Michael Schudson

 

On his book The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945–1975

Cover Interview of February 13, 2019

In a nutshell

This book examines the history of a set of transparency-related reforms that came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s. The term “transparency” was not in general use in politics then, and these reforms were not linked to one another. It is only in retrospect that the Freedom of Information Act, legislation to reduce secret voting in the Congress, new practices in consumer information, and the legal invention of public environmental impact statements in 1970 all look like first cousins.

All of these developments made U.S. society more transparent. But they were promoted by different people, for different reasons, and with different rhetorics. There was consumer information reform, which instituted unit pricing in supermarkets and required expiration dates on perishable food items and nutritional labeling, and President Kennedy mentioned a “consumer’s right to be informed” in a 1962 message to Congress, but no such language marked the “environmental impact statement” innovation. Efforts to make more votes in Congress public were promoted as “anti-secrecy” measures but without reference to citizens’ “rights.”

Even the 1966 Freedom of Information Act acquired its noble name after it became law, not in the effort to pass it; it had been dubbed simply the “federal public records act” and passed as an amendment to the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. While proponents of the act noted the importance of informed citizens in a democracy, the legislators did not do much to address the public or to encourage public support for their proposal. The whole business was regarded largely as a way for the Congress to hold the executive branch accountable.

The various efforts to pass transparency-enhancing laws that came into effect in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1971 were not products of the cultural “sixties.” The primary sponsors were World War II veterans. They were seasoned legislators with political careers dating back to the 1940s. All contributed to “the rise of the right to know” without ever having meant to do so. Transparency for them was a means to some other ends.