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Secrets and lies

Tere seem to be an awful lot of secrets going around lately.

The recent collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour has prompted citizens around the country to review their own infrastructure to make sure they don’t have similar problems. But PennDOT initially refused to make bridge-rating information available to a newspaper that asked for it. The department changed its tune only after public outcry (see News Briefs, page 2).

The proper disposal of manure is one of the most critical problems facing environmental management and public health today. But the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t want the public to know how Hudson Valley Foie Gras does it, saying it is a trade secret. (See “Another legal front opens in the foie gras war,” August 2 issue of The River Reporter.)

Voting districts are under a federal mandate to replace old-fashioned voting machines. But for years, there have been charges that the electronic machines promoted as replacements have faulty code that makes them susceptible to fraud and breakdown. The corporations that make them have said the code can’t be made available to the public—another trade secret. When they recently did make code available for a recent test of machines by the California secretary of state, many of the machines were shown to be so deficient that they were decertified. Keeping that trade secret allowed the companies to sell flawed machines to electoral districts all around the country—including in Pennsylvania—who may now have to replace or alter them.

In all these cases, the parties who withheld the information in question no doubt felt they had good reason to keep it secret. But in a democracy, the presumption has to be in favor of telling the public the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s because in a democracy, it is the people who hold the ultimate reins of power, and their decisions will be only as good as their information.

The growing prevalence of secrets can be seen nowadays on all levels, including the federal level where the terms “executive privilege” and “national security” are being used as a bludgeon to keep the executive branch from having to tell anybody anything, even when the questions asked include suspicions of their own wrongdoing. And what makes things worse is the fact that our legal system is set up in such a way that news organs take a risk every time they uncover unpleasant secrets, but suffer no penalties for telling lies that conceal malfeasance.

In 2000, a journalistic team sued a Fox television affiliate for firing them in retaliation for their resistance to Fox’s falsification of a report on Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). The report showed adverse health effects of BGH on both cows and humans; Fox changed it to minimize claims of harm. In 2000, a Florida jury unanimously determined that Fox “acted intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort the plaintiffs’ news reporting.” But an appeals court overturned that award, not because Fox didn’t falsify the report, but on the finding that this country has no “law, rule or regulation” against the distortion of news.

This creates an unfortunate asymmetry. Civil law allows suits for defamatory lies (as it should). This means, however, that news corporations that do investigative reporting revealing unpleasant truths about powerful targets stand to lose a lot of money even if their stories are perfectly true. Deep-pocketed targets can afford endless, expensive harassment suits, and don’t have to care if they lose. But tell a lie that covers up the wrongdoing of powerful individuals and groups, and you’ll get away scot-free.

It looks to us like maybe this country needs some new laws concerning secrets and lies.

Creating and enforcing a law that prohibits lies in broadcast or print might be difficult, since respect for the First Amendment requires care be taken not to penalize points of view, or bias, as deliberate falsehood, which is something quite different. But perhaps we could create a new legal category called “news organization.” Any business electing to call itself a “news organization” would be subject to strict criminal penalties for telling deliberate falsehoods to the public. Publications or broadcasts that did not wish to make themselves accountable would have to advertise prominently that they were for entertainment only.

We also need laws that make it clear that the electorate’s need for information affecting public welfare and policy trumps such notions as “trade secret”—or, for that matter, “executive privilege.” Freedom cannot flourish in darkness, and secrets and lies are no way to run a democracy.

Also in this issue:

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Dr. Punnybone

Pair of Pants

Letters to the Editor

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The River Reporter welcomes letters on all subjects from its readers. They must be signed and include the correspondent's phone number. The correspondent's name and town will appear at the bottom of each letter; titles and affiliations will not, unless the correspondent is writing on behalf of a group.

Letters are printed at the discretion of the editor. It is requested they be limited to 300 words; correspondents may be asked to cut longer letters. Deadline is 1:00 p.m. on Monday.

Letters can be sent by e-mail to]

Giving too much credence to impeachment

To the editor:

As a recent subscriber to your paper, I have tolerated your liberal slant on the editorial page on a regular basis. But we are all entitled to our opinions, and as long as you limit it to that page, I don’t mind. I was a little more irritated with the constant theme of radical environmentalism seen in most every edition, and began to question your ability to impartially report the news.