Discovering Montana

Gov. Racicot's Remarks on Journalism Ethics

To the Montana Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists, Missoula, Sept. 25, 1997.
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I very much appreciate this opportunity to talk with you candidly for a few minutes about a very important subject in our democracy: Ethics, the ethics of journalism and the ethics of government. Some people think ethics in our society have fallen on hard times. I am not among those non-believers. And perhaps we will have an opportunity for some appropriate cross-examination.

I think it was Adlai Stevenson, who lost almost as many elections as I have, who noted that it was the job of newspaper editors to take the day's news, to separate the wheat from the chaff......and then to print the chaff.....

I come here today not as an aggrieved party...Nor do I come as a satisfied party. Instead, I come as the temporary steward of the Governor's Office, the head of the executive branch of government, to talk with members of certainly one of the most important institutions in our system of democratic government, the members of the fourth estate, as well as some of those involved in facilitating the flow of information, those in the public relations profession.

It has been my observation at times that some journalists, who are fairly free with their critiques of those in government, also have a way of instinctively translating anything that might conceivably be taken as criticism of their work into proof that those in government have a thin skin. I hope we can move beyond that instinct here today. And address some real issues that I think are vital for the survival and growth of our democracy.

For while I do not wish to be critical, I do intend to be candid. First, a few of my beliefs: I believe that government is not anyone in particular. Government is not you. Government is not me. Government is not Them. Government is Us, all of us individually and collectively. I believe--and in fact we announced before we even named a Cabinet and took the oath of office--that we wanted our administration to be open. All meetings are open.

Early on, we instructed all Executive departments that the presumption of our policies was that everything should be public. If anything was to be closed for proprietary or privacy reasons, a good argument was going to have to be made to do so.

This kind of openness is not without its practical daily price. But I believe this openness is important for a number of reasons--because the public and its representatives in the media have a right to see in, and to know intimately what we are doing on our shift in this office, because democracy can operate better that way with a free flow of accurate, honest information and because we have nothing to hide.

I have found that this policy provides a considerable sense of freedom. If somebody wants to tell me something that they do not want others to hear, then perhaps I should not hear it in the first place.

One of the lessons we drew from the unsuccessful tax reform campaign of 1993 was that the people did not appear to believe us. In my mind the correctness of those reforms was as clear as day. But, three to one, Montanans said they did not want them. So we moved on. We set out to build an ethical relationship with Montanans, to let them come to know us better, to seek their guidance openly, to listen closely so that we all might come to understand how we each work and think, and what we are trying to accomplish in this special corner of God's good land.

Of course, we do not have all of the answers. Sometimes as human beings we are even uncertain of the questions. We make mistakes. And we try to be open about that too.

Being Governor is not my first experience in government, as you know. I spent many more years as a prosecutor. But my mode of operation has always been the same--to do our homework, to study each and every issue and case thoroughly and then to try to make the right decision for the right reasons. And that way, we believe, the future will pretty much take care of itself.

In our dealings with the media we have tried to be open and forthright. I expect skepticism. That is probably healthy most times. I did not expect suspicion and cynicism at times.

But those seem to be characteristics of our times aimed at many individuals and institutions. I notice that recent polls have shown a decline in the credibility of the media among many in our public. And the media is not the only public institution to experience this.

I think this is worse than too bad. I applaud the growing efforts of some of our nation's media to get in closer touch with their communities, to open their decisions and deliberations to representatives of the public, and thereby to re-instill the public's confidence. Trust is something that must be earned and re-earned and re-earned. It does not stay in place like a large building.

This kind of decline is far too important to be allowed to continue. The media, especially the printed media, are far too important cogs in the day-to-day workings of our democracy. I understand the media's members are private businesses in operation to make money for their owners.

I do not begrudge profits to the media or any other legitimate enterprise. They create jobs and opportunities for people to raise their families in peace and prosperity. But journalism in a democracy is so much more than just a profit-making business. I know some who considered journalism a calling. I see the media as just as important in a properly functioning democracy as the other branches of our democracy.

But although the media is not subject to the intense kinds of public scrutiny that virtually every decision in government is, I believe the media collectively and its members individually do carry a tremendous responsibility in our form of government and society. It is the media that transmits summaries of government actions or inactions to the individual members of our democracy--and vice versa.

