In address to FOI Summit, professor of journalism Ted Gup argues that a nation built on secrecy continues the practice.
by Aimee Edmondson, NFOIC contributing writer
Ted Gup worries about what people don’t know. And worse, that people don’t know what they don’t know. Or don’t seem to care.
As an investigative reporter, Gup has long been in the business of uncovering secrets. He sees the government becoming ever more secretive and the public caring less and less.
“We have not yet succeeded in demonstrating the link between secrecy and quality of life,” said Gup, a former reporter for the Washington Post and Time magazine. Gup spoke to attendees of the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s 2008 FOI Summit in Philadelphia on May 9-10.
This nation was built in secrecy, Gup pointed out. The framers of the United States Constitution met behind closed doors.
“In 1787 they needed candor. No press. No public. The windows were closed and the drapes were drawn, and it was a hot day. Not exactly the picture of transparency,” Gup said. “Maybe not that much has changed.”
Gup is the author of Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life, which was released in 2007. He also is the author of the bestseller, The Book of Honor: Covert Lives And Classified Deaths At The CIA.
In The Book of Honor, Gup uncovered an array of CIA secrets, including the details surrounding the deaths of 71 unknown operatives, all killed in the line of duty. In his newest book, Gup writes about a broader range of American institutions, focusing on their efforts to keep information secret. He argues that those secrets can actually undermine American values. Secrets are kept that don’t need to be—those that don’t pose a threat to national security. Mounds of classified documents should not be. Terrorism and 9/11 are not the cause, but they have accelerated the emergence of a system of government that is less and less accountable to the public.
Gup rattled off the clichés.
“Ignorance is bliss.”
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”
He hates the clichés.
“What you don’t know can hurt you. Yeah, it can kill you.”
Enron. Pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church. World Com. Firestone Tires.
Gup also pointed out that the election process is more clandestine than most people realize.
Superdelegates in the primaries resolve their choices behind closed doors. The choice of vice president is secretive. The Speaker of the House, the third in line to the presidency, is chosen in secret by the majority party. Perhaps, most frightening of all, we’ve become comfortable with the covertness of the process, Gup said.
However, Gup sees value in secrets that actually should be. Blueprints of sophisticated weapons should be classified. So should the IDs of overseas operatives.
“There is no greater threat to real secrets than counterfeit and bogus secrets,” he said.
Gup also is concerned by what he sees as a trend away from participation in the public sphere. Newspaper readership continues to drop. Too many people are plugging in their mp3 players and checking out.
“Information use has changed profoundly. We are more selective and self interested. The information we seek is more self-serving, tailored to our needs. We are interested in the home team, the local weather, the local cinema. It’s easier to exclude the world,” Gup said.
We are less verbal and more visual. Information is less fact-based and more opinion-based.
“It’s cheaper to produce talking heads and food fights on TV than provide information and staff overseas news bureaus,” said Gup, who is now the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University.
What does all this mean for freedom of information?
“What you gather so earnestly and at such expense, if it doesn’t reach the citizenry, its value is profoundly arrested,” Gup said.
But he still has hope, thanks to nights like the one he spent in Biddeford Pool, Maine, giving a presentation on his latest book and doing a book signing. His chat turned into a two-hour town hall meeting. After hearing a respectful and robust debate on public issues between townsfolk, Gup had everyone in the audience sign a copy of his book for him.
“The depth of caring, the engagement, it was restorative. It’s what America is all about,” Gup said.