On the Right to Know Everything

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s an interesting piece from Hamilton Nolan arguing for a rather expansive journalistic mission. The cause is the recent unmasking of celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante. As most of her fans know, “Elena Ferrante” is (or was) a pseudonym. Nolan believes that the revelation of Ferrante’s real name and identity, against her wishes, is at the core of what journalism is ultimately about:

The very general proposition of journalism is this: The public has a right to know true things that are important to the public. It is the job of journalists to supply the public with these true things. This broad idea applies in practice not just to the goings-on of government, but to crime, and business, and science, and sports, and the actions of all sorts of people who are famous and/or notorious, either temporarily or permanently.

There’s a lot here that’s left vague in Nolan’s proposition, beginning with the imagined entity Nolan claims to be advocating for—the public. Nolan neither defines who this “public” is, nor proposes a means for assessing what it takes as  important versus what it takes as trivial. How do we know, for instance, that “the public” really thought it was important for journalists to expose the facts of her life?

And yet on behalf of this vague entity, Nolan claims expansive powers—the public has the right to know anything it deems “important.” Essentially fame is the forfeiture of basic human and individual privileges in favor of an ill-defined public interest. It’s worth taking this logic to its conclusions. If “the public” wishes to know the identity of a whistle-blower who helped down a corrupt national official, then journalists should reveal it. If the public wishes to know the identity of the woman who accused Nate Parker of rape, then journalists should publish it. If “the public” decides, for instance, that it’s “important” to see the tape that a stalker took of Erin Andrews in her hotel room, then evidently journalists should offer this up too. Nolan offered no exemption for famous children either, so presumably all of their doings are also part of the pot of public knowledge.

It is certainly true that Ferrante’s identity is “newsworthy”—which is to say some demonstrable and significant number of people would like to know who she is. But “newsworthy,” a term that could be applied to everything from Watergate to sex tapes, lacks the moral force of claiming to act on behalf of the presumed rights of the public. “Newsworthy” describes how journalism works. But it doesn’t engage the complicated, constant ethical dilemmas which journalists face over what to report and what not to report. Nolan claims to be engaging that question, but what he’s actually doing is avoiding the hard work which it entails.

Admittedly, I’m biased. But I get nervous when I see journalists blithely and casually invoke the right of the public to know, without any attempt to define those terms, their limitations, and their history.