Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon briefing room, Apr. 26, 2016.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon briefing room, Apr. 26, 2016. AP Photo/Molly Riley

Want to Lead? Talk to the Media

American voters deserve to be informed by their candidates and generals.

Press conferences, specifically those held by political candidates, are “probably the best way to guarantee the public’s interest is served,” wrote Brian Beutler in The New Republic.

That’s true.

Beutler was referring to Hillary Clinton and her campaign’s almost pathological desire to avoid holding a press conference. Of course, there’s no law that makes them compulsory for political candidates. She’s not obligated. But from my perspective as a voter and the Pentagon’s former senior public affairs official, it sure would be nice to know how the former secretary of state — who aspires to highest office in the world — will handle tough questions in an uncontrolled environment.

This isn’t about law. It’s about our values.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump is no better. While Trump holds press availabilities nearly non-stop, his antipathy toward the press has a chilling effect on reporters. He blackballs entire outlets, even reputable, storied organizations like The Washington Post. He beats them into submission (figuratively), while his followers are abusive (literally). On Thursday, one Trump supporter spit on NBC’s Katy Tur. This is unacceptable.

But the real losers aren’t in the media. The real losers are American voters. We’re not getting the information to which we’re entitled because both candidates have failed to respect the important role the press plays in our society.

Before serving as a political appointee in the Department of Defense, I served over 20 years in uniform. So I understand politics, secrecy, and the need to be careful about what information is shared with the public — especially when it’s not in the proper context. But here’s what gets me spun up: in government, we have an obligation to be truthful and forthright. Period. An informed public is essential to the framework of our democracy.

Whether you’re a young Army public affairs officer or a seasoned political campaign manager, you can’t just do what your boss tells you to every time. You have to speak up. We have a tradition of transparency in this country and those in public service must live up to it.

As a captain, I went in and said as much to three-star generals. And, yes, you win some and lose some. But the default must always be toward maximum disclosure to the public with minimum delay. That’s a bedrock principle of American democracy. Civil servants, political appointees, and campaign operatives must understand this.

Since leaving government, this problem—this hostility toward the media—is something I’ve now heard expressed many times by colleagues in the press and in federal service. Written responses to questions are replacing in-person or even phone interviews. Prepared statements are replacing actual statements, or press briefings. Background briefings are replacing on-the-record attribution. Social media postings are replacing true media engagement. While we see it most plainly with our current presidential candidates, the last several years have seen a steady retreat by many government agencies under the Obama administration away from engagement and transparency.

Likewise, it’s not just political rhetoric the public needs to know. Another current test of transparency facing the White House and the military is the war on ISIS, which has operated for two years under unprecedented secrecy due to the president’s heavy dependence on special operations forces and the military’s refusal to embed journalists under their protection in dangerous Iraq and Syria, even at training bases.

I hope it’s not too late to change this. Both presidential campaigns have that opportunity. Perhaps they would do well to remember what President John F. Kennedy once said many years ago: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Our leaders should not fear the people—or the press.

Robert T. Hastings, Jr., served as acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs from 2008 to 2009. He also served more than 20 years in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot and public affairs officer and continues to serve as a colonel in the Texas State Guard. He is currently the executive vice president for communications and government affairs at Bell Helicopter. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. Follow Bob on Twitter at @RTHastingsJr.

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