A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee is forced to face his own words on video. He soon resigns.
The New York Times finds that its business imperatives are at odds with its public obligations as a media giant.
The president of the United States is questioned about a girlfriend from decades ago.
What are the evolving standards for transparency and privacy amid public purposes and obligations?
EPA Regional Administrator Ousted
After a week of rising rancor, the Obama administration accepted the resignation of its Region 6 EPA administrator, Al Armendariz.
Here’s the video that occasioned the controversy:
Armendariz manifestly does not recognize that he’s trampled a line between calling for strict enforcement, and abusing law enforcement powers toward political ends.
He is said to have been speaking to an audience that was frustrated with lack of progress on local pollution issues. Amid the excitement of the moment, he forgot that he was serving the broader public interest. Did he forget that his words could be recorded anywhere, anytime in the new world of the 21st century?
When new public officeholders ask me for advice, one of the first things I stress to them is that they are always on in today’s 24-7 digital world. Everyone has a camera; anyone can be a publisher online. This is a major change. It requires a different mindset, going beyond the late-20th-century mantra to be on-message in dealing with an adversary press.
This is also an area where public and private are melding. As I’ve written about elsewhere, CEOs and other company officials are facing corresponding demands in the new world of 21st century leadership.
In sum: as one moves toward serving the general public, one must unify one’s work and life. There are few credible claims to privacy when one is exercising public responsibilities.
There are also diminished claims to property rights in videos and other recordings. An individual who recorded Armendariz’s offending statements attempted to assert copyright privileges over the film in question, removing it from You Tube. Needless to say, the video could not be put back in the bottle in that manner.
Everything a public official does in performance of his or her duty is, ultimately, public property. The realm of privacy is becoming quite limited.
The New York Times’s Stance on Transparency of Political Ad Sales
The New York Times recently found itself in a quandary. On the one hand, the Times is a business in a highly competitive market space. As such, it understandably seeks privacy in holding some information.
At the same time, the Times holds a major public trust. They must meet higher standards than what the marketplace might traditionally demand of others, in less regulated sectors.
The Wall Street Journal pointed to the Times’ recent advocacy of a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would require several large media companies–though not the Times–to maintain electronic data records of sales of political advertising. Reportedly, the proposal only reaches to conglomerates owning broadcast outlets, leaving the Times exempt. The Journal article suggests this could create a competitive advantage for the Times.
Is such a distinction tenable? Is it possible to operate part of one’s business by one standard, another part by another? If so, will it remain so? In an age of transparency, can a business reliably rest on any competitive advantage that could be swept away by reasonable public expectations of transparency?
President Obama’s Long-Ago Girlfriend
Vanity Fair is running excerpts from acclaimed biographer David Maraniss’s upcoming book on the youth of Barack Obama. The magazine has showcased information from a woman, a former girlfriend from decades ago, who maintained a journal during their time together.
Am I alone in thinking that a president should ordinarily be accorded privacy in such matters? It’s difficult to make a compelling case that such information serves anything other than a prurient interest, barring unusual circumstances.
Obama waived his privacy in this situation. He has written about this relationship in his autobiography. He’s also chosen to speak about it further in an interview with Maraniss.
Should Obama’s choice affect our expectations of future presidents? If he had not disclosed the information, would it have been defensible for him to assert a zone of privacy? If not, are there any parts of a public official’s life that can be regarded as private? To the extent that rights of privacy all but disappear, what would be the consequences? What effect might it have on the willingness of individuals to step forward into public life?
Each of these situations involves changes wrought in the digital age. The immediate past has little relevance in sorting out new issues. As suggested in Serve to Lead, we’re moving into a new world. Fortunately, we’re not the first generations to face such challenges. And there are many, many opportunities that can outweigh the challenges.
Transparency, Privacy, and Public Obligations.