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


I wish for this book to help people see that even some of the things we have come to take for granted in our own everyday lives, things that seem to us practices of obvious value, were not obvious to most people but emerged in the imaginations of reformers. Today some of the practices the reformers changed sound unbelievable: that the House of Representatives voted secretly on major amendments to major legislation until 1970? That milk, cottage cheese, and eggs at the supermarket until about the same time had “sell-by” dates stamped on them – but stamped in code so that store employees but not consumers could read them? That doctors until about the same time avoided telling their patients with cancer that they had cancer? Times have changed!

I’m not a political scientist and I’m not a specialist in the study of Congress, so examining the inner life of a handful of legislative acts and the people in and out of the Congress who shaped them was revelatory to me. And I think the fact that I knew so little and learned so much in doing the research for this book helps the book to preserve the sense of drama that these legislative efforts had at the time, and the sense of how much new legislation can be a step into the unknown, with no one sure just where it might lead. Those who supported the Freedom of Information Act had no clue that corporations would be the primary users of “FOIA.” Those who supported the environmental impact statement had no clue that it would generate hundreds of lawsuits against the government for inadequate environmental protections and half-baked impact assessments.

And no one in 1970 saw coming – and coming fairly soon down the road – that “transparency” would become a magic word in American political culture, seen as a solution, or a half-solution, or a sop when more substantive efforts at reform seemed impossible.