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

The wide angle

This book has a specific origin in a book I published in 1998. In The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, I argued that the character of American civic life cannot be measured on a single dimension in which we become better or worse citizens with a better or worse civic life. Instead, the very concept of a good citizen changed – at least three times in the course of U.S. history. I presented this account as a critique of some influential thinkers who understood American civic life to be in sharp decline from a better era – the era of the 1950s.

I took particular aim at the work of Robert Putnam in his brilliant – but I think deeply mistaken – Bowling Alone (1995). Surely, I thought, and contrary to Putnam, American civic life, on balance, is better in the 1990s or 2000s than in the 1950s! Obviously, it is more inclusive now than it was then. Neither women nor African-Americans nor gays and lesbians can have much nostalgia for the 1950s. But beyond that obvious point, some other things have improved enormously, and one of those things is that transparency has become a more widely shared value. These days, doctors tell their patients with cancer that they have cancer; in the 1950s, that was rare. In the 1950s, the doctor-patient relationship was highly paternalistic, and this went largely unquestioned. Medical research did not seek the informed consent of people that research physicians enrolled in experiments. Members of Congress routinely hid their voting from public view. Are we not, on balance, much better off now that individuals’ autonomy in making decisions about their own lives is much more recognized and honored than it was in the 1950s?

But, I wondered, how much changed and how did it change? This book takes transparency in a wide variety of conditions, including government transparency, to be a valuable part of a high-quality civic life and to have clearly improved in the post-1950s era. But what, I wondered, is the history of the shift to greater transparency? No one had really tackled that topic as a whole. My aim was to make a good start on the project.