- The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975 by Michael Schudson
What do environmental impact statements, unit pricing at supermarkets, and the torture memos of the George W. Bush administration have in common? According to Schudson, they are all examples of information derived from what he calls “the new culture of disclosure” that developed during the 1960s and early 1970s (276). Although we take for granted that citizens have a right to know what their government is doing, that demand for transparency has a surprisingly recent provenance—one that this provocative study sets out to explore.
Now a value in itself, openness affects more areas of contemporary life than is immediately apparent. It is, Schudson contends, responsible for phenomena that range from the pressure for accountability within the federal bureaucracy to the willingness of physicians to tell patients that they have cancer. Not only has this new call for candor brought hitherto taboo subjects into the public domain; it has also transformed the American polity. We currently live under what Schudson and a few political scientists describe as a “monitory democracy,” in which the public keeps a constant eye on the people in power (25, 230).
Significantly, despite its emergence during the political upheavals of the 1960s, transparency was not an objective of that decade’s social movements; rather, it was, in many respects, the inadvertent by-product of other reforms that used disclosure as a tool for constraining the power of the federal government. Its progenitors were little known politicians [End Page 252] and mid-level bureaucrats—“the second lieutenants,” as Schudson calls them (270). The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for example, was the baby of John Moss, a fairly obscure California congressman who had been campaigning against official secrecy since 1955. A concurrent drive by other liberals to democratize Congress weakened the power of reactionary southerners by eliminating secret voting in the House of Representatives.
Schudson’s other case studies reinforce his argument that sunshine was never a goal in itself. With regard to consumer and environmental protections, for example, although sporadic scandals brought attention to the need for action, there were no powerful interest groups calling for greater transparency. Rather, the reverse took place: Increasing access to information allowed reform movements to flourish.
Credit for the new regime also goes to the press—newly analytical and, by the mid-1960s, no longer deferential to the powers that be. In this context, Schudson’s argument becomes circular; he attributes much of the success of his behind-the-scenes heroes to their ability to manipulate the media. Moreover, despite acknowledging that the greater access to information both provoked and benefited from judicial action, Schudson pays insufficient attention to litigation as a key political actor.
In the final analysis, Schudson believes that the spread of critical thinking that greater exposure to higher education produced in the 1960s explains why the culture of disclosure developed when it did. This thesis may be provocative, but it is hardly persuasive. If only the academic community had that much power. Even so, in this thoughtful and imaginative account of a previously overlooked transformation, Schudson has given us much food for thought.