The Press and Peoples Right to Know
FEBRUARY 01, 1967 by JOHN C. MERRILL
Dr. Merrill is Professor of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
The idea is prevalent today, at least among journalists, that the people of the United States have a right to know government business. Although there are various segments of our society, including many in the government apparatus, which seemingly do not endorse this "people’s right to know," it has been generally accepted as a basic concept in our democratic Republic. If the people rule through their representatives, then it naturally follows that if they are to be well-informed, intelligent rulers, they must know what their government is doing. In this sense, "the people’s right to know" is on solid theoretical ground.
What is rather disturbing about the whole matter of the "people’s right to know" is the idea that the government apparatus is solely —or largely — responsible for restricting this right. There is no doubt, of course, that government is secretive, is over-sensitive, and is restrictive of information. It is also clear that government "manages" the news, making sure certain releases are made at the right time to achieve a desired effect and de-emphasizing (or eliminating) certain other information about which it is not enthusiastic. Everyone who can read in this country should know about this government secrecy, sensitivity, and management. The mass media of communication, with a certain sensitivity of their own, periodically draw the public’s attention to it.
The concept of "the people’s right to know" has mainly been promoted since World War II; books such as Kent Cooper’s The Right to Know and Harold Cross’ The People’s Right to Know and numerous articles have been printed declaring such a "right" and castigating government for infringing on it. No libertarian can but admire and applaud such antigovernment broadsides, but the problem is much larger than this. And it cries out for a solution which is not so simplistic as blaming the government — or even "reforming" it.
Do People Care?
Two other important factors are involved in this business of letting the people know: the people, and the press. How often they are overlooked in a discussion of this area!
Quite frankly, the people either don’t know they have such a right, or they don’t take it seriously. It appears that they simply don’t care. Such a right to know is certainly one of great importance — a civil right if there ever was one. But where is public concern? Where are the "demonstrations," the letters to congressmen — even the letters to newspapers and magazines? Why has not the Supreme Court, under popular pressure, dealt with this infringement of a civil right? Why, indeed, do not the citizens (the people who have this theoretical right) insist upon it?
The only segment of our society which seems really concerned about the right is the press — the editors and publishers chiefly. They criticize, agitate, and fret about the "people’s right to know" being infringed on by government. In effect, they imply that government alone keeps the people from "knowing" government business. But this is not really true. What about the news media themselves? What are they doing in this respect? Any person familiar with the typical news operation must recognize that only a very small portion of government-related information gets to the average citizen’s eye or ear. So in effect, the news media are guilty themselves of the same sins of omission and commission they point to in government.
The editors select and reject government information. They leave out this story, that picture, this viewpoint. They play up this speech, trim that one and put it on page 44, leave that one out completely. In effect, they act as censors — perhaps with the best of motives — but censors nevertheless. They "manage" the news, also, just as government officials do. They play their parts, too, in the restriction of the people’s right to know. Of course, they would not put it so bluntly, preferring to call it "exercising their editorial prerogative." They are "editing"; the government people are "managing" and "restricting."
Much News Is Wasted
While the editors and publishers are bemoaning the fact that they cannot get enough news from government, their underlings (or they themselves) are filling wastebaskets in the newsrooms with government news of all types. For years I have been trying to get one of my graduate students to do a content analysis of the newsroom wastebaskets instead of the newspaper’s pages. Such a study should be illuminating, and I am sure would show that the newspapers do have abundant information about government, but which is not being printed. Admittedly, much of this material is not "newsworthy" (and this is as subjective as what a government man might label "classified") and should not be used, but the fact remains that it is not being given to the people who have a right to know it. (Loud cries of "space limitations!" at this point.) In spite of various rationalizations, it does appear that if the press is seriously concerned about the right of the people to know about government, it will increasingly point its finger at itself. And instead of complaining in a multitude of books and articles about the news that is not forthcoming from government, it might be well for the press leaders to concentrate on giving their readers a larger and more realistic sample of the news which has been obtained from government.
One who observes the editing operations of a newspaper is struck by the swiftness with which government news is discarded and selected. And, when the wastebaskets fill with the information which the people should be reading, it will be noted that there are few tears and practically no gnashing of teeth. It is as if these practitioners of journalism dissipate the communication output relative to government without even realizing that they, like the government officials they often criticize, are "managing the news" and keeping back information which, in their own words, "the public has a right to know."
Room for Improvement
To avoid being misunderstood here, let me emphasize that the government is far from guiltless in this matter, and its villainry is undoubtedly more sinister than its critics believe. But it has its day in court; if its sins are legion, its accusers are certainly as numerous. The press, however, the main critic of government, usually throws rocks with impunity from its sanctified glass house. My contention is, I suppose, that the press should stop throwing so many rocks at government and start throwing more government information at the public.
Although the government is guilty in this area, so is the press. It is time for the press to recognize that it is as much obligated to get government information for the people and to print it when it’s gotten as the government would be obligated to give it out. Perhaps if some press critics of government recognize that they indulge in the same practices they condemn in government, they will change their ways — or will at least revamp their one-sided and unrealistic definition of "the people’s right to know."
Reward or Punishment (A lesson in relativity)
In a society where the highest reward for good citizenship is to be government care from cradle to grave, should not the penalty for bad citizenship require the criminal to stand on his two feet and assume responsibility for his own welfare as a free man?
PAUL L. FISHER, Redondo Beach, California