Travelogue: Seven stops and 21 days in America

Bassey Udo
Bassey Udo

Every journalist is familiar with the golden rule by renowned British journalist, Charles Scott: “Facts are sacred, comments free.”

That means nothing else is sacrosanct in a story, except the facts. A story is credible when facts are served ungarnished. But, these are interesting times for the media in America.

Of late, the media are painfully grappling with strange concepts and realities foisted on their practice: “alternative facts” and “fake news”.

These concepts find expression among those who, although aware of the facts, expect the media to garnish them in a manner to minimise the negative impact of truth.

In pursuit of transparency

Yours truly was among 17 professionals from 14 Anglo and Francophone African countries selected by the U.S. Department of State to participate in its 2017 International Visitors Leadership Programme, IVLP between May 15 and June 2, 2017, on the theme: “Transparency in Federal, State and Local Government.”

The trip was to expose participants to life in America and the workings of its bureaucratic systems. But, the role of the media in promoting transparency, accountability and good governance occupied my interest.

From the bureaucratic nerve-centre of Washington D.C., to California, the “windy city of skyscrapers”, to New Hampshire, the City to “live free or die”, to the sleepy agrarian city of Freeport, Illinois, to the port city of San Diego, California, and Raleigh, the “City of Oaks” in North Carolina, I observed how the media in America struggle to play their role under new rules.

Amid the reality of alternative facts and fake news, journalists I spoke to said transparency dies first. The media appear trapped in the battle between the pro-sanctity-of-facts media establishments, led by the Cable News Network, CNN, and proponents of alternative facts and fake news, championed by the Fox News establishment.

The first group believes facts in the news are sacred, as such must be reported as they are, no matter how bitter. They believe an environment of shifting facts is worse than quick-sands for media practice.

The second group appears concerned about self-preservation. They see facts, particularly those considered distasteful to certain vested interests, as a commodity that could be reported to reflect only the brighter side. Any attempt to show the dark side would be considered fake.

Media bitter frustrations

During the trip, a visit to C-SPAN, Washington DC-based cable media network, the International Producer, Jonelle Henry, recounted the frustrations the media in America face in doing their jobs.

One of such frustrating experiences, Ms. Henry said, relates to lack of access to factual information from government.

Ms. Henry, who also covers the White House for C-SPAN, said since the inception of the Donald Trump administration, the reality of media experience in America is shaped by the craving for alternative facts.

“White House officials are not responding to media enquiries as was the case in the past. When they do, all the facts are not made available. The daily media briefings on the activities of the President have recently been canceled after series of denials of reports attributed to the President.

“Correspondents of media houses considered ‘unfriendly’, particularly television, are routinely barred from covering certain events. Where they are allowed, they do so without cameras. The tradition for reporters to accompany the President on official trips has been stopped. The media are left to find ways to fulfil their obligations to satisfy the public’s right to know,” she said.

At the National Press Club in Washington D.C., a one-time senior journalist with the Chicago Tribune, who requested that his name should not be revealed, said the media in American are fighting a grim battle to protect their credibility.

“The American media has never had it so bad. We have always had American presidents. We are seeing the first American dictatorship. Only facts that appeal to the President or White House officials are what should be news. All other facts are fake. It’s a sad day for media and transparency,” he said.

Despite the unusual climate under which the media in America are operating at the moment, Jonathan Fleet, the Managing Editor, The Concord Monitor, the local newspaper in New Hampshire that focuses on the activities of the state government, said the paper’s staff had no reason to look over their shoulders to do their jobs.

“Although we have had cases where our Freedom of Information Act, FOIA requests for information have been rejected, based on the people’s right to know law, we always ensured our readers were served the facts, but within the realms of what is legally permissible,” Mr. Fleet said.

Formidable systems of Transparency

Despite the patch of grey in the polity by the media experience, America has formidable bureaucratic systems and structures that promote transparency and accountability in its governance processes.

From budgeting and fiscal appropriation by Congress, through recruitment and employment of personnel for its civil service, to procurement and award of contracts for projects, every activity follow established due process. Minimal human interference reduces the prospects for corruption and abuses.

The Congressional Budget Office, CBO, is responsible for preparing cost estimates and inter-governmental mandate statements by federal, state, local or tribal governments for legislation considered by the Congress.

The CBO’s senior Adviser to the director, Robert Sunshine, said the multi-year projections of federal spending, based on an objective and non-partisan analyses of data and statistics, constitute the baseline for the Congressional economic and budget decisions.

Unlike Nigeria, where annual budget estimates collated by the executive from the ministries, departments and estimates are often manipulated by the lawmakers, the estimates by the CBO cannot be tampered without adequate justification.

The Government Accountability Office, GAO, which has an Inspector General at its helm of affairs, guarantees transparency and accountability in government bureaucratic processes.

As the name implies, the GAO is the general monitor and auditor of all agencies, including military institutions and contractors, to ensure compliance with established government policies.

The Inspector General, Adam Trzeciak, said the office also audits the effectiveness of security procedures, to uncover possible misconduct, waste, fraud, theft or certain criminal activities by persons or groups, particularly involving misuse of organization’s funds.

“The GAO is an independent agency in the legislature, commonly referred as ‘the investigative arm of Congress’ or ‘the Congressional watchdog’. It examines how the taxpayers’ monies are spent and advices lawmakers and agency heads on how to make government function better,” Mr. Trzeciak said.

Also, the Office of the Personnel Management, OPM, is the central human resource planner for the U.S. government. It is the independent agency that manages the civil service following the abolition of the United States Civil Service Commission of 1883.

