[This Commentary originally appeared in the February 7, 1991 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
In the week prior to each of the three playoff games in which the Buffalo Bills participated, sports reporters from across the nation asked Head Coach Marv Levy if he intended to use his quick scoring no-huddle offense from the outset. With a poker face, Levy regularly answered, “We won’t know until game time.”
The sports reporters accepted the answer. They didn’t cry that their first amendment rights had been violated. They knew it would be foolish for Marv Levy to reveal his game plan so far in advance that his opponent would have enough time to consider ways to compensate for it.
Implicit in the above scene, we see recognition by the press of corporate secrets. Certain strategies and products cannot be revealed until they hit the market. Imagine how silly it would be for companies to list the ingredients of their most popular product. Imagine how irate shareholders would get if the companies they invest in let their competitors know their marketing strategies in advance; thus, eliminating one of the most useful elements of new product announcements: surprise.
The business world has corporate secrets because of the underlying fiduciary responsibility of the company executives. They must remain loyal to their owners (i.e., the shareholders), their customers and their employees. They can be held accountable in the court of law if they violate this fiduciary responsibility.
Certainly, we have different levels of severity should a manager breach this pact of faith. For example, few people would be that chagrined had Marv Levy answered the reporters’ questions. The New York Giants, though, revealed their Superbowl strategy a week before the game and it didn’t hurt them. Why? Because they executed their strategy well.
So, maybe in the case of football, this fiduciary thing can be overblown. Yet, if a Kodak executive leaks corporate secrets to a Wall Street Journal reporter, people might get upset, especially if Fuji picks up on the story and (in the extreme case) forces Kodak to cut production and layoff workers as a result. Then, this fictional Kodak executive, besides being quickly fired, might find himself the subject of a shareholder lawsuit.
But, whether we look at examples from the world of sports or the business arena, the press respects the rights of their interviewees. Reporters allow them to keep their secrets. Likewise, those being interviewed allow the journalists to ask such compromising questions.
When we move to the political scene, however, the press becomes vicious. They no longer regard the legitimacy of the corporate secret. They dig and dig and dig until they can skewer the very soul of the personality they wish to roast. They go beyond the affairs of government and into the affairs of the politician.
Surprisingly, America tolerates this voyeurism. We tend to enjoy a good dose of gossip every now and then. More seriously, we permit a promiscuous press to monitor politicians because they are public officials. In our most forgiving state, we view the press as just another check to keep the government in balance.
This open minded toleration must stop during times of war. The media has absolutely no right to expect full disclosure when American lives – and the American way of life – can be lost. Yes, they may ask any question they wish, but they must understand they can never receive an answer.
In their misguided search for truth, reporters can unknowingly release sensitive military information. Look at what our own generals said when asked about the news coverage during the initial raid on Baghdad. Referring to both CNN’s live audio reports and ABC’s video tape, the military told us both reports contained information vital to the mission they otherwise might not have known.
If Saddam can continue to broadcast radio and television, he can surely receive off of CNN’s satellite. Now, more than ever, the news media must lay aside their competitive urges to scoop one another and protect the lives of our military men and women.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]