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October 19th, 2009
08:36 AM ET

Dear President Obama #273: Public trust? Not so much...

Reporter's Note: President Obama, like every president, must wrestle with the issues of just how transparent and open a government can be. Absolute truth, in governing as in relationships, can be a difficult thing for people to handle. Take for instance, the case of Colorado’s balloon boy…

The balloon is displayed at the sheriff's department in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Sunday.
The balloon is displayed at the sheriff's department in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Sunday.

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

So how about that? Authorities now believe that whole balloon boy thing was indeed a hoax! Just a couple of days ago I was writing to you about how I tend to believe people are telling the truth unless facts tell me otherwise, but now I suppose the facts suggest deeper investigation and charges are in order, at least according to the authorities.

But that “according to the authorities” part is what has me concerned. Because as part of this revelation, the sheriff’s office also says it knowingly mislead the media by saying publicly on Friday that investigators did not believe this was a hoax. They say they needed to keep the confidence of the family so that they could sew up their case against them. I respect the difficulties faced by police and prosecutors, and I think our society should support them. But the idea of them wantonly deceiving the public for a case like this seems sketchy at best…and dangerous at worst.

This was not a matter of national security, military secrets, or clandestine maneuvers against international terrorists. This was a case against a couple who liked being on Wife Swap, and had a giant Jiffy Pop container in their backyard. The sheriff could have simply made no comment. “I’m sorry, but it would be irresponsible of me to speculate until we’ve had time to thoroughly review all the facts and talk to everyone involved.” No penalty. No foul.

But let’s look at the flipside: If it is OK for this public official to knowingly tell a untruth to the very taxpayers who pay his salary, why can’t others? Why shouldn’t the Department of Labor lie about unemployment figures to boost economic confidence? Why shouldn’t the military give us false numbers about the dead and wounded in war to raise troop morale? Why shouldn’t you just describe everything as peaches and cream, as long as it makes your job easier, raises optimism, and ensures your chances of re-election? Why? Because we already have enough doubts about the honesty of our public officials.

Not to mention the court case. I think it goes something like this: “Officer, you admit you told a public lie to nail this family. Then why should we believe your testimony now?”

The media often get blamed for being dishonest. And you know from my past letters that I am one of the first to say sometimes we have tried so hard to gin up public interest and higher ratings, that our industry has distorted, inflated, and misrepresented stories. It should not happen and plenty of good journalists I know have spent their lives trying to police that very behavior in our own profession.

I’m more than willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt on this, if more facts come out suggesting that they really did not intend to fool everyone. But we’re not a country that has ever liked the idea of secret police, secret courts, or secret anything in our public offices, unless there is a really good reason for them to be secret… otherwise, they run the risk of being just plain dishonest. And I suspect if we reach the point where we routinely worry that even local police are telling fibs, we may find it very hard to maintain a functioning society as we know it. And that’s no lie.

Enough on that. Did you see my Saints? Woo hoo! Call if you want and we can do that guy thing where we discuss the game as if we actually played. What fun!

Regards,

Tom

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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