Call it the 'Fauci Principle'

The pandemic was a sneak attack. Climate change is not. An objective audit of government information, and protecting scientists who keep us informed, are required.

By John Maxwell Hamilton

(About the author: John Maxwell Hamilton, the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University, is a longtime journalist and author of the forthcoming Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — Never before have we had a moment when reliable government information was as urgent as it is today,  when the world is combating the coronavirus Grim Reaper.

Never have the dangers of the opposite been more terrifying — when a president ignores facts and purveys remedies as though he were a patent medicine salesman. The lessons to be derived, however, go far beyond this pandemic and this president. 

Reliable government information is essential to the orderly functioning of society in the most peaceful of times. We need weather reports to decide if we should carry an umbrella to work. We need economic data to make good business decisions.

A stable democracy depends on government transparency. The Pentagon must make its contracts for bombs and bombers public. Political appointees must stand before congressional committees to defend their policies. In the words of founding father Elbridge Gerry, “In a republic every action ought to be accounted for.”

In time of crisis, the government’s capacity to collect information and analyze it is crucial to national security. Meteorologists use data to warn us of impending hurricanes; intelligence officers detect Russian meddling in our elections; and in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, public health officials track the disease and measure the effectiveness of remedies. 

Scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, are the Winston Churchills of our time. They tell us honestly what is happening and use that information to guide us to the right united behavior to cope with it. 

As this pandemic ebbs and we consider what could have been done better, we need to focus on the information side of the equation in the broadest way possible. What we learn will help us manage other crises, not the least of these being global warming.

The pandemic was a sneak attack. We could not see it coming. The data on global warming have been building for years. No threat to us is more data-based than this one. 

The government is full of environmental scientists who abide by the Fauci Principle. But many are under attack. Just as President Trump has prevented Fauci from testifying in the House of Representatives, where Trump apparently feels the Democrats will press harder for answers than on the Republican-led side, he took steps shortly after his inauguration to bar testimony that used federal scientific data on climate change.

Fauci, who is self-quarantining after having come in contact with an individual infected with the coronavirus, testified remotely Tuesday before a Senate committee. He said the U.S. faces “needless suffering and death” if restrictions are lifted too early in the pandemic.

To be fair, all administrations find it tempting to control information in ways that work against democratic principles. Despite President Barack Obama’s pledges for openness, journalists criticized him for “the most closed, control-freak administration” in memory. In 2014, national intelligence director James Clapper barred officials in 17 agencies from speaking with reporters without authorization even on unclassified subjects.

The few laws governing the use of taxpayer dollars for propaganda by executive departments are problematic. Congress has not defined “publicity” or “propaganda.” One category of offending information is “purely partisan materials.” No violation has ever been found because no political message can be “completely devoid of any connection with official functions.” The Government Accountability Office, which has occasionally looked into such issues, is “reluctant to find a violation where the agency can provide a reasonable justification for its activities.” 

The executive branch has little incentive to enforce antipropaganda laws that restrict its operations. The Department of Justice has never prosecuted a violation of the laws governing propaganda. Congress episodically launches investigations, but legislative intervention has typically been a partisan attack on the other party’s partisanship. 

Systematic, pervasive government propaganda began during World War I under Woodrow Wilson, who created our first and only propaganda ministry, the Committee on Public Information. “There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ,” said George Creel, the head of the CPI. It was one of the few times the hyperbolic journalist made an understatement.

After the 1918 midterm elections, coincident with the end of the war, the Republicans took over both houses of Congress, and the Joint Committee on Printing axed nearly 400 government publications. When Republican Warren Harding was elected, the committee saw no reason for oversight. Said one rock-ribbed Republican on the committee, “Why should I be obliged to say that one journal published by the Federal Government is a bad thing? How do I know?”

We can expect the same lack of interest in Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) proposed “No PR Act.” It would prevent Trump from using the propaganda power of his office to insist that his name appears on stimulus checks.

Some of this can be viewed as typical political jockeying, but we endanger ourselves if we do not protect reliable government information and fence back that information that gets in the way.

Solutions to propaganda run wild

A first step is to undertake, as has never been done in modern times, an objective audit of government information that gives us a sense of its scope and practice. The second is to find mechanisms to monitor government information. It is only right that the public understands how its tax dollars are being used to shape its views.  

This needs to be done in a non-partisan way, perhaps by a commission established by Congress. Philanthropic bodies — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one such example — have been leaders in supporting the value of sound information during this pandemic. It would be logical to broaden this to include government information on climate change and other threats.

The control of government information in a democracy can never be perfect, any more than government can ever be perfect. But those of us sheltered at home have every reason to call for it to be made better when the coast, for a time, is clear. 

Above, Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Photo: National Institutes of Health.