Sociologist Michael Schudson on ‘The Rise of the Right to Know’

Bridget O'Brian
November 16, 2015

The right to know is so ubiquitous today that it’s hard to imagine a time when citizens, consumers and patients had no access to information we now consider basic.

But as late as 1961 only 12 percent of doctors said they would tell patients of a cancer diagnosis. Until the 1970s milk and other food products that could spoil didn’t have “sell by” dates that customers, and not just store clerks, could understand. Before 1970, major highways and dams were built with no requirement that government assess the impact of such projects on the environment in a document available to the public for review and criticism. That same year, the House of Representatives first released how specific members voted on amendments to bills.

“The concept of the right to know has transformed a great deal of American society,” said Michael Schudson, a sociologist who teaches at Columbia Journalism School. “It has made government information more accessible to the press, to the public, even to Congress. Much more broadly it changed how people think about their lives in America.”

His new book, The Rise of the Right to Know, published by Harvard University Press, chronicles the history of this cultural and political shift, which took hold from 1945 to 1975, forever embedding an expectation of transparency in our civic DNA.

There are many aspects to a more transparent society, and as important as public records laws have been in unlocking access to government information, Schudson points to other lasting changes, such as informed consent for medical research and campaign finance disclosure.

He also writes of First Lady Betty Ford, who spoke publicly about her mastectomy in 1974. Her frankness about breast cancer was shocking at the time. Author Judy Blume wrote children’s books describing the sexual aspects of growing up, making her the most censored author in America for a time. And he reminds readers that in 1967, long before Oprah, Phil Donahue began hosting a talk show in which people discussed the most intimate parts of their lives.

And what is the role of secrecy in this age of wall-to-wall information? “There are good reasons for secrecy, and they’re fairly easy to list,” said Schudson. Some of them are enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act, which makes many government records public but lists nine exemptions, such as for national security.

Relationships between spouses, doctors and patients, clergy and their parishioners, should remain private, he says, and secrecy “is also quite useful in protecting vulnerable people and groups,” he adds, the most obvious example being the secret ballot.

The idea of a public right to know was unheard of in the early days of the American republic. The U.S. Senate deliberated entirely in secret during its first years, and while newspapers had access to both houses of Congress thereafter, there was no government publication like the Congressional Record to detail legislative proceedings until the mid-1800s.

“The founding fathers did think very much about the importance of free speech, but I don’t think they would have approved of things like the Freedom of Information Act,” said Schudson.