Freedom of the Press and Accountability

I was listening to National Public Radio and heard Audie Cornish’s interview,  Helen Thomas Marks 50 Years at the White House, with 89 year old Journalist Helen Thomas who was part of the White House press corps for many years.

I found Ms. Thomas’ comments about the press, and the presidential candidates and then presidents’ reaction to the press to be interesting and insightful to how some in the Orthodox world have reacted to

Thomas said that presidents “hate the press really. They need the press during a campaign and they really work to get their attention. But after, once they’re in the White House the iron curtain comes down. … Presidents don’t like to have news conferences. They’re president.  How dare you question them or their motives?”

Candidates pursuing office cannot ever get enough press coverage or attention.  Candidates in office hate the press for questioning them or holding them accountable.   It is apparently a trait of leadership, even religious leadership, for as we have seen bishops too do not like to have to defend or explain their actions or inertia and resent being questioned, feeling that the “hierarchical principle” means they are not accountable to anyone for what they do or don’t do.

And while that attitude may have worked well in traditional Orthodox cultures where information was almost completely controlled by the ruling few, it does not fit well in the American context.  Thomas’ attitude though very well reflects the common American attitude that the freedom of the press guarantees us a right to know.  What does the press have to do when presidents refuse to explain their decisions or resist having to give an account for their actions?

“… you have to struggle harder to convince them that this is the country with freedom of the press and every public official is very accountable. Everything they do is accountable to the American people and that’s why were there.  We’re the watchdogs.  And I think everything belongs in the public domain practically, except for where the atomic arsenal is.”

That is what church leadership also has to remember about being the Church in America, rather than in some “traditionally Orthodox country.”  We are a country that values the freedom of the press and which believes every public official is accountable, and that the citizenry should be informed about what leadership is doing.  We see our bishops as public figures, not as the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain, ordering us to pay no attention to what they are doing but only to obey them.   This is part of the tension Orthodox leadership feels in our country.  If we are going to be the Orthodox Church in America, rather than say a Diaspora Church Abroad, we have to find the way to deal with American attitudes toward accountability, hypocrisy, integrity and transparency.

Freedom of the press means that organizations which claim to be public are also open to scrutiny by the public and even to investigation by concerned reporters.   The OCA’s adoption of “Best Practices”, clergy sexual misconduct policies,  and other measures of accountability may seem foreign to the Church in traditionally Orthodox countries, but if we are not to remain a foreign Diaspora in our own country, we must be prepared to open our administrative practices to public scrutiny.     If we are the Church, we have nothing to hide and everything to reveal.  If we are not trustworthy, having integrity, as well as transparent and open to inquirers, then we have little to commend us to this culture.  The ever expanding media outlets – the Internet, WebPages and blogs, require integrity, openness, trustworthiness.  In fact that is all that commends us or anyone on the Internet.  Either we will be open and truthful and people will see us as such, or they will quickly marginalize us by looking for other sites on the web for spiritual nurture.   The Church grew rapidly in its early centuries because of its “witness” through the lives of its membership.  That sense of our being trustworthy witnesses to the Kingdom is an essential part of evangelism.  The American reliance of a free press may help restore within the church a sense of the importance of being reliable witnesses to the Kingdom.

Some may say that the Church existed long before ideas of the freedom of the press came around and did just fine without such freedom and/or reporting.  The Church has successfully managed to incarnate itself into many different cultures in the world.  In each culture the Church preserved its unchanging message by recognizing the differences in cultural attitudes and then adapting itself to these differences.  Whether the Church was under the pagan Roman Empire, Orthodox Byzantium or Russia, under Islam, Communism or settled in “the West”, it has adapted itself to the cultures in order to preserve the Gospel unchanged.  The freedom of the press is part of cultural background of America.  It is not inconsistent with the Gospel and can in fact help us maintain and prove our trustworthiness as witnesses to the Gospel.