The International Affairs Programme Manager, Centre for Leadership Development, Federal Institute International Leadership Development Programme, Jill Feldman, said OPM is “the human resource solutions by government for government.”

Ms. Feldman said the OPM is charged with the responsibility of “recruiting, retaining and honouring a world –class workforce to serve the American people.”

Using a rigorous selection process that effectively removes any discretional employment procedures from all the agencies, she said OPM’s method of choosing  an employee for a new job follows a selection from three top candidates ranked for each vacancy and kept in a job bank for registered unemployed persons.

“Agencies requiring new employees send their request to the OPM, which will in turn source for the qualified personnel from the candidates in the unemployment bank, who already passed the necessary employment tests.

“The candidate whose qualification matches the requirement of the requesting agency are deployment based on the data available in the system. By so doing, the transparency is served and government is able to show the current employment and unemployment figures at the touch of the button,” Ms. Feldman explained.

Procurement of services and award of contracts for projects in America are set up consciously to minimize the corrupting influences of human interference. Every step of the processes are automated.

In New Hampshire, transparency is the norm. They believe fiscal transparency holds the key to a healthy democracy. For government to work for the people, tax revenue must not only be spent wisely, the impact must be seen.

Like in other States, all purchases and contracts are handled by the Division of Procurement Services, Bureau of Purchase and Property, the primary procurement agency for the state. The business of the bureau is conducted through a dedicated web portal, TransparentNH, to guarantee the people’s right to know.

“All bids are captured under NH First, the enterprise resource planning, ERP, application designed to integrate the State’s budgets, financials, payroll, procurement, asset management, human resources and treasury functions,” the Administrator IV of the Division, Gary Lunetta, said.

State agencies submit requests for bids to the NH First where sealed bid documents, with specific terms and conditions, are posted. All vendors are allowed fair, open and equal access, while contract awards are based on the lowest price.

Transparency in governance

Transparency was also visible in city administration. Here, the small coastal Town of Durham is a model. The municipal Administrator, Todd Selig, said the general governance roles were vested in the Town Council, which directs him in accordance with a Charter established for the liberal conduct of the town’s affairs.

For transparency and accountability, Mr. Selig said, all decisions concerning the general administration of the town, including fixing the salary for the Administrator (the highest paid official in the town), are taken during council meetings, which are held publicly as required by the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

Proceedings during meetings are transmitted live on all online platforms, for town members to connect from their homes and contribute to discussions.

Meet Judge Emeritus Clifford Wallace

Meeting U.S. Judge Emeritus, Senior Justice John Clifford Wallace, was a rare privilege. As the head of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 9thcircuit, the 88-year-old-Octogenarian, who, since 1972, worked in over 65 countries, including Nigeria, represents the face of transparency in the American judiciary.

Asked how the judiciary, especially in Africa, could be salvaged from corruption, Mr. Wallace did not mince words recommending transparency and ethical code for the courts.

“As long human beings remain human, we are going to watch out for corruption in the judiciary. My view is: Since we live in a corrupt society, we cannot expect the judiciary not to be affected by power or influence,” he said.

Mr. Wallace recalled his encounter with a one-time Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary during his stint in Nigeria, shortly after the exit of the military and the coming of democracy in 1999.

“I went to see the Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary. He asked what should be in the constitution on the judiciary. I said what to do is to raise the pay of the judges. And he said: Don’t they have enough from bribery? And I told him everything should be done to shield judges from corrupting influences,” he said.

“There must be a system that protects judges from outside influences. The judges should be fair. They should have the opportunity to call people to answer to charges without fear of any action against them for doing that.

“They should be transparent. The people on the outside have to see what is going on inside. That is because the decisions of the judiciary are enforced when people believe they were arrived at fairly and transparently.

“Transparency is the only protection the judge has. That is the only thing that tells the people what they are doing with the court system to earn their trust. The judiciary should have ethics of court that would encourage the judges to be honest and live above reproach,” he explained.

Dream come true

The trip to America, the land of big dreams, big cars, big roads and big buildings, was a dream come true. The biggest experience was the opportunity to meet warm hearted people, whose lives were shaped by the gains of transparency and accountability.

I felt like home everywhere we went. I came across people always ready to open their arms and hearts to accommodate visitors.

In Concord, the tiny community in New Hampshire, located few kilometers from Boston and Manchester, a volunteer activity at the New Hampshire Food Bank was fun.

The small garden, run by Jason Rivers, supplies fresh produce donated to some of the over 170,000 poor families and organisations in need of food in the town.

My visit to the home of Ed Naile, the director, Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, and his wife, Debbie in Deering, a Manchester suburb, gave a feel of real American hospitality.

The Newseum in Washington D.C. brought exhilarating reminders about the milestones in the media evolution, from the birth of radio and television, to the advent of technologies of the present and the future.

In Chicago, the reception by Dan Goff, with wife, Samira, and children in their home stirred my soul, leaving unforgettable feeling. Lunch with Randy Ashley and her family at their Flatlanders Dream Dairy farmhouse in Freeport, Illinois, was great.

The meetings with Illinois State Representative, Brian Stewart, and City of Freeport Mayor, Jodi Miller, were awesome.

Memories of the last supper in America in the home of the executive director, Freeport Area International Visitors Council, Kerrylyn Rodriguez, and her family remain as green as the sprawling farmlands of Illinois.

The trip brought home a charter for the formation of Transparency Africa, a network of groups committed to promoting transparency, accountability and good governance in the continent.


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