Sydney Pollack’s masterful 1981 movie “Absence of Malice” holds for me a memorable scene. Without giving away the plot (cause if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and download it on Netflix), a character confides some deeply personal and scandalous information to a reporter, who begins scribbling notes for the next day’s front page. Anxious as to how the story will turn out, the woman spends the night on her front steps, nervously awaiting the dawn’s paper boy. When she retrieves the paper from her dewy lawn and opens it, she is crestfallen.
And then she does something that likely made sense to her at the time: she sets off down the row of neighbors’ lawns, gathering as many of their papers as she can carry. After all, she reasons, if no one gets their paper, then the embarrassing news won’t get out.
The story, of course, does get out, just as the truth tends to do. Attempts like that to suppress the news – or in a larger sense, to suppress the currency of ideas and information – have a futile legacy. When the church ordered Martin Luther to recant his 95 Theses, the backlash eventually led to the Reformation. The burning of “un-German” books by the Nazis in 1933 – a designation that stretched from Darwinism to pacifism to so called decadent art and much else – did nothing but consign these works to a kind of literary martyrdom. Whether it’s McCarthy’s Hollywood blacklist or a local school board’s banning of Huckleberry Finn from the school library, consequential ideas have a way of enduring.
I was ruminating about all this recently on learning of some of the latest attempts to somehow conform or restrict the open expression of ideas. The first comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which The Washington Post reported, had issued instructions to prohibit the use of seven words that someone there apparently found objectionable. No, these are not the same seven dirty words on which George Carlin opined so many years ago, but instead include such offensive terms as “diversity,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “science-based.”
There has been some dueling reporting on the matter. In response to widespread outrage over what appeared to be a heavy-handed attempt at suppressing some stereotypically progressive words, the head of the CDC went on to explain that the editorial guidance was intended to better position its budget requests to Congress, nothing more. But does the rationale really matter? Sure, I get the fact that the agency doesn’t want to provoke its critics by embracing concepts some may not warm to, but creating a blanket list of no-no’s – irrespective of any context – smacks of thought control. No matter, such insidious concepts as “vulnerable” and “entitlement” will no doubt live on.
Just as that tempest was subsiding, we now learn that the administration has banned staff from bringing their personal cell phones into the White House, presumably because it can’t stem the tide of staff leaks, which have been prolific enough to trigger its own round of mudslides. It’s understandable that they’d want to curtail these unauthorized conversations – just as virtually every administration has sought to do before them. And it’s certainly well within their prerogative to issue such edicts. Even so, such maladroit gestures will do little if anything to staunch the leaking. Instead, what it will do is embolden those who believe that sharing behind-the-scenes insights is a good thing, even the right thing.
There are lessons in all this for a profession that often seeks to shape public opinion. Our objective as public relations practitioners is to create rational, intellectual, emotional or visceral connections with target audiences. We regularly accomplish this by harnessing research, data, expertise, historical experiences and facts and deliver them in such a way that our intended audience will relate (hence the “relate” part of public “relations”) to them.
What we do not do as a matter of course is attempt to suppress facts by prohibiting certain words to be uttered or denying people the right to express themselves. We must win the day on the strength of the case we make. As history has shown us time and again, honest communication among people will ultimately find the sunlight, no matter how many morning papers you gather.