It is an extremely odd fact that despite the flood of media, news and commentary that pummels Americans every day, we remain a dreadfully uninformed population.
Case in point: Whistleblowers alerted the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission of Bernie Madoff's fraudulent investments as far back as 2000. Nothing was done. Certainly the poor defrauded investors were not informed or warned.
Many other examples could be cited. But the point is, a strange case of "Information Deficit Disorder" regularly plagues America's public dialog.
The amusement machine industry also suffers from Information Deficit Disorder. Today, this publication knows of at least three major, ongoing stories that deserve very full airings and discussion among industry members. (No doubt there are plenty more that we don't know about.) Two of the stories regard important debates over the basic role and future direction of our national trade associations. Another story concerns activities of a leading manufacturer or distributor.
We believe operators deserve to know the facts about these developments. The issues under discussion could have a significant impact on the business plans of individual operators, and in some cases perhaps on the fate of the industry as a whole.
Unfortunately, VT is unable to report on these stories. (In one instance, we were informed of the facts on the strict condition that the story would not be printed.) Fundamentally, however, these stories remain buried because those in the know don't want an open public discussion. They don't want to inform the average operator about the facts.
Why not? Informing the average operator might cause an uproar. It might force a policy change. It might affect operator buying decisions. It might oblige leaders to defend and explain their actions. It might invite criticism. Going public with important issues and decisions is often an uncomfortable process, even if you're convinced you and your company or your association are doing the right thing.
The three stories I'm talking about are simply the latest examples in a long list of cases where responsible parties are keeping their lips zipped and their heads down, based on the feeling that it's nobody else's business (yet) and that life will go more smoothly if certain things are just not talked about.
That's a very human reaction, of course. Who wants to air his problems? It is also a typical corporate and board reaction. Corporations make a common practice of denying bad news right up until the minute they do a 180° reversal and announce the facts. Publicly held corporations are virtually obliged to this, out of responsibility to stockholders, but privately held firms do the same thing based on fear or perceived self-interest.
As for trade associations, their boards often seem to feel that controversies should be kept behind closed doors. Public silence can often be justified by saying, "We are protecting the image of the industry." And sometimes that's true. But should the image of the industry be the overriding value that trumps all other considerations? Even if it means the rank-and-file haven't got a clue that important decisions are pending? Decisions that will be made in their name, with their money? Decisions that will affect their futures?
Yes, life goes more smoothly when hot-button issues are not debated. (As some outspoken industry leaders have learned, if you don't say anything, you can't be criticized for saying the "wrong" thing.) However, lack of controversy is not the highest value at stake, either … particularly where trade associations are involved.
The democratic process is all about debate and controversy. If you haven't got debate, you haven't got democracy. The more democratic an organization is, the more debate it's going to have. The industrywide stance of "hunker down and clam up" has become noticeably more prevalent during the past two years. Apparently, the worse the economy gets … and the tougher the sales charts or the association budgets … the stronger the urge to say nothing becomes. So we have now reached the very strange point in this vibrant, $6 billion business where the industry's public dialog is nearly devoid of any serious content.
Should certain trade associations merge? Should certain trade shows merge? What is the future of the distribution network in an era of downloading and growing direct sales? What should operators, distributors and manufacturers do about various market factors that are tending toward location alliances with entertainment content providers? What are the implications of the public's growing use of credit and debit cards, to the detriment of cash? How should the amusement machine industry cope with the rapidly growing culture of free online amusement? How should the industry – not individual state associations, not even the national associations, but the industry as a whole – react to the threat of another round of legalized gambling expansion?
Please, nobody say that operators, distributors and manufacturers are too busy running their day-to-day businesses to discuss these things. These issues are being debated right now, quite passionately, on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the debates are occurring almost entirely behind closed doors.
My point is that these same questions should also be receiving a full, free, vigorous public discussion.
Instead, the silence is deafening.