It’s a recurring theme with me. When I’m not complaining about politicians blithely parroting party-fed talking points, I’m fuming about the stranglehold corporate communications have put on having any real conversations. I have talked about the growing silence in our communities; genuine dialogues that never happen because underlings have heard the message loud and clear: Speak to the media at your peril.
Can a politician tell you what s/h really thinks? Not if they want to stay in good with their party.
Can a scientist tell you what s/he really thinks? Not if they don’t want their knuckles rapped by a bureaucrat.
Can a nurse, teacher, cop or firefighter go on the record about an issue? Not if they don’t vet it first with the higher ups.
But it’s not just the public sector that has clamped down on that thing we call free speech.
A story was brought to our attention in the last few days. The staff at a local chain store – one of the big ones – have been feeding a feral cat and her kitten. They arranged to have them live trapped, along with another feral cat that put in an appearance more recently, and sent to a shelter. The manager of the store decided on his/her own to pay (presumably with store funds) for two of the cats to be fixed.
A good news story, brought to our attention by a local cat lover involved in the trapping and rehoming.
I spoke with two of the employees who’d helped these animals. I planned on going to their store to take a photo. I was also in touch with the manager, who sounded happy to discuss it with me…after he got corporate approval.
The corporation said no.
This left the newspaper in a conundrum, of course. I had already completed two interviews on record. I could also get the cat lover to do an interview. I could write the story and we could publish it, whether or not some corporation wanted the story done.
We’re not going to publish it. The fear was that printing this light-hearted, feel-good piece – a happy story, but not important news the public needs to know – could get two employees in trouble with their employer. The fear is that these people who helped a cat and her kitten, and were going to be recognized by this paper for their good deed, might be deemed bad or untrustworthy by those who pay them because they made the ‘mistake’ of talking about saving kittens to a newspaper.
The decision not to publish wasn’t made by me, but I don’t oppose it. I was on the fence: on the one side, there’s the clear good of protecting two workers from potential repercussions, on the other there’s the fact that, by not publishing the story, we have allowed a corporation to dictate terms to a newspaper.
Like I said, I was on the fence between the two. I don’t fault the ultimate decision, though. It’s the kind of tough moral calculus that makes this job interesting but also difficult at times.
I’ve chosen not to name the company. I could name them. Maybe I should name them. But this is just an example of something that happens all the time, everywhere.
We aren’t getting the full story, and you aren’t getting the full story.
Governments and corporations believe their best interests are served by only releasing banal, sanitized messages for public consumption. Real, dynamic conversations represent risk, and that’s unacceptable to these people.
But what’s good for individual companies or the careers of individual politicians isn’t necessarily good for the public or our country. Our politicians too often regurgitate practiced sound bites, our bureaucracy usually tells us only what the powers-that-be deem safe for us to know, and corporations apparently won’t even risk a good news story coming out (unless, perhaps, it’s full of messages vetted first by five corporate VPs and the legal department).
This isn’t always the case, but it’s often the case. The victim is truth.
‘Orwellian’ is an overused term and anyone who’s read 1984 knows we are not even close to living under that kind of dictatorial control. But one interesting element of that book is the way the rulers used language to control thought. They reduced vocabulary to eliminate the ability to put into words – mental or spoken – discontent or any other sentiment harmful to the rulers.
I can’t help but think there’s a faint connection. We have free speech - pretty much, anyway - but what if that free speech is said to a wall? What if conversation between ruled and rulers, consumers and providers, dies? You can say what you want, ask what you want, but if questions aren’t answered, doesn’t that diminish their value?
We’re not there yet, of course – far from it, perhaps. But there is danger here. The formula for successfully manipulating the masses is being tweaked and perfected, and the introduction of spokespeople and corporate gatekeepers is a flagstone on the path to mastery.