Friday, May 12, 2006

CAN TRUTH BE TOLD WHEN USING SELECTIVE INFORMATION?

[This column originally appeared in the Sunday New York Times on August 17, 2003.]

IN "Glengarry Glen Ross," David Mamet's play about cutthroat salesmen trying to move less-than-alluring residential real estate, the overarching mantra was "always be closing." The message was this: Do what it takes to sell property to the unsuspecting, even if that means being selective in what you disclose about the houses you want to unload.

The characters in the play may be extreme examples, but the practice of businesses selectively using information to sell products is widespread. "Selective marketing is basically emphasizing the positive elements of whatever goods you have," said Stuart C. Gilman, president of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington.

"You can say that it's unfair, but it's absolutely reasonable. In a marketplace you expect people to make sensible decisions."

Is it fair, then, for politicians to use such selectivity when trying to sell a policy to their constituencies? The question was brought to the forefront by news reports that President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, might have staked part of his support for a war against Iraq on doubtful British intelligence suggesting that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger. If the president's staff couldn't find United States intelligence to support the allegation, was it wrong to selectively use foreign intelligence to make his point?

"Since I've been involved in campaigns, it's always been within the strike zone to use selective information," said James Carville, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a current co-host of "Crossfire" on CNN. "But the obligation to tell the truth is heightened when one is proposing to start a war as opposed to proposing to put a television spot up.

"Business marketing and politics often overlap in election campaigns. Someone vying for office is essentially trying to sell himself to voters. "When you are campaigning, you're like the businessman who has a limited responsibility, a limited set of people to whom you owe something," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice" (W. W. Norton).

But, increasingly, because of the fund-raising involved in running for national office, "you have to be in an almost permanent campaign mode," said David Gergen, now a professor of public service at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who was an adviser to four presidents. "In politics, you fall into the trap of short-termism. You do whatever it takes to keep the headlines up today." This short-term thinking is not dissimilar to what causes some businesses to make poor decisions in trying to bolster stock prices or earnings reports.

"The trap of the permanent campaign is that you diminish statesmanship," Professor Gergen said. "Statesmen rise above the daily concern and look to the long haul."

BUT it's difficult to affect the long haul if you find yourself voted out of office. For that reason, Dick Morris, a former adviser to Mr.Clinton and the author of "Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business" (Regan Books, 2003), said he thinks that "using polling and all of the tools of an election to help you govern is a good thing."

"It gets the president to be very aggressive in figuring out what he can do in an active way really to help the country," he added. "The motivation is to govern well so he can get elected.

"Even if President Bush has to campaign constantly and, as a result, selectively uses information to sell his message, we still expect him to tell the truth. "If they decided to lie to make the case stronger that's simply unethical," said Mr. Gilman, who was a senior official at the United States Office of Government Ethics from 1988 to 2001. Mr. Gilman said he hopes that the president "got one bad piece of intelligence and the rest was correct."

Some political analysts say President Bush crossed a line in selectively using information by pointing to British intelligence to make an argument, when American intelligence doubted the claim. "As in all marketing, when you go too far, it creates a small cloud over you about credibility," Professor Gergen said.

There's more at stake when President Bush selectively uses information than when a business executive tries to move a product. The president's role clearly distinguishes his unique moral responsibility. As an executive, you don't order young men and women to give up their lives for a cause.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jeffrey Seglin's redux of a current and topical issue is can a politician use selective information in making a case or stand on a particular issue is relevant. First, making any case for any political action should never be based on one piece of evidence, but derived from a myriad of competent sources. As Mr. James Carville argued ,"...Since I've been involved in campaigns, it's always been within the strike zone to use selective information...But the obligation to tell the truth is heightened when one is proposing to start a war...." I would argue it extends beyond the prosecution of a war, to many areas of governance. It goes to deflating unemployment numbers, in order to make the administration look better. It goes to reducing the size of our military, then turning around funding a huge increase just in time for the 2006 Congressional elections. It goes to telling the American people that your administration has created 16.4 million jobs in three years, and that the welfare rolls are so huge are because Americans are just lazy. From telling the American people that the were the most productive workers on Earth a few years ago, to switching the old stereotype from the lazy Mexican to the American.

I completely disagree with Mr. Alan Wolfe and his belief that,"...When you are campaigning, you're like the businessman who has a limited responsibility, a limited set of people to whom you owe something...." The businessman owes the investor's, their clients, and employees. My argument is that you care about everyone, because your policies are going to affect each of them in various ways. Rather it is a major corporation, the middle class, the working poor, from children's futures to those already retired. You do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of short-termism as Mr. David Gergen has argued, but set out a realistic long term vision, and how it will affect each of these groups, and who might profit, and who might lose in that vision. Will that vision allow us to make money, pay down some debt, or lastly to save some money?

Todd M. Brklacich

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