Fri, Jul

Transparency: Good for Democracy but It Sure Screws Up a Good Story


THE EPPERHART REPORT-Real life has ruined fiction. Books, movies, television -- it’s all been wrecked by the characters who now dominate media. I don’t mean entertainment media. I’m referring to what we still call news media. 

Any number of spy thrillers used the device of secret information, usually some coded communication in the form of microfilm or a microdot. Whatever was contained therein was always so explosive in nature it could topple governments or start wars. 

Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films (North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example) used such a plot device. We never knew what the information was, just that it was crucial to the free world. Hitchcock called these devices used to drive the narrative “McGuffins.” 

The writers John Le Carre and Len Deighton created fictional worlds of cold war spies who traded in secrets. Their characters were always seeking to protect a secret or learn a secret, but never, ever to reveal a secret. 

That fictional device was saved for stories of the innocent trapped in the system and whose only salvation was to tell the world what really happened, usually via the New York Times (Three Days of the Condor) or some other equally righteous media outlet. These protagonists knew that widespread outrage would save them and result in punishment for the bad guys. 

Government’s secrets and the fictional tug-of-war over them made for some truly suspenseful fiction.

But thanks to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden and, apparently, the Russians, there are no more secrets. Real life has overtaken fiction. Plots were driven by the mere knowledge that there was a secret. What that secret was didn’t matter. What the hero had and the villain wanted, or vice versa, was key to the story. 

Now that everyone knows what the secrets are, what’s the point of protecting them? Where’s the thrill of knowing your operative in Berlin or Cairo or Hong Kong is risking their life when all you have to do is check the Wikileaks website to get the information? 

The worse part of all this is that the material in the deluge of emails is usually mundane and often trivial. Media digs through it looking for the good stuff, which frequently turns out to be no more than confirmation of what everyone already suspected. Now we know. So what? 

Today’s best authors of spy novels are setting their stories in earlier times. The years leading up to, during, and after World War II are particularly popular. By night, characters circulate in the drawing rooms of Europe, elegantly dressed and bantering with the representatives of the Third Reich. By day, they are organizing partisans and blowing up bridges. Communications is done using invisible ink or clandestine radios in dusty garrets. None of this smartphone stuff for our hero. And certainly no emails that will end up on Facebook. 

Transparency in the real world is a good thing. Discovering what our politicians and bureaucrats get up to behind closed doors is how we keep our democracy. But, all that openness can sure ruin a good story.


(Doug Epperhart is a publisher, a long-time neighborhood council activist and former Board of Neighborhood Commissioners commissioner. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be reached at: [email protected]) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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