A memo circulated to employees of the Department of Transporation has ordered: "All major initivaties in the field of public affairs such as interviews, announcements, news releases, speeches etc. given to representatives of the news media must first be cleared with and approved by the director of public affairs."
The result was predictable. Everybody in DOT except Secretary Brock Adams and his director of publuc affairs immediately clammed up. Nobody else would talk to a reporter. The Washington Star charged that Adams had "slammed the door on the press," and said that it now took reporters several days to check out even the simplest fact because they had to go all the way to the top to do it.
Imagine waiting for an appointment with the Secretary of Transportation to find out how many buses there are in the United States or how many commercial airliners achieved "on time" arrivals last year!
It makes sense to try to coordinate major initiatives, announcements and speeches, and to let an expert in these things take a look at them before they go out to the public. But when a few words like "etc." convey the impression that all of the Secretary's underlings are forbidden to talk to reporters about anything, there is used for quick clarification.
Given the chance to explain away what The Star interpreted as a gag order. Adams instead indicated to The Star's Stephen M. Aug that DOT employees hadn't misunderstood him at all. Adams said he didn't want anybody else talking to reporters - not even Under Secretaries or Assistant Secretaries. He didn't want one official saying one thing and another official saying another. So he, Adams, would do all the talking.
If Secretary Adams will read some of the campaign speeches President Carter made on the subject of dealing openly and honestly with the American people, he will find a more eloquent exposition of the need for opening up the government process than I can compose.
Mr. Carter said repeatedly that he believes in letting some sunshine into the dark corners of government that have for so long been hidden from the public's view. He said it so earnestly and so often that I believe him, and I hope Secretary Adams does, too.
There is also a practical aspect to this matter that I hope Adams will consider.
Putting a gag on everybody at DOT except the Secretary will not cause one blessed employee to have a better understanding of departmental policy. All it will do is cover up the misunderstandings about departmental policy that do exist.
When the press has access to government employees, it helps achieve the unity of purpose that Adams says is his goal. The underling who is quoted as enunciating an erroneous policy hears from his boss in short order. After he is called on the carpet for blundering, there's no further doubt in his mind about what the official policy is.
But if a gag order prevents reporters from discovering and revealing that an agency's official policy hasn't been made clear to every peon down the line, the foulup goes undetected and uncorrected. The top man is too busy to find our for himself, and therefore can't remedy his agency's malfunction.
So what it comes down to is whether it's all right if the underlings at DOT are confused about the Department's policy so long as the public never has a chance to find out they're confused.
What Secretary Adams has to ask himself is: "What is my real purpose - to get these guys working together as a team, or to preserve the illusion that they're working as a team by not letting the voters know when they goof?"