Sociologist Michael Schudson on our ‘Right to Know’


I’m Michael Schudson, I teach at Columbia Journalism School, I’m a professor there in the PHD program and the master’s
programs and I’m a historian in sociology of American politics and media
and I’ve just published a book called “The Rise of the Right to Know: politics
and the culture of transparency 1945-1975.” The concept of right to know since it came to be part of our language in the 50s and 60s has transformed a great deal in
American society with respect to government where the
term is used most frequently it has made government information more accessible
to the press more accessible to the public and I should add it makes
executive government information more accessible to the Congress itself much
more broadly it changed how people think about their lives in America it’s
changed how doctors talk to or don’t talk to their patients it was common
practice with with a patient who had a serious probably fatal illness for the
doctor not to tell them that and there’s stunning evidence of this in
some surveys done and one in 1961 that found that 12% of doctors treating
cancer patients mentioned to the patient that they had cancer and by 1979 the
survey was repeated and it was 98 percent of doctors and the this this
changed aspects of medical research where subjects of medical research had
to be informed informed consent to participate in the research
especially if there was something that might damage them or affect their health
adversely campaign finance disclosure came in in the 1970s and people would
share much more than they had before about again aspects of their own
lives that had been private when Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer
in 1974 she spoke about that publicly and she spoke about her mastectomy
publicly and this was shocking to people in 1974 but but she became something of
a national heroine as a result. The Right to Know is is a not technically
a legal right, that is, it’s not protected by the
Constitution. It is in some specific instances it’s protected by legislation
so if you want information from the government and you file a Freedom of
Information Act request because it’s not you can’t find it on the department’s
website or anywhere else and phone calls don’t work so you file a FOIA as it’s
called request and the government is obliged by law to respond to you within
so many days if they respond and they say we’re not going to share it that
information because it they have to specify it for all – under exemption so-and-so you can say well so they tell me but they’re wrong and I’m gonna sue for
this information and then you can take them to court under the Freedom of
Information Act and you may win and you may lose but more than a few times you
will win looking ahead with the internet can we
imagine a case where we’re going to cut back on all this information sharing can
we can we put the genie back in the bottle. Not entirely, no I don’t think we
can and we have to learn to adapt to a wildly new environment. There are a lot
of these dilemmas that are going to keep arising as we take it for granted that
information is supposed to be public as a first principle I think yes
public information should be public but in practice it gets vastly more
complicated in that