You must take command of your right to know

By Charlie Mitchell, Sun Herald, March 15, 2014

Carl Sagan was best known, and appropriately so, as a planetary scientist with a gift for explaining the workings of the universe to those of us who are nonscientists. In his book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," he proved he knows us very well:

"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back."

This is certainly in evidence across the landscape today.

Masters of spin and subterfuge inside and outside government and inside and outside the media seem to practice their skills unchallenged.

Reports of outrageous doublespeak are themselves sometimes filled with outrageous doublespeak. Too often, the public response is a collective shrug.

We tune in for the big story, the "perp walk," but we need to remember that may not be our most crucial role.

Once there was a young reporter, full of zeal, who was pulled aside by his boss for guidance.

"Look," the senior journalist said, "in my experience, no one has sought public office with the preconceived intention of making out like a bandit. It creeps up on them incident by incident, and before they know it they look in the mirror and see the corrupt person they knew they could or would never become."

While "outing" criminal conduct is important, it may be more important to be a constant presence and reminder to all who serve. The message must be that what they do and what they say will be reviewed, will be held up to the light of day.

Let's be clear: Monitoring and reporting public matters has been a role for the press, but the duty of steering government has always belonged to citizens.

This is especially important to understand today because the arrival of the Internet a mere 25 years ago diluted the economic model that had served the media well for nearly 100 years. Advertisers would pay handsomely for the eyes and ears of an audience who tuned in to receive news from a limited number of sources.

Now, advertising is scattered across the World Wide Web, which has translated to fewer reporters on the beat in towns and cities large and small.

This creates a fertile situation for those tempted to betray the public trust. Let's rig bids. No one will know. Let's run up needless and expensive travel on the taxpayers' tab. No one is watching, so there's no reason to be frugal.

Here's the call to action:  Countless times and in countless ways, the architects of the Constitution said that history had shown them that any form of government, if left to its own devices, would amass more and more power and become resistant to even a smidgen of accountability.

Implicitly, the architects created the First Amendment's freedoms of expression to assure our governments would be participatory, that people could speak up, ask questions.

If Sagan's hypothesis is accurate, and it is, now is when people need to be more vigilant, more aware of those who would bamboozle us a little at first, then "own" us.

It's folly to pretend that traditional media companies still have ample assets to deploy in the public's behalf. In a way the burden has been shifted back to where the Constitution says it has always rested -- on the people.

The message is this: Seek truth and remember: Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist, a board member of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and assistant dean, Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email




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