’s fourth president, wrote: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

With Trump, the farce of blatantly untrue proclamations has escalated from President Barack Obama’s birth certificate or his own inauguration crowd size to an undeniable tragedy for our nation — more than 210,000 Americans killed by a coronavirus outbreak that Trump long minimized or ignored.

Today the U.S. is increasingly ridiculed around the world due to Trump — not just the ineptitude of his pandemic response but also the blatant nepotism and self-dealing that would typically receive U.S. government sanction if practiced by the leader of another country. Those First Amendment principles that we have held so high continue to be eroded by the president’s actions, tweets and remarks. A professional government public information apparatus working with an independent news media has been a check on these excesses — or I would have liked to think so — until recent years. 

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The flow of ideas, the capacity to make informed choices, the ability to criticize, all of the assumptions on which political democracy rests, depend largely on communications.”

Today, I suspect he would amend that to “communications that are fact-based and verifiable.”

We need to elect leaders who proudly embrace our nation’s founding values in ways that inspire others to emulate. That’s why I will be supporting Joe Biden.

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