COMMENTARY: Let me tell you what I have heard

by Nov 19, 2021OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


Water coolers and coffee pots are congregational points for many in our community who work, attend meetings, or any other community gathering. It even works when we invite friends and family over to the dining room table to impart knowledge. Coming to the watering hole is usually a time of idle chit chat about health and wealth of family, friends, and other spotlighted scuttlebutt. Appropriately, the term “scuttlebutt” has dual meanings, one is an open cask of drinking water or a fountain for use by the crew of a vessel. The other, informal, meaning is rumor or gossip.

Humanity does love its rumor and gossip. For some of us, our lives just don’t seem to be complete unless we are able to impart the latest “wisdom” we have acquired on others so that their lives might be enhanced. For others, it is more clearly self-gratification. The “let me show you how much more I know than you” crowd who feel that they must stand out in the crowd or be “better than you” by telling others what they don’t know. Still others gain personal pleasure from the tragedies and perceived failures of others and delight in spreading that word among the masses.

Every social group knows who the right ones are to impart a bit of gossip upon to get the best broadcast of the information. While gossipers are rarely called out for their behavior, they are routinely used when someone wants the community to know a piece of nasty business.

In 1982, the first use of the term “If it bleeds, it leads” was documented. The term was used in an article in a magazine (title “Broadcasting”) that I used to subscribe to while I was in radio. The term speaks to the appetite of the public for negative or disastrous news and a media outlets desire to satisfy that appetite. Another common term in our culture is “Bad news travels fast”, first used in the early 16th century in an English play titled “The Spanish Tragedy”. “The idea behind this expression is that people are quick to share information about misfortune or something bad” ( Yes, there are those of us who thrive on the suffering of others. Oh, we would never admit it, but we feel better about ourselves and our state of affairs when we can find a person or two that are in comparatively lesser shape. It makes us feel justified, and maybe just a bit superior.

Gossip may be true, partially true, or entirely false. It may be intentionally malicious or may be an unfortunate accident in the telling of something to make someone feel better about themselves in the telling. We all know the analogy of a community being like crabs in a bucket. Crabs as they strive to crawl out of a bucket will pull each other down or crawl over the top of each other to advance their own position in the bucket. Unlike crabs, humanity lets lack of self-worth and personal jealousy lead them into spreading rumors and gossip. In some sense, we are a bit sociopathic when it comes to gossip. We get so worked up about the gratification and benefit to self that it really doesn’t matter to us what the damage is to others. We act shocked when our idle words end up destroying a marriage, a family, a career, or a person.

Information vacuums are like a petri dish for growing rumor and gossip. We don’t like unfinished puzzles and, in the absence of the right piece to finish the puzzle, we will force a piece to fit, using scissors and a hammer if necessary. If we need something to finish the story to tell our friends and family, we will make something up that sounds reasonable to us, then fill any willing and available ears with our story. And then they take that story and share it like the gospel truth, possibly unwittingly sharing a total fabrication.

Governments and media outlets have battled for hundreds of years about the right of the people they serve to possess and know information generated and collected through governance. That battle continues even here on the Qualla Boundary; finding the proper balance of “trade” secret keeping to protect the operational integrity of the Tribe versus the right of the people who are governed and also the governors of their own communities to know the working of their government. We don’t do a very good job as a government when it comes to accountability, proper parsing of information, and particularly with transparency. Transparency is a word that gets thrown around a lot by government officials, but few adhere to a policy of true transparency.

Closed session laws, policies, and procedures are either vague or non-existent. When closed sessions are held in Tribal government meetings, be it in Council, Executive Committee, or other committee meetings throughout our government, there are no requirements as to how long they may be in closed session, only vague explanations as to why they might go into a closed session, no requirement for an arbiter to be in the session to ensure proper ethical behavior (staying on the subject that was used to closed the session in the first place), and no requirements to keep any record of what went on in a closed session. Some decisions to go into closed session do not even rise to a public vote of the council or committee. Basically, all you will hear is “take us off the air and clear the room”. And there have been instances, coming back into open session, where the only explanation that is given for the executive session is “we just had some things to talk about”. This even though Cherokee Code states, “Council may hold an executive session closed to the public only upon a motion duly made and adopted during an open session. Every motion to close a meeting shall cite one or more of the permissible purposes.” [Section 117-13 (b)]

Sure, it seems like a small procedural issue, but little things add up to make big issues. Closed sessions create information vacuums.

In a March 2021 response to my inquiry to the Attorney General’s office, I was informed that “Recording of closed sessions would defeat their purpose”. I didn’t ask and we didn’t discuss the purpose that would be defeated if a record of the deliberation of Council in close session were kept in a sealed state, so that if an ethical question arose regarding a decision made, there would be a way to explore the intent of the Council. Keep in mind that Council and the committees are political bodies with broader obligations to constituencies than those in appointed positions. Beyond the obvious contract negotiations, budgetary interests, and personnel/enrollment issues, what purpose(s) would be defeated by barring closed sessions? And what check and balance should be in place as a matter of policy or law to ensure that all matters of the business of the Tribe that may be made public are made public? Other tribes and municipalities have incorporated strict laws to ensure the integrity of public meetings and strict rules on the use of closed sessions. We need to do the same. When making public record and information law, we should always remember that rumor grows where information does not flow.

Media is not immune to the allure of gossip and rumor. Deadlines and dollars, for many of our peer media outlets, dictate content instead of facts. The merging of news departments with entertainment departments in media organizations has been costly to the cause of truth.

Media participating in gossip. Allowing reporters to put their own slant and opinion into articles that are supposed to be factual. Editors turning a blind eye. One definition of journalism is “the production and distribution of reports on current events based on facts and supported with proof or evidence”. A journalist, by this definition, is charged with providing, to the best of their ability and in the words of Joe Friday of Dragnet fame, “just the facts”. It blows my mind when I flip through the news channels and find, time after time, supposed journalists giving commentary as subject experts to issues on which they report. More dangerous still are those reporters who inject their particular social slant into their writing and reporting. Commonly held beliefs are not necessarily facts, and neither are those that are uncommonly held. News reporting is not about skewing the facts and/or showing biased to a particular “side” of the story. Anything beyond the facts is rumor and speculation. And one opinion is as good as another in that regard. And sometimes, in the absence of factual information, we journalists compromise our ethics by either letting our personal bias into our reporting or by filling in the gap with unvetted information when time, financial, or political pressures arise. And this may be the most dangerous type of gossip because these gossips use the megaphone of electronic media to spread the “news”. Publishers and editors of media outlets, including myself, need to be reminded from time to time, that we are the eyes, ears, and sometimes mouthpieces for the communities we serve. It is our duty to ensure that we speak truth, not only to power, but in all our public communications. Media has the power to heal. It also has the power to harm. We are the Fourth Estate. We have a key role in influencing governance and those who are governed. We must be held, and hold ourselves, to the highest level of ethical standard. And we must be cautious not to become just another spreader of gossip.

Then there is you and me. Sometimes, I think we feel better with the gossiper’s tale than being given the facts. It sometimes feels like we are in a dark world where there is no hope or light. But most of our lives are a balance of light and dark, and sometimes the balance tips toward darkness, then more to the light. Much of that has to do with what we allow in our lives. Those who share rumor and gossip do so because it has been well received by those to whom they tell it. Seek truth and demand truth from others, your friends, your family, your community, your government, your media. There are social media pages filled with gossip monger propaganda, designed to enrage or entertain you. These pages are not “words to live by”. In fact, they are more of a cheap thrill. They tickle your ears with no real meaning or value. Most of the time, you can’t control what you hear. You may only control what you do with what you hear. Make good choices.