The Right To Know


Early in my career I took every opportunity I could find to talk with people in leadership. It didn’t matter what type of organization they were leading. I was just curious about how they ordered the world and interpreted their own experiences. The result is that my memory is full of vignettes about a wide range of topics that have stayed with me even today.

On one occasion I had a private discussion with an organizational CEO. He was very seasoned in his work and already had been recognized with important accomplishments. As the conversation unfolded we turned to some of the greatest challenges he experienced in his career. He described a situation in which his private action was misinterpreted by the public. He said to me, “In the minds of the public, sometimes A + B = G.”

What I learned is there are times when a leader will be called on to keep a matter private even if onlookers draw the wrong conclusion. It seems unfair, but the need for privacy has to be weighed against the right for others to know. Where do we draw the line?

John Dewey in his classic 1927 work, The Public and Its Problems, asserts the following:

We take then our point of departure from the objective fact that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others. Following this [clue], we are led to remark that the consequences are of two kinds, those which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction, and those which affect others beyond those immediately concerned. In this distinction we find the germ of the distinction between the private and the public.  When indirect consequences are recognized and there is effort to regulate them, something having the traits of a state comes into existence. When the consequences of an action are confined, or are thought to be confined, mainly to the persons directly engaged in it, the transaction is a private one. (p. 12)

If we accept Dewey’s reasoning, then the line between private and public action is a matter of understanding the potential consequences for any decision.

Today we have two very odd examples of the private vs. public tension. The first is the emergence of reality television. I have seen just enough reality TV to understand the basic idea.  I decided a few years ago to watch one series from beginning to end. It was incredibly easy to get caught up in the sordid details of people’s lives. Episode after episode the tension would rise as more information about the participants was shared. By the end I learned why the acronym “TMI” has become a common word. Too much information is now common in a society where media and social networking offer a smorgasbord of all-you-can-eat scandal. The direct consequences of such private disclosure may be trivial, but what are the indirect consequences on the public?

The second is the recent news regarding WikiLeaks. The founder of this organization, Julian Assange, has publically released scores of highly confidential documents obtained illegally. He is described by a wide range of terms including journalist, internet activist, whistleblower, and even, anarchist. His motivation may be the subject of speculation for years to come, but the consequences are far from trivial. They are not only societal, but global. The information released was understood to be private, but the consequences of the transactions described in the material quite public. Is there justification for maintaining privacy on some information that has great public consequence? 

It seems as if the lines have blurred. Information that for generations would be considered personally private is being made public without a care. And, information that has vast public consequence is caught between a controversy between what is private, what is public and what is privileged.

I think the answer is to be found in the judgments we make personally and professionally. In the best of all possible worlds, our leadership flows from a set of values rooted in integrity. Will our leaders’ values serve as a guide in rendering appropriate judgments when privacy serves both the individual and collective interests? Will our leaders speak openly when the public interest demands disclosure even at the expense of individuals?

These are tough choices and such decisions emerge in all levels of society. Municipalities, schools, churches, hospitals, small businesses, corporations, as well as state and federal governments have great need for leadership with integrity. In a world of reality TV and WikiLeaks, how will we prepare the next generation?

Share this story:


21 responses to “The Right To Know”

  1. Nicole Ferguson says:

    “In a free society we are supposed to know the truth, when the truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble.” Ron Paul in response to Wikileaks.

    • Retired faculty member says:

      Nicole, your quote from Ron Paul assumes that “truth” can be and is defined in the same way for everyone, and that truth is easily discerned at any time. What is “truth” for one person may not be completely transparent regarding issues and values. Truth necessarily shifts with paradigm shifts so that what was true at one time may not be true at a later time when our understanding is more complete.

  2. Jackie Boat says:

    This is an interesting topic. I’m all for wikileaks because people have to be informed about their government in order to have a say. Otherwise our rights are just a joke. The information that has been leaked isn’t a threat to security, it is information that the public should know that has been hidden with the assumption that the end justifies the means. The man who runs the site is very courageous and I’m sure the same government he is exposing will make sure he is silenced with the utmost subtlety. I personally think this kind of service should have an official role in the government to keep the military and others in check.

    • David Timmer says:

      If certain types of activity can only succeed if they are not carried on in public view (as is true of many military operations but also many diplomatic operations), then to insist that they be fully public is to say that they should not be undertaken at all. We should think carefully before we expect our nation to behave differently than any nation has ever behaved in the diplomatic realm. Are we willing to deal with the consequences of so much honesty?

      • Ross Vermeer says:

        David, I’m glad this time we can agree entirely.

        But I finished this article wondering what Dr Putnam actually thinks. In his penultimate paragraph he says:

        “I think the answer is to be found in the judgments we make personally and professionally. In the best of all possible worlds, our leadership flows from a set of values rooted in integrity.”

        Yes, this is obviously true — it’s in fact a truism. But it’s content-free. “Integrity” must be grounded in a foundation of ethical principle.

