Since the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports about all sorts of other layoffs and buyouts, one might expect extensive coverage of its own “voluntary separation incentive program” recently offered (and then rescinded) to journalists at the state’s largest media organization.

But the Star-Advertiser doesn’t appear to acknowledge issues related to the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents the company’s more-than-100 editorial employees. So, instead, we learned about these buyouts/layoffs and company demands through other media sources, such as KHON, Hawaii Public Radio and Civil Beat.

Among the fascinating behind-the-scenes details revealed by Civil Beat’s Rui Kaneya was the pressuring of those editorial employees to sign nondisclosure agreements requiring “confidentiality” and “no disparagement” without even getting such terms clarified in writing for union attorneys to vet.

Honolulu Star Advertiser offices Restaurant Row1. 27 may 2016

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has been silent about its own financial cutbacks and looming layoffs. Newspaper executives wanted the staff muzzled, too.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Such silencing tactics reflect a disturbing trend in the United States, in which corporations of all types have been trying to surreptitiously undermine constitutional rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nondisclosure and noncompete clauses in employment contracts have a limited place and purpose – when precious secrets are at stake, in highly technical fields – they should be rarely used and only in special cases.

This strategy instead is being abused and expanded into all sorts of inappropriate places, including for sandwich makers, yoga instructors, hairstylists, event planners and teenagers working as summer-camp counselors.

A White House report on this issue, released earlier this year, stated that 18 percent of the U.S. workforce now is under such speech restriction, which equates to about 30 million Americans trapped and censored in their jobs. They are kept this way often without any perceivable benefit, other than as a societal control mechanism to ensnare employees in their current positions.

In other words, scientists working on a nuclear submarine? Yes, those sorts of secrets should be kept as tightly as possible.

Sandwich engineers constructing a sub for my lunch? Those folks aren’t any sort of threat to national security (or the underpinnings of capitalism).

So most of those people – especially the roughly 15 percent of workers bound by such contracts who do not have college educations and make less than $40,000 per year – should be set free from such unreasonable restrictions on their rights to free speech, free expression and the freedom to pursue happiness.

Lawyers generally understand this situation. Ohio attorney Ronald L. Burdge, for example, noted in a 2012 article for the American Bar Association that confidential settlements – hidden from traditional means of public inspection – hurt our country’s sense of fair and equal justice.

They also probably are not enforceable, in most cases, instead used as a way to chill dissent and reporting of illegal or unethical behavior. They really are created to scare and control people more than provide legal justification for lawsuits.

Nondisclosure and noncompete clauses in employment contracts should be rarely used and only in special cases.

These backroom deals almost never benefit the public but almost always benefit people trying to hide bad behavior. Corruption naturally gravitates to these sorts of dark places, which is why I strongly recommend shining a bright light on governmental affairs. That means both legally requiring transparency and openness, which we already do, but then also adequately funding oversight agencies that can assess the situations and apply significant penalties, if warranted, which we generally do not.

I also suggest that more of the public spotlight should be shone on business endeavors that benefit from public dollars (which is just about every business, since they all use publicly funded roads, bridges, water and sewer and are protected by publicly funded police officers and firefighters).

At social gatherings, I get regularly exposed to business people confiding in me stories about their company-sponsored boondoggles, corrupt internal business practices and ridiculous tax write-offs, often supported by corporate welfare policies.

If any number of these activities happened in one of our beleaguered public agencies, the story would be propelled as front-page news. But because businesses generally play by different rules and are shielded from public scrutiny – despite benefiting in many ways from the public investments in them – they centralize power and diminish democratic oversight.

Presidential nominee Donald Trump, as the Associated Press reported, now requires almost everyone involved in his businesses and campaign to sign such an agreement, from his highest advisers to his hat maker. Yes, you read that right, the maker of his “Make America Great Again” hats had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to the report, also requires such agreements with her staff.

President Barack Obama, as part of his campaigning in 2008, promised to have one of the most open administrations in history. Instead, his has been one of the most secretive.

With such context, I have a hard time imagining either Clinton or Trump changing that trajectory. Neither one seems to be much of a proponent of open government and both regularly show disdain for journalists trying to ask tough questions (although, Trump, it should be clearly noted and emphasized, is in a class by himself in terms of lack of disclosure and disdain for journalists). In Trump’s case, legitimate fear has started circulating about the fate of the First Amendment and the landmark legal case New York Times vs. Sullivan.

Therefore, I expect public disclosures to become even more opaque in both government and business – from the top down and then back up again – as a culture of “it’s none of your business because it’s our business” pervades our society in even more nefarious ways.

Along those lines, Steven Johnson wrote a history of innovation titled “Where Good Ideas Come From,” and, spoiler alert, it’s not from closed fascist regimes. Creativity and innovation historically have emerged from places with free-flowing information and people with the mobility to come together and then spread apart and try their ideas against others in different places and different scenarios.

So who is going to stand up and fight this societal drift back into the dark ages? Really, only one group is positioned to do that: Your friends, the journalists!

Yet the leader of this occupational clan in Hawaii, the Star-Advertiser, ironically enough, has turned to nondisclosure when its business dealings are cast under the examination light. Instead of leading by example, offering explicit detail about the current situation and easy access to spokespeople, leaders of the organization have gone dark.

They could be focused upon prompting a community discussion about the state of the news industry and the value of local journalism, which might even lead citizens to rally around the company. Instead, they are putting up a veil.

That approach is anti-journalistic, which, considering the stakes, is something worthy of talking much more about.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.