Have you noticed that whenever a newspaper columnist uses the phrase “full disclosure,” it’s primarily for purposes of self-aggrandizement?
In an article that’s supposed to be about an exciting new app for the Droid, or our disastrous policy in Pakistan, the author will slip in a “full disclosure” that is always a backhanded way of saying that his wife just won the Nobel Prize for physics, or that her cousin Ashley singlehandedly put Bernie Madoff in jail, or that the columnist’s brother-in-law once struck out Barry Bonds four times running. In an article that is ostensibly about the death of a famous musician, or the discovery of a new planet, or the announcement of a bold new White House initiative, the journalist will slip in a comment, supposedly for purposes of full disclosure, that informs the reader:
Full disclosure: I once took piano lessons with the deceased. He said I could be the next Chopin. Or at least the next Van Cliburn.
Full disclosure: My wife has already discovered eight planets. Eight.
Full disclosure: I went to prep school with Barack Obama and once dunked on him. Actually, twice.
Thus, full disclosure doesn’t mean that the author is taking pains to reveal that his comments may be colored by a friendship. It’s a way of telling the reader: I totally rock. I get to ask the president of the United States really important questions. I get to marry a super-high-powered publicist. Don’t you wish you were as well connected as me? Don’t you? You pathetic loser.
I am not saying that full disclosure statements are inappropriate or extraneous. They insulate journalists from accusations that they are concealing conflicts of interest. They inform the reader, often in breathless prose, that the author and the person he is writing about are close friends and, in some instances, betrothed. Such disclosures are an honest way of telling the reader: You should not take my comments at face value. I’m kind of connected with the person I’m writing about. Actually, we share the same summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.
The only problem I have with this approach is that the reporter may disclose one conflict of interest without disclosing another. He may reveal that he is married to a U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the corrupt hedge fund in Columbia, South Carolina, he is disparaging, but not reveal that he hates everybody from the Palmetto State because he once got smacked around by state troopers for giving them lip about a burned-out tail light on I-95 back in 1989. Or in an article about Bill Gates, he may disclose that he does consulting work for Apple on the side, but not reveal that he hates Microsoft because his first PC crashed before he got a chance to save his highest Tetris scores.
Or in an article critical of the French political system, he may inform the reader that he once shared a flat in Geneva with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but fail to disclose that the philandering Frenchman used to hit on his wife, his sister, his mother, his nanny, his babysitter, his maid, and his Great Aunt Muriel. And his cousin Wanda. And maybe even his sister-in-law Jacqui. And oh yeah, the Beranger twins down the hall.
Thus, the person making the relevant disclosures may have told the truth, but he has not told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The truth has been varnished. If newspapers had a policy that insisted on true, all-embracing “full disclosure,” we might see a wave of parenthetical aides that read more
“Bryant missed his last three jump shots against the Mavericks. Crucial jump shots. Jump shots the Lakers desperately needed him to make. Perhaps the time has come for Mr. Bryant to think about hanging it up for good. (Full disclosure: I am four-feet-nine, fat, with bad vision, and grew up rooting for the Celtics. I am basically only trashing Kobe because he once called me a Smurf. To be honest, I may not even be four-foot-nine.)”
“Secretary of State Christopher Lewis, as we have come to expect, had nothing useful to add to the discussion. He mispronounced ‘Hamas’ twice and seemed to mistake Kandahar for Kabul. His rambling peroration before the U.N. General Assembly is a genuine embarrassment to the administration. (Full disclosure: I dated Chris when we were both at Brandeis, not knowing that he was screwing my roommate behind my back—and then he went and married the slut.)”
“I don’t care what anybody says; I thought this flick was just like kind of kewl. I wanna like totally give major props and a shout-out to Justin Timberlake who was just like incredibly totally awesome. And the other actor—um, it’ll come to me . . . Ewan something . . . yeah, well, he was pretty awesome too. (Full disclosure: I only got my job with this newspaper because my mother works here.)”