        And then, going on in that paragraph, Dr Putnam says that politicians’ “values” will guide them in rendering “appropriate” judgments. But what values? “Appropriate” is meaningless without a context to define it.

        Dr Putnam, you’re a leader. Can you think of a situation that would justify sacrificing students’ privacy to benefit Central College? Conversely, would you allow the college’s reputation or other interests to be harmed in order to protect a student’s privacy?

        Let’s say a Central student came into possession of a dossier of documents meant only for distribution to the Board of Trustees. Not all of these documents showed CUI in its best light — perhaps there were some vigorous critiques of current practice. Maybe some administrators and faculty members are singled out by name. The student writes you an email threatening to put up a website publishing the documents.

        What values would guide you in taking the appropriate steps? What values should Central teach its students to prepare them to make such decisions when they grow into leaders themselves?

        • David Purnell says:

          I find it odd that we talk about American “exceptionalism” yet meekly comply with the assumption that we should follow the same dark and secretive approach to foreign policy that most other nations do. We shouldn’t do things that we are ashamed of, at least not on such a grand scale, and then be aghast when these abhorrent actions are made public. Remember the term “moral high ground”?

          • David Timmer says:

            I for one am pretty cautious about talking of American exceptionalism, since it seems often to be an invitation to hubris that justifies moral abuses rather than preventing them. But in any case, why is secrecy always “dark”? We exercise confidentiality (aka secrecy) in all sorts of contexts in our line of work. Would educational institutions be better morally if nothing was confidential? Why should we assume that diplomacy would be?

            The important thing, as another poster has noted, is that there be clear lines of accountability within the institution. Our diplomats are responsible to the Secretary of State, who is responsible both to the President and Congress, who are responsible ultimately to the “people” (i.e., the voters). But that doesn’t mean that the “people” should be reading every confidential cable. Even less does it mean that the subjects of those cables(Karzai, Berlusconi, Chavez, or whoever) should be doing so.

          • David Purnell says:

            I would agree that confidentiality is sometimes warranted, but what happens to a democratic republic when the “clear lines of accountability” are clearly obliterated (e.g. Tonkin Gulf, the Vietnam Lie; Weapons of Mass Destruction; the Iraq Invasion Lie)? Was the release of the Pentagon Papers improper or patriotic? I know it is complicated, but I think we need to begin to look at our relationship with the world in extremely new ways. The last 50 years has taken us farther and farther away from the vision of our revolutionary (dare I mention that word?) founders.

        • Retired faculty member says:

          This challenging topic reminds me of a short article which I wrote a few years ago entitled, “Integrity as a God Concept.” It was intended primarily for my family in a collection of memoirs, but I have shared it with some other people who I felt would understand the sense in which it was intended. As with other topics related to spirituality, these types of values statements may become controversial when made as public statements.
          I agree with Dr. Putnam that the answer to whether or not there is justification for making personal and professional judgments, either private or public, “flows from a set of values rooted in integrity..” Privacy would in some cases seem to serve the best interests of both individual and collective interests.

      • Anna Noel says:

        The assumption is made that certain types of activities can only succeed if they are not carried out in the public view. The grand experiment wikileaks is thrusting upon us is to question that thesis. The upcoming generation is spawning leaders who expect information at their fingertips. They are interconnected like never before using technology in ways we could only have seen in science fiction when I was their age. There is the probability that governments and nations will change with this generation’s needs. There is also the question of how painful such change will be.
        There is a lot of anger in our country these days and this anger is pointed at a government that has operated in the dark, presumably in our “best interests”. I’m not sure I have talked with a single person in the last few years that believes that anymore.

  3. Chad Ray says:

    Anna, you and I have talked, and I believe that national governments to varying degrees do work for the public interest, even when they work in the dark. And I believe our government actually does this pretty well. It is not that our leaders are saintly, but that very little is done in total darkness. The actions carried out by our government are by definition not executed on the authority of one agent alone, but (ideally) according to a network of authorizations. In Byzantine fashion they are supposed to trace back to us, “the people”. Sometimes screw-ups and crimes occur; the story behind Watergate comes to mind. Sometimes such stories are exposed; people act without proper authority and get away with it by being sneaky at some level.

  4. Brandee says:

    Dr. Putnam, thank you for your post. Regarding your comment on the release of the Wikileaks files, “the consequences are far from trivial”, where do you get your data from?

    According to the Washington Post, “Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that any damage [from the files] would be fairly modest and that other countries were unlikely to cut ties with the U.S. because of the security infraction.” This, from the Secretary of Defense, no less.

    More than anything, the Wikileaks files are embarrassing to people in power. The real “danger” that Wikileaks poses is to the careers of politicians. Wikileaks has uncovered our government’s participation in human rights abuses. What about Wikileaks’ role in exposing the gritty war video taken by Army helicopters showing troops gunning down two unarmed Reuters journalists? What is the value of having that incident remain secret? Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    When I was a student at Central in the 90s, I remember there was a statue with a verse from Scripture: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Isn’t that what a liberal arts education is all about?

