What Good is Transparency When it Becomes a Form of Blindness?


Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review poses this rhetorical question at the end of a post on transparency in journalism. What he is referring to is the push by many bloggers for journalists and their publishers to provide information regarding the author’s political background, affiliations, and biases toward the story. “A reporter covering a proposed smoking ban, for example, should tell readers whether she smokes,” Cunningham writes, “The assumption being that if she smokes, we can infer that her sympathies lie with opponents of the ban, and vice versa.” Cunningham, before posing his final question, concludes by stating, “To assume that we can know what someone thinks by identifying their personal traits, habits, and predilections is a dangerous notion, and really has nothing to do with clarity.” So, can transparency in the political sphere become “a form of blindness”?

Recently DC City Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing open government and transparency. Schwartz stated that the council “would not have been able to negotiate effectively without feeling that they had to censor themselves.” William Stuntz, writing in The New Republic, makes a similar argument against transparency. Stuntz, taking his cue from Walter Lippmann, writes that activist government requires secrecy; that C-Span has effectively made the Congress entirely unpredictable and another place for campaigning and empty rhetoric; that FDR’s New Deal, the civil rights legislation of the 60s, and World War II would not have been successful if we had full transparency and openness.

Certainly there is an ongoing debate as to how much the citizenry should know at any given time, just look at the debate raging over the New York Times’ revelations about the administration’s financial tracking program aimed at terrorists. While the role of the press in America is to be a government watchdog, citizens are taking on this role more and more frequently thanks to the Internet. One could argue that you can try and keep something secret but it will most likely wind up being discovered anyways. For congressmen, and the executive, the appearance of opacity — uncovered in these revelations — can be politically damaging in this age of free flowing information. Corporations understand that transparency, or at least the appearance of transparency, is incredibly popular these days. Mark Tapscott recently revealed what he believes to be the reason that Schwartz supports closed government, “to keep the obvious collusion being sanctioned by government between special interests from being seen by voters?” Transparency forces the justification of such collusion.

In Tapscott’s argument we see that opacity in government makes us blind, which we already knew. However, what happens when we have some transparency? We hear stories like the Jack Abramoff scandal and we see how campaign contributions can be used to influence votes. Suddenly every campaign contribution looks like a bribe and every action looks like it’s bought. A recent New York Times article detailed the large sums of money that Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was pulling in from her former foes the health care and pharmaceutical industries. Has she sold herself out? Is the industry making in “investment” in a potential future President? Or does this relate to a psychological condition that Clinton has obtained from her massive defeat on health care reform in the early 90s? We don’t know because we don’t know enough, thus we make assumptions.

In this sense limited transparency can create a “kind of blindness” because we only know so much. We know that Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) engaged in a shady land deal and so some people may assume that every land deal that members are a party to are shady. If the members were more transparent this would not be a problem. The same goes for private travel, lobbyist connections, earmarks, contracts, and everything else. Full transparency could alleviate these suspicions. Unlike in Cunningham’s profession elected officials can be fired by the people and thus the people need as much information as possible to make that decision. In journalism, editors and publishers know the particular biases of journalists and they know when those journalists biases have crossed the line (Judith Miller?) and thus when to fire them.

Full transparency forces the actors in government to explain their actions to a public that finds them lacking credibility. Full transparency also forces the public to become more responsible, as it allows them to become actors in the governance process. Ed Morrissey makes this argument in relation to the debate over a proposed federal online spending database, "I predict that 10,000 blogs will be born just to focus on the spending habits of their own representatives. Constituents can use their computers to do their own research on the types of spending that their Congressmen and Senators sponsor." This may be the only way for the government, which is certainly unpopular and viewed as broken by a majority of the citizenry, to regain the trust of its guarantors; and for the people, now given the tools to engage their government, to work as a part of the process.

Mark Tapscott, who is set to testify on said online spending database, provides this quote from Thomas Jefferson, “We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in this Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and so consequently to control them.”