Where the right to know comes from

Michael Schudson in Columbia Journalism Review: “…what began as an effort to keep the executive under check by the Congress became a law that helped journalists, historians, and ordinary citizens monitor federal agencies. Nearly 50 years later, it may all sound easy and obvious. It was neither. And this burst of political engagement is rarely, if ever, mentioned by journalists themselves as an exception to normal “acts of journalism.”

But how did it happen at all? In 1948, the American Society of Newspaper Editors set up its first-ever committee on government restrictions on the freedom to gather and publish news. It was called the “Committee on World Freedom of Information”—a name that implied that limiting journalists’ access or straightforward censorship was a problem in other countries. The committee protested Argentina’s restrictions on what US correspondents could report, censorship in Guatemala, and—closer to home—US military censorship in occupied Japan.

When the ASNE committee turned to the problem of secrecy in the US government in the early 1950s, it chose to actively criticize such secrecy, but not to “become a legislative committee.” Even in 1953, when ASNE leaders realized that significant progress on government secrecy might require federal legislation, they concluded that “watching all such legislation” would be an important task for the committee, but did not suggest taking a public position.

Representative Moss changed this. Moss was a small businessman who had served several terms in the California legislature before his election to Congress in 1952. During his first term, he requested some data from the Civil Service Commission about dismissals of government employees on suspicion of disloyalty. The commission flatly turned him down. “My experience in Washington quickly proved that you had a hell of a time getting any information,” Moss recalled. Two years later, a newly re-elected Moss became chair of a House subcommittee on government information….(More)”