If those summaries are somehow skewed by ethical conflicts or misinformation due to inadequate research, if those messages are biased by a secret partisanship or wishful fact-finding, if that stream of information essential to the proper functioning of our democracy is polluted by incomplete or unfair reporting or by an instinctive, unthinking search solely for the conflict in every issue blind to any progress, then it is not just the targets of those stories that suffer. It is, indeed, the entire fabric of our democracy that suffers.

We can see in the aftermath of Princess Diana's tragic death the demands for public policing of some media activities. I do not find these demands worthy. But we can see the demands rising in the absence of effective personal or individual policing of the media's activities.

No democracy in history has ever lasted as long or as vibrantly as ours. But if, God forbid, someday it should crumble, surely the first institution to suffer its crippling effects will be the free media.

Democracy, to my mind, is a voluntary association with each one of its citizen and institutional members required to make an equal commitment to informed participation. To the extent that information, the basic currency of a free society, becomes distorted, then the operations of that democracy are proportionately distorted and crippled.

This is not an idle playground game of "Gotcha" that is being played out in our democracy daily by its members or institutions. This is the deadly serious day-to-day operation of an inspiring form of government that millions have died to protect and others have died just seeking to become a member. Whatever our job is in this democracy, we take its collective benefits for granted and we ignore our individual responsibilities only at our peril.

At bottom, our form of government is only as strong as the unspoken trust that we have in each other and in its institutions.

It is, in a way, a garden requiring constant tending. To be sure, there are from time to time weeds in this garden that need pulling. But there are also many more productive aspects seeking to grow and to prosper. If through lazy or simplistic and cynical thinking any of us rush through this garden instinctively suspecting the worst and pulling up everything in sight, then we also risk pulling up that which is good and, thereby, weakening the entire institution itself. Cynicism requires no thought. Healthy skepticism, on the other hand, requires a constant stream of thoughts, judgments and decisions, something every member of a democracy should be involved in.

I have no desire or intention of giving anyone a lecture on ethics. I believe the best of people. I think most people, if they pause for a moment and sweep away any transitory temptations, know what is right and what is wrong.

Nor do I intend to be drawn into a debate or critique of individual publications, stories or stations. It is not my nature to keep scores like that. In my long experience in public service in this state, I have found the members of its media to be by and large honest and fair. I have no complaints. I sought this job.

What I wanted to do today was to issue a reminder, to myself as well as to you, that we each have a very, very important role to play in this society, as individuals and, for a time, as members of important institutions. Today, with the rapidity and pervasiveness of instant communications--and instant MIS-communications--the margins for error are gone for the media, as much as they have disappeared for government.

Our jobs are not just careers; they are important, essential cogs in the sometimes messy and often confusing operations of democracy.

Each day each one of us must look into the mirror--and into our heart--and we must decide what we can do ethically and honestly and intelligently to make this free place a better place.

This kind of conscientious introspection and constant self-examination is especially important in the media because of its importance in facilitating a free flow of accurate communications.

And while we have checks and balances in government and while we have checks and balances in politics and while we have checks and balances in the world of competitive business, the economic realities of the modern media marketplace in our sparsely-populated state have dictated that we do not have intense competition among our information media. So there are fewer checks, save costs and the conscience of individuals.

It is, then, left largely to the conscience of each of you and your colleagues to determine at day's end if you have been truthful, honest, fair, and diligent in your labors--if you made the extra phone call or two to be able to more fully explain a less than popular viewpoint, if you invested an extra hour in a meeting to really listen to what was being said, if you conscientiously treated each story about public affairs as one more important message in the ongoing social dialogue called Democracy, instead of as just one more routine collection of rote words coming down the information assembly line.

In 39 months, plus a few days, our tour of duty in this office will conclude, not that we are counting. I remind myself of that remaining time each morning when I look in the mirror. At the end of our watch I want to be able to look back in time and back at myself in that mirror and say to myself that each day we tried to do our best, that virtually each minute was invested wisely and that by doing our homework we always tried to make the right decision for the right reasons. In short, that we did the best we could with what we had in the time we were given.

There are no such term limits for the media. You or many of you will likely be here for the next occupant of this office and all of the other elected officers in government across this state. It is up to each of you individually to make your own honest day-to-day decisions that impact the society where you are a member too. That is one tremendous responsibility. And I wish you good luck and Godspeed in the conscientious application of your daily--and nightly--duties.

Thank you for your attention. And good day.

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