THE American people face momentous issues in 1986. They can face them intelligently only if they have reliable information on which to base their opinions. Through their direct expressions and through their representatives in Congress, Americans influence policies and decisions. In doing so today, they are handicapped by the great difficulty of getting a balanced picture of the issues.
How will we balance defense and social programs in the budget battle?
How far should we go in seeking an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union? What should the administration do about the pressures to build or to negotiate the Strategic Defense Initiative?
Should we build more MX missiles, or put our money into midget missiles?
Should we support the ``contras'' in Nicaragua and Savimbi in southern Africa?
In a time of budget austerity, how much should we provide to help the often desperate social and economic circumstances in Africa and Asia?
The list could be longer. Whatever the question, the citizen will, in the effort to determine the correct path, encounter the governmental phenomenon of selective information.
It is more than a coincidence that reports of alleged Soviet violations of arms agreements surface just before renewed talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. Chance is not at work when the secretary of the Navy suddenly reveals new data on the buildup of the Soviet Navy just before congressional hearings on the defense budget
Many citizens must surely ask why it is that reports of Cubans working with the Nicaraguan forces suddenly come to the surface just before a congressional debate on aid to the contras in Central America.
Similarly, stories suddenly appear about famine in Africa just before the congressional considerations of foreign aid.
The information, timed to influence events, may well be accurate, but it may well not represent the whole story. At times, in the search for information to support policies, items are released that are insufficiently confirmed or evaluated.
The phenomenon of selective information is not one unique to a single administration. It is an inevitable result of the vested interest that officials have in the success of a policy and the desire to best doubters and opponents in the internecine bureaucratic and political wars. The emphasis is almost never on whether the policy is wise; rather, the emphasis is on how to defend it and ``sell'' it.
Although the practice of seeking information to support an action can be understood and, perhaps, justified, the tactic skews the debate on critical issues.
Problems are inevitably presented out of balance. Soviet violations are stressed with little reference to Soviet compliance or to those instances where our own adherence may have been shaded. The virtues of our ``freedom fighters'' are stressed with little attention to their ultimate objectives or possibilities of success. Government information tends to become a massive public relations effort on behalf of predetermined actions -- unaccompanied by any discussion of alternatives or weaknesses.
The public might be less skeptical about many government statements if the policies followed the facts. Often, however, the policies are declared and then facts are sought to support the policies.
When the present administration came into office its desire to change what it believed to be circumstances adverse to US interests in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Libya was widely declared. There was a widespread feeling within the Congress and much of the public that the administration sought facts and pretexts to support what it wanted to do all along.
An administration presenting controversial policies to the Congress and to the public does face a problem. If it tries to be totally objective, opponents to a policy will seize selectively on that part of the government's position that supports their point of view. The government, in a sense, cannot win.
In our leaky political society, facts supporting another point of view do emerge, but often in a way that is equally destructive of intelligent discussion.
Perhaps our system provides no clear alternative to the selective presentation of facts and justifications on issues on which there is no national consensus. The public will look for balance in the media and in other channels of public communication. The citizenry cannot be faulted if it views with skepticism information that comes from the government at the precise moment that a critical issue is being debated.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University