The Power of Disclosure: (What Power?)

by Ted Gup

As one who entered the ranks of investigative reporting in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, I took it as an article of faith that disclosure possessed a remarkable curative power. "Sunlight," as Louis Brandeis said, "is the best disinfectant."

Little more was needed to keep the ship of state - and those aboard it - headed in the right direction. But now I am not so sure. I now have to make a distinction between "the ship of state" and the crew that mans it. In the first instant we are speaking of the institution of government; in the second the individuals upon whom it depends.

At the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab, I am just beginning to see the difference between institutional corruption (the ship of state) and individual corruption (the crew) - though I confess, I am still not a total convert to the Lessig-Thompson vision. But it is a helpful distinction and one which has changed my way of thinking about the potency of disclosure. Let me explain.

I am now of the belief that disclosure is not the panacea I once thought it was. Like certain antibiotics, it is good for some infections, not all. Disclosure is best suited when applied to instances of individual corruption, less suited for those of institutional corruption. Why? Because in most instances, what we define as individual corruption, outs an agent who, in pursuit of personal gain has gone beyond both the accepted bounds of his peers and public levels of tolerance.

Making the miscreant's actions public exposes him/her to public shaming and the condemnation of peers. The person is effectively shunned and stripped of his/her effectiveness for having betrayed the public trust. Such actions are almost invariably undertaken clandestinely, because the nature of the actions would not withstand public or peer scrutiny.

But institutional corruption is of a different character. The actions of an institution that has been corrupted need not - and indeed seldom are - undertaken in secret. Select actions may occur behind a veil, but there is no secret that in the aggregate such actions are taken. They have been routinized and have, in essence, become so systemized as to become the norm. And therein lies the weakness of disclosure. It only really works when it exposes that which is at variance with the norm.

Individual corruption renders an individual answerable for his or her actions. Institutional corruption is not about the identity or actions of individuals but about their actions in concert with one another.  Individual corruption is often about particular actions taken outside the accepted realm. Disclosure often ferrets out the actions of a rogue player.  It may or may not constitute a pattern of conduct. There is a "gotch ya" element to it.

Institutional corruption, by definition, is expressive of a pattern. And if we accept Professor Larry Lessig's definition of institutional corruption - that one of its hallmarks is a loss of public faith in the institution - then it implicitly suggests that the offending behavior is already known to the public. (A loss of faith is predicated upon the idea that there is some requisite knowledge of institutional behavior that has undermined that faith.)

For all these reasons, the power of disclosure is, to a significant degree, diluted or negated in the context of institutional corruption. The offending behavior is already known (or at least presumed in some inchoate form), it is reflected in the broader conduct of one's peers, and it is within the bounds of what has become systematized. In short, the mechanisms of shunning and shame have been disabled.

It might be interesting to think of the power of disclosure in the context of the Watergate scandal, arguably the most celebrated and demonstrative example of the power of disclosure, having brought down a president and ushered in a decade of sweeping political reforms. Is Watergate to be seen as an instance of individual corruption, or an example of institutional corruption? One might argue either way. On the one hand, it was an instant of individual corruption, peopled by a cast of characters who rather than reflecting the system, sought to subvert it. They were rogue players acting literally under cover of darkness, and their actions were not of such an embedded nature that either the preceding administration, nor its successor, conducted itself in that way. It was sui generis.

On the other hand, the gains to be gotten were less of a personal nature, than a political nature - discrediting the opposition and thereby enhancing one's own chances for electoral victory. Curiously, one might even suggest that a test for whether it is individual or institutional corruption that we are looking at, is "what would be the effect of disclosure?" If the response to disclosure is moral outrage, public condemnation and ostracism by one's peers, then it's a good bet we're looking at individual corruption. If the response is a collective sigh of disgust, a rolling of the eyes by one's peers, and a shrug of the public's shoulder, well, it's probably institutional corruption.

Another interesting question is "what would have happened had there been no Watergate story?" Might the individual corruption have then become so rooted as to morph into institutional corruption? And isn't that precisely why the Watergate story stands apart from so many other scandals - that absent disclosure, it might well have metastasized into institutional corruption? That is why the stakes were so high and why its historical preeminence is assured.

None of this is to suggest that disclosure is without value in the context of institutional corruption. Far from it. Though it may not expose individuals to public and peer criticism, it does call attention to the problem (and remind the public that it is a problem) and it does illuminate institutional conditions (as opposed to mere individual conduct). And it is the conditions of government and the democratic process that require attention. In the case of individual corruption, a single expose is often enough to hold that person to account. With regard to institutional corruption, a single act of outing is seldom, if ever, sufficient to bring about change. And that too distinguishes individual corruption form institutional corruption. In the former, disclosure seeks to bring about censure and accountability. In the latter, the object is reform. Disclosure, dogged and persistent, remains a viable and essential instrument in the quest for better government.

Still, there is a risk that disclosure of institutional corruption will further alienate the public from government and civic responsibility, that it will fuel the sense of resignation. Because the focus is not on individuals but systems, it may engender a sense of despair that nothing can be done. Already the public suffers from moral fatigue. The bar on what triggers public outrage has been continually raised to keep pace with the ever-expanding and insidious nature of money and politics, to the point where citizens are inured to virtually every disclosure.

Part of the challenge facing those who still believe that disclosure has a primary role to play - and I am one of these - is how to sensitize a public weary of such disclosures and not merely to add to the moral callouses that have formed in recent decades. In this context, I would argue that too much of disclosure is predicated upon the "what" and not enough upon the "why" and "to what effect." By that I mean that we must find fresh and creative ways to document the subversion of the deliberative process and to show its impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Narrowly defined, disclosures which go no further than documenting system disintegration and the infusion of dollars have failed to move the public and, I suspect, are not likely to do so.

For institutional corruption, disclosure alone may be insufficient. It is unlikely, in my view, that government is capable of reforming itself or freeing itself from its addiction to campaign funding. If reform is to come, it will come from without, not from within - from the public, and that will require more than tables and spread sheets recording the demise of representative government. It's not as if the public is unaware that their government has been diverted, if not outright hijacked, by campaign dollars. Public disdain for Congress could hardly be higher, but disdain has yet to produce reform.

In other words, I am not convinced that institutional corruption can only exist so long as there is an information failure, or conversely, that information is the antidote to institutional corruption. Would that it were so easy. I do not pretend to know what it will take to turn things around. I suspect there will be a role to play for political scientists, journalists, activists, artists, teachers, parents - the list is as expansive as citizenship itself. Institutions can rid themselves of individual corruption, but institutional corruption can only be dealt with by individuals acting collectively. (Almost by definition, one cannot expect an institution that has been corrupted to clean up its own act.) Disclosure is one tool among many to help mobilize citizens, but facts alone will not penetrate complacency or resignation. Disclosure writ broadly, one that identifies patterns, fleshes out the deliberative process, and links those to narratives that demonstrate public injury in the context of story (putting a face on facts), I believe, remains a formidable tool.