A Book For Now

Posted by Michael Copps on December 9, 2014


Logo for the Benton Foundation
This blog was posted in partnership with the Benton Foundation

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana once said.  It’s an old adage but apt as ever—particularly pertinent for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as it sets about deciding the fate of the Open Internet.

Most of us understand what happened to pre-Internet generations of media—radio, TV, and cable.  We know how speculation and merger mania gobbled up local media, diminished diversity, tore the muscle out of investigative journalism, and put half a dozen media monoliths in control of the “news” and “entertainment” we receive. 

Now it’s decision time regarding the Internet.  Will this dynamic and opportunity-creating technology be put on the same downhill road that inflicted so much damage on those earlier communications networks?  Or will we heed the counsel of the wise Santayana, learn from the mistakes of our past, and choose a higher road?

There is a great new book, just published, that I hope Chairman Wheeler and his FCC colleagues will read before they vote on “net neutrality” early in the new year.  The book is America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform. Victor Pickard, one of the brightest young media scholars in the communications firmament, is its author.  He has mined a veritable mountain of records to compile an eye-opening story of the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the ongoing battle between media gatekeepers and public interest reformers.  This is usable history—the best kind of history—showing that we have been at communications inflection points like this before and documenting what happens when we allow ourselves to get suckered down the wrong road.  The wrong road is the one too often taken, Pickard shows, in spite of reformers and, occasionally, even a heroic FCC.

What sets this book apart is the clear message that it didn’t have to be this way.  Our media didn’t have to be so bad.  It is where it is because of wrong-headed policy choices and an FCC that has been, for the better part of 40 years, reluctant to take on corporate monopolies and oligopolies. 

The Roaring Twenties had seen the steady corporatization and consolidation of radio.  But with the coming of the New Deal in 1933, many of that generation’s reformers (yes, there were media reformers even then!) hoped for a settlement of media issues that would emphasize public over private interest on the public’s airwaves.  And in his First Inaugural Address, Franklin Roosevelt actually called for “national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character.”   Initially, amidst the great turmoil of those Depression years, Roosevelt didn’t carry through.  In fact, when Congress debated the Telecommunications Act of 1934, FDR couldn’t even see his way clear to supporting a 25% set-aside of radio spectrum for non-profit and public broadcasting.  Such a set-aside would have dramatically enhanced the quality of American broadcasting, but, alas, it was not to be.  

But the New Deal eventually came to the FCC.  It came late, but it also stayed later than it did at many other agencies.  It came in the late 1930s when Roosevelt, finally alarmed at the extent of newspapers buying up radio stations all across the land, named James Lawrence Fly as Chairman of the agency.  A crusading attorney who had served in both the Justice Department and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Fly took what was then a backwater, corporate-dominated Commission and put it to work in behalf of listeners in communities across the land.

Soon there was a majority of Commissioners for reform.  FDR, subtly but clearly, made his support known; for example, he once sent Fly a memo asking, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” The FCC began penetrating investigations of U.S. media monopolies and went on soon thereafter to break up the all-powerful NBC monolith. “To the extent that the ownership of and control of. . .broadcast stations falls into fewer and fewer hands,” the Commission concluded, “the free dissemination of ideas and information, upon which our democracy depends, is threatened.”  Fly believed competition and diversity in media were the essential underpinnings of democracy.  He also demonstrated that a reform-minded FCC can make good things happen.

Even after Fly left in 1944, FCC reform continued.  Paul Porter succeeded as Chairman, and other commissioners, notably Clifford Durr, blazed new trails in taking on the excesses of  onsolidation and commercialization, pushing for public interest guidelines to determine how well radio stations were serving their communities and if they merited having their licenses renewed.  An engrossing section of Pickard’s book relates the story of how the Commission in 1946 produced a “Blue Book” of public interest guidelines for stations, including more coverage of public affairs, programming for diverse audiences, and balanced discussions of major issues.

The broadcasters launched a huge and expensive counter-offensive and—long story short—red-baited the Blue Book out of existence in one of the early waves of post-World War II anti-communist hysteria. Harry Truman had succeeded Roosevelt by then, and the tide of reform ebbed at the FCC.  It was arguably the New Deal’s last stand. 

We begin 2015 at another of those inflection points or “constitutive moments” as Pickard calls them.  The future of our communications infrastructure is again up for grabs. Will we stand passively by as communications giants consolidate their gatekeeper control and foist upon the Internet what they wreaked upon radio, TV, and cable?  What is the Internet’s role in a democratic society?  What is government’s role in making sure the public interest is served by our communications infrastructure?  And will we permit, one more time, a few industry giants to scare-monger and red-bait us so they can beat back what are really basic and altogether modest public interest protections that most people clearly want—as was made clear in a recent survey showing that over 80% of both Democrats and Republicans favor a truly Open Internet? 

It’s interesting these past few weeks to watch the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs), now finally aware that the Commission just might, possibly, perhaps, maybe, conceivably, have a James Fly moment and do something to protect the public interest through a clear Title II net neutrality decision (see earlier numbers of this blog for more on what that’s all about).  These ISPs are doing everything they can to confound the media and the public by developing a thousand and one extraneous and totally implausible arguments that have nothing to do with the basic decision facing the FCC.  The basic decision is whether the FCC will reassert its authority over advanced telecommunications (broadband) so the agency can protect the Open Internet when some gatekeeper or another wants to block, throttle, or otherwise degrade Internet service. The decision is not about Internet taxes or any of the other fictionalized forebodings the ISPs continue to belch forth.  It is about making sure the FCC can set things right when wrong-doers would do the Internet ill.  And if history proves anything, it is that there will be wrong-doers who attempt to do exactly that. 

But back to Victor Pickard’s book.  This brief discussion fails even to scratch the surface of the fascinating story he tells.  Nor do I come close to disclosing the many pearls of history and wisdom that the author gives us.  Compelling as history and timely as pending FCC decisions, this book shines a bright light onto both our communications past and its future.  Do yourself a favor: put America’s Battle for Media Democracy on your holiday gift and reading lists. 

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

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