    • David Timmer says:

      Brandee, your third paragraph implies (correctly, I think) that secrecy and confidentiality can sometimes be misused to cover up abuses or to avoid accountability. In such cases, selective, targeted breaches of confidentiality may be necessary and wholesome. But the quotation from Secretary Gates in your second paragraph implies that in the vast majority of recent WikiLeaks “revelations” no specific abuses were being targeted. The target was confidentiality itself. Mr. Assange has made it quite clear that this is in fact his view: secrecy is itself the problem. This is a bit like swatting flies with a nuclear bomb. You can kill a lot of flies that way, but you risk a lot of collateral damage. And the air will be toxic for a long time.

  5. Mark Truth says:

    Vermeer commented, “But I finished this article wondering what Dr Putnam actually thinks.”

    Correct. There is no leadership regarding the issues he raises.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president write intelligent, crisp, clear, and inspiring thoughts and analysis on a topic of interest to Central? But no.

    Instead, we get open ended questions about reality TV. And then somehow we jump to our next example, Wikileaks.

    But even more disappointingly, Mark MY Words postings continue to show almost no connection, appreciation, acknowledgment, or respect for the college, community, alumni, or debt-laden students/parents that are supporting his position and ability to use Central resources in this way in the first place. Is that really too much to ask? Guess so.

    • David Purnell says:

      What a cowardly and simple-minded attack! Want clear-cut answers? Go find a dictator….coward.

    • Charles Bliss says:

      Why do you worry yourself with what one man believes? As a leader, it isn’t his job to simply say his beliefs, thoughts, or ideals. It is important that he makes people think, not tells them what to think and how to think it. So why quibble over insignificant details of his true thoughts, when he is challenging you to make your own?

      I’ve met him, spoken with him, and he is a great guy. The blog does in fact show respect for the Central community as a whole. It comes to the heart of who we are as a school, people who are constantly learning and striving to be our best through analytical thought and decisive action. Saying that the postings show no connection, appreciation, acknowledgment, or respect for this community is an unfortunate mis-truth about the blog. Furthermore, it is a sorry excuse for looking to be lead instead of leading yourself.

      Nobody is perfect, so before you criticize the position that he is in, especially how he maintains a simple blog, remember that you are not in this position, and you yourself do not subject yourself to the amount of scrutiny of the public eye.

  6. Ronald Fadness ('87) says:

    Anonymous heckling is the enemy of reasoned discussion. I appreciate Dr. Putnam’s willingness to share ideas in a public forum. He is not obligated to open himself up to anonymous attacks, but I’m glad he does.

    Do his posts answer life’s fundamental questions? No, but they initiate interesting conversation. That has value in and of itself.

    I have also enjoyed reading comments from respected professors of days gone by. The divergence between student and professorial viewpoints reflects how my own perspective has changed since I sat in those hallowed halls and thought I knew it all.

  7. Jim Coddington Class of 71 says:

    Getting back on topic, Dr. Putnam’s closing question, “how will we prepare the next generation,” shows he is an educator. It looks to me like the next generation is pretty much making its own rules as to what remains private and what goes into the public domain and I don’t think their parents’ generation will have much to say about it. The problem seems to me to be one of excess capacity. The amount of information worth sharing hasn’t changed much over the course of human existence, but the number of ways to share it has become immense. Something has to fill all of that media so we end up with television “reality” shows and vast unedited data dumps of not so diplomatic gossip by diplomats.

    I don’t have any insight into how the world will be different if there are no secrets. I expect I will decide what is important or of interest to me and be thankful that I have a means to keep current with that and ignore the rest. Pretty much what I do now.

  8. Amy Loftus says:

    Dr. Putnam,
    This blog truly intrigues me as this is the topic of discussion many a days in my Communication Ethics course here at Central. We examine this tension between freedom of speech and social responsibility constantly when it comes to journalism acts or things that come about in new media. I don’t believe one can answer your questions quite yet because we are all still learning, if we will ever settle on a answer, where the line is between public and private knowledge. I appreciate your insight and recognition of this topic and it’s tension causing role in society today.

  9. Ross Vermeer says:

    It’d be lovely if leadership could be reduced to uncontroversial tasks such as ‘making others think’, and if unpleasant decisions could simply be put off until we all knew so much about their potential consequences that making them would be safe and easy.

    But that’s not how leadership works. Leaders take on risk by making hard decisions when they in many cases do not feel ready to make them. They also develop and communicate a vision to those they lead. A leader can execute neither of these duties without a strong sense of what he believes.

    In this context, Dr Putnam, your choice of John Dewey as the source of your key quotation is interesting. Dewey’s approach to educational leadership has a long and distinguished pedigree. He certainly had a lot to say about that intersection of the public and the private individual. He was also a progressive and a pragmatist, and the consequentialism inherent to that approach is amply evident in the quotation you chose.

    So is Dewey one of your guides? Is his vision of preparing students to be democratic citizens your vision, too?