The United States has a noisy and utterly imperfect representational democracy, disorderly and dysfunctional in many ways. But as Founding Father James Madison famously observed, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Unfortunately, in terms of a national “right to know” law, it took 144 years for the American people to begin to arm themselves with palpable knowledge about their government. After many, many years of earnest organizing efforts by various public-interest organizations, in 1966 Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has been subsequently amended many times.
Sunshine Week. a collaboration between the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, supports that right to know by stressing the importance of open government and freedom of information.
No one can credibly suggest that transparency and the FOIA law are excessive. For one thing, the law does not even apply to the White House, or to Congress, or to the two major political parties, or to private corporations that wield immense power and dominate our national politics, but were not specifically mentioned in the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution.
Nor does the FOIA law apply to the large, nonprofit “think tanks,” sometimes known as the “idea merchants,” which help to frame our national discourse about specific public policy issues.
There are, in addition, nine other formal FOIA exemptions that prevent or can severely delay disclosure. One of these pertains to national defense and foreign policy. Ever since the Atomic Age began 70 years ago and national security became paramount, public disclosure necessarily has become seriously circumscribed.
Overall, billions of government records have been classified and withheld, or severely redacted, during that period – all delaying and distorting “the truth” as Americans know it.
For example, it took half a century and a presidential commission of nearly 50 researchers for the American people to learn the extent of the U.S. government’s human radiation experiments.
Separately, it took roughly seven years and 7,000 U.S. soldier deaths in Vietnam before the American people learned that the president of the United States had lied about the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin attack against U.S. naval forces, the ostensible rationale for the U.S. war in Vietnam. The New York Times’ and Washington Post’s June 1971 publication of the leaked, secret Department of Defense history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, known as the “Pentagon Papers,” laid bare that and other misrepresentations by Johnson and his administration.
We are still waiting for all of the documents from the U.S. destabilization of Chile more than 40 years ago; for information on the Iran-Contra scandal in which 14 federal officials were initially charged with federal crimes 30 years ago; and for documents about so many other important uses and abuses of government power.
Another significant impediment to transparency involves corporate outsourcing. There are nearly four times more federal contractors, about 7.5 million, doing the business of government than actual traditional government employees. Contractors are often managing other contractors. Not only do the FOIA laws not apply to them, neither do federal government ethics laws.
Facts are and must be the coin of the realm in a democracy, because government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” to paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, requires and assumes to some extent an informed citizenry.
Or as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
And in a nation with 100 million more people today than during the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, but only half as many professional journalists and four times more public relations agents now than professional journalists (in 1960, the ratio was 1-to-1), one of the very few, truth-telling moorings the public must have is access to and freedom of information.
Charles Lewis is a professor of journalism at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and the founding executive editor of its Investigative Reporting Workshop. He is the author of “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity.”