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Theorist talks US trust and transparency

By Jenna Rose 

Presenting his lecture “Trust vs. Transparency in Modern Democracy” to the College, famed communications theorist Michael Schudson filled the Education building on Thursday, April 10.

Schudson is an accomplished writer of multiple books and articles dealing with history and sociology of American news media, advertising, pop culture and cultural memory. He is currently a professor at Columbia University.

Schudson gave real-life examples depicting the non-existence of transparency in the United States during the 1960s.

“In 1960, in the dark ages, there was a land where both the press and the public were unable to learn how their representatives in the national legislature voted on,” Schudson said. “In this same land, 90 percent of doctors of patients who had cancer did not tell their patients … Cartons of milk were stamped with a ‘do not sell after’ date in a code so that store employees would know and so that the consumers would not.”

Other examples Schudson cited from the “dark ages” prior to transparency being a common practice include the lack of books written about women’s health by women for the intended purpose of educating women and the ability for lenders to hide information about loans from customers.

“There was no uniformity that would allow consumers to make comparisons,” Schudson said.

Schudson’s lecture expanded from there by discussing the rapid changes that America underwent in 15 years. He explained that by 1975, transparency increased dramatically.

Though he cited multiple factors, key individuals and businesses that catalyzed this shift to transparency, Schudson and other scholars are still trying to find the actual specific roots to these changes.

Giant, the supermarket conglomerate, was an example of a major player in the movement for transparency. The chain was one of the first supermarkets to partake in showing expiration dates and nutrition facts on their goods.

The speaker remarked that over time, journalists also came to show more distrust in government leaders, which also pushed for more transparency.

The discussion shifted from transparency to a talk focusing on trust. Schudson said that the American people have a great amount of trust in ordinary people in democracy to vote the correct people into office but a great amount of distrust for authority and individuals who hold elected positions.

Schudson explained that the intentions of the founding fathers were not for America to be a democracy. In his research, Schudson discovered that the Founding Fathers wanted the American people to never question their elected leaders and allow them to act in the way that they thought was best for the people.

Schudson elaborated on this topic by referencing the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law limiting the freedom of speech, press, assembly, or religion,” but explained that the Founding Fathers meant to grant these powers to the states to limit these rights instead.

Schudson himself was personable and generally regarded as a remarkable speaker.

“At major conferences, he’s a rock star — he fills rooms to (their) capacity,” said communication studies professor John Pollock, who spent the day with Schudson. “He was very humble and just as accessible interpersonally as he was in his presentation.”

According to Pollock, Schudson even joked that his best-selling book was his Harvard dissertation and that “it’s been downhill ever since.”

Pollock believes that the lecture was beneficial for students because it not only enlightened them on the issue of transparency, but also showed that individuals could truly make a difference and mentioned the importance of journalists in the shift for more transparency.

Students found the lecture to be enjoyable and valuable as well. Freshman Brooke Buonauro was surprised by much of the information presented to her.

“It seemed ridiculous to me that things like finding out which foods had the most calories or grams of sugar was not something that people had access to,” Buonauro said.

And so the question of trust and transparency has been sparked in a new generation.


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