The Editors' Blog

How public records became public

This has been Sunshine Week, an event sponsored by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) to help inform the public about the importance of open government, public records and the problems that accompany too much secrecy. So we have been running stories along with other media outlets to illustrate what this all means.

Open government is enabled by laws that require government documents, with specific exceptions, to be open for inspection and copying by citizens.

When our republic was founded in the 18th century, our federal government was small and not very powerful. After the growth fueled by two world wars and a depression, the government in the middle of the 20th century was powerful and its reach enormous. In 1900, the federal bureaucracy had 240,000 employees. By 1950, there were 2 million employees generating a lot of paperwork as they went about running the country.

And yet, there was no law that said that citizens could find out what was up by being able to see government documents. You could not find out how federal contracts were awarded or how postmasters were selected. One study estimated that the secret documents at the Defense Department would fill a file drawer 575 miles long.

It is easy to take for granted now the laws that require that public records be disclosed, but in the 1950s, federal agencies could essentially tell citizens and reporters to buzz off and frequently did.

Sixty years ago that started to change. The Democrats who ran the U.S. House of Representatives created a panel - the Special Subcommittee on Government Information - intended to put the spotlight on government secrecy and recommend legislation to make records public. They were motivated by the fact that the executive branch was in the hands of the Republican Eisenhower Administration, which seldom met a document it didn’t want to classify as top secret. The panel became known as the Moss Subcommittee, named for its chairman, Rep. John Moss from Sacramento.

The end of the story is that on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the federal Freedom of Information Act.

But it took more than a decade to get that legislation through Congress. The start of the process was about this time of year in 1955, when Moss was appointed chairman of his subcommittee. Moss was an up-and-coming young politician, but the brains of the operation consisted of a group of metropolitan newspaper editors who were active in the ASNE and were committed to getting a federal public records law passed.

These editors advised Moss and helped him recruit staff and laid out the strategy for the subcommittee. The launch would be a series of hearings designed to publicize how secrecy pervaded government, and the negative impact of this secrecy. The first hearing was in November 1955, and the editors behind the Moss subcommittee made sure it got a lot of coverage in their papers and, to a lesser extent, in others.

The two editors probably most responsible for making sure coverage was as widespread as it was were J. Russell Wiggins, who ran the Washington Post newsroom at that time, and James S. Pope, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Samuel Archibald, who was Moss’ staff director, discussed their roles in an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1966. It was a remarkably candid statement by Archibald, who came to Washington with Moss after working as a reporter at the Sacramento Bee, (one of our sister McClatchy newspapers in California.)

“There was an intensive and coordinated attempt to get coverage of this. There were all kinds of meetings with Jim Pope and Russ Wiggins to discuss how and when and so forth. The problems were that some reporters didn’t think it appropriate to get involved in government issues and others thought that increasing access would help their competitors. Guys were kind of chary about participating in political action. Our initial problem was to get the press interested and to get respectability. Russ Wiggins and Jim Pope largely took care of that because they knew what to do. Nobody did more than they did to get a solution. There were three people whose interest shaped the whole concept of the Freedom of Information. Russ Wiggins and Jim Pope and John Moss.”

I was curious about this when I was doing research in the mid-90s for a masters thesis on the origins of the federal FOIA, and so I contacted the author of the 1966 article, Robert Blanchard, in which the Archibald quote appeared. One of the central issues that I was digging into was the behind-the-curtain role of the editors such as Wiggins and Pope (and others).

Blanchard, who had been an intern at the Moss subcommittee and so was present at the creation, wrote me: “Wiggins, and the other journalists - mostly editors active in ASNE, APME [Associated Press Managing Editors] and SDX [Sigma Delta Chi] - were in constant denial about their political collusion with Moss. ... I thought the collusion was an effective political strategy, but, of course, it violated journalistic myths about objectivity and editorial independence.”

Among other things, Wiggins was responsible for prevailing upon his buddy, Turner Catledge, one of the top editors at The New York Times, to persuade James Reston to testify at the first Moss subcommittee hearing. Reston, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, was perhaps one of the most influential journalists in the country, had huge star power and gave the hearings instant credibility.

I reached out to Wiggins in the summer of ‘94. He was 91 and living in Maine. After serving as U.N. ambassador (he was appointed by Johnson), Wiggins returned to journalism as editor and publisher of the Ellsworth American, a weekly newspaper. He wrote me a brief letter in which he agreed basically with what Archibald said in 1966, that a number of journalists were unenthusiastic about a federal public records law.

But a number, like Wiggins, were passionate about securing the legal right for the public to open up government file cabinets. And that’s the case today. Not all newspapers and other media outlets are active in defending state and federal public records laws from the constant threat of erosion, but enough are willing to write about open government issues and to file lawsuits to challenge bureaucrats and politicians who would prefer to operate in secret.

When I was writing my thesis, I wrote down a quote from a Moss subcommittee report in 1958. I wrote it on an index card that I still have, some 20 years later. It sets out why laws like the federal FOIA are important:

“In a democratic society, the people have a basic right to information about their government. Without free access to information, the guarantees of other freedoms would be mere hollow phrases in the Bill of Rights, for the freedoms could be abridged in secret by those clothed in the brief authority of government.

“Like other rights, however, the right to know is not absolute. No one denies, for instance, that military plans or details of weapons must be shrouded in the strictest secrecy.

“But the authority to govern stems from the people; therefore the right to know can be qualified or amended only with the consent of the governed.”