The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975 by Michael Schudson
Given the ubiquity of invocations of the “Information Age” and the widely-shared assumptions behind it, particularly about the full accessibility of information and the right of the public to obtain it, one would think that more scholarly historical studies on those assumptions would be on record. In The Rise of the Right to Know, Michael Schudson unearths and examines those assumptions. His book traces a series of “openings”—the episodic “emergence of a culture of disclosure” and openness—in American politics, government, law, journalism, and society (17, 24).
Schudson effectively argues that this emergence began many years before the onset of our Information Age. Indeed, Schudson’s central contribution is to move the advent of the rise of the right to know to the 1950s and early 1960s. The push for bureaucratic and political openness, he narrates, then converged with the cultural opening of the late 1960s, as well as with the spectacular growth in information storage and delivery that occurred in the 1970s. [End Page 104]
The notion of “the right to know” encompasses a constellation of larger ideas, terms, and philosophical concerns: visibility, transparency, access, openness, disclosure, the public-private divide, privacy, secrecy. Schudson addresses these concerns. Those bigger issues animate, and make interesting, a series of mostly obscure politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. Of course, Ralph Nader and the various postwar presidents that move in and out of Schudson’s story are not obscure. But figures like John Moss, Philip A. Hart, John Douglas, Esther Peterson, Richard Conlon, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Lynton Caldwell, and Gaylord Nelson are likely not familiar to those who work outside of political history or the history of government. It is a credit to Schudson that this text fosters a desire to learn more about each.
To support his argument, Schudson uses these figures to focus the reader on a series of acts, groups, and initiatives that catalyzed the “right to know” as a phenomenon. These included: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, 1966), the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (1966), the push for food unit pricing and nutritional labeling, the Democratic Study Group (1959–1995) and its research reports, the Legislative Reorganization Act (1970), the rise of contextual/investigative journalism (i.e. an adversary press), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, 1969) and its environmental impact statements, and, finally, the Inspectors General Act (1978).
Each of these emerged from efforts that began before the late 1960s. For instance, the FOIA grew out of the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 and the work of California’s Democratic Congressman John Moss and his “Moss Committee” (Subcommittee on Government Information), which existed from 1955–1966 (37–45). Moss and members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors worked to pull back the “paper curtain” of executive secrecy (45–50). The work of Philip Hart and Esther Peterson on food packaging, pricing, and labeling came out of John F. Kennedy’s “consumer ‘bill of rights’,” articulated first on the 1960 campaign trail (64–66).
Schudson definitely proves his thesis. And his discussion of recent political theory on democracy, focusing on John Keane, Bernard Manin, Pierre Rosanvallon, and Morton Keller, elevates the book philosophically. The new openness of information has enabled the multiplicity of public representation and government accountability. Schudson is most sympathetic to Keane’s construct of a “monitory democracy” to explain the myriad “political observatories” that counter the power of the administrative state (233–234, 257).
The author confesses to an overall “positive appraisal” of these developments (24). They helped America become “more fully democratic than…before” (5). As such, Schudson does not attempt to explain the forces of counter or anti-knowledge, so ably covered in recent works by Robert Proctor, Noami Oreskes, and Erik Conway. It is not as if those forces disappeared after being explored and explained in Richard Hoftstadter’s famous 1963 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Before and alongside the rise of the right to know, there existed groups who either refused to know or worked to maintain existing political power by obfuscating knowledge. Their politics denied transparency and replaced information with misinformation.
Despite this significant omission, The Rise of the Right to Know is a well-written and accessible study, worthy of attention by scholars of the history of government, journalism, and politics. [End Page 105]