America, I do mind dying

Indicted for operating too far outside of the commercial marketplace, public broadcasting stands trial in a hostile era

Remarks by Robert W. McChesney

This commentary traces public broadcasting back to its earliest days and its root principles of populism and public education. Media historian Robert W. McChesney, founder of the citizen group Free Press, draws on his 1993 book Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press). This is an edited version of McChesney’s March 1995 talk at the University of California, San Diego.

Though the federal contribution to public broadcasting is being extended, if at a reduced rate, for two or three more years, the handwriting is on the wall: there may be no more government subsidized broadcasting in the United States by the end of the decade.

I believe that it is very much in the public interest for the nonprofit, noncommercial media to be expanding instead. This article puts the fight over U.S. public broadcasting in historical context and explains the relative weakness of contemporary U.S. public broadcasting.

The current right-wing assault on U.S. public broadcasting may best be regarded as one more instance of the corporate attack on democratic institutions, seeking to limit Americans’ ability to examine and debate the way their society is ruled. In the process, the market is becoming the unquestioned regulator of all aspects of social life, wherever profits can be found — a process I believe to have dubious moral implications.

Two related trends bear on the debates concerning the future of public service broadcasting. First, the current offensive against public-service broadcasting comes during an era of nearly unprecedented technological revolutions in communication and information. By all accounts they are central to a dramatic restructuring of human societies. One need only consider the rapid development of the Internet to appreciate the dimensions of what lies before us. Though some proponents of the communication technologies assert they will provide immense new competition in the marketplace of ideas, rendering moot the need for publicly subsidized media, the dominant trend in journalism and communication is for media industries increasingly to fall under oligopolistic corporate control. Ben Bagdikian is the best known chronicler of how approximately 20 enormous corporations now control global communication and almost all of U.S. journalism. That figure has shrunken in the past decade, and the trend is accelerating with the recent merger activities of Disney, Gannett and Westinghouse.

Nonprofit broadcasters pioneered new sections of the spectrum and then, ‘once it became clear that money could be made, the educators were displaced and the communications companies seized the reins,’ McChesney writes. ‘This may also be the fate of the Internet.’

There are many reasons to be alarmed by this oligopolistic control. Every theory of democracy worth the paper it is written on recognizes that independent journalism is necessary to provide the informed participating citizenry that is the foundation of a self-government. But these enormous corporations find this type of journalism controversial and expensive, and often damaging to their political and economic interests. This is hardly a new phenomenon; it has been a major tension in profit-driven commercial journalism since its emergence in the 19th century. It is only magnified by increased corporate control.

The most significant source of censorship for our media and our journalism is based on its corporate ownership and commercial support. Professional journalism is best viewed in this context. While it permits a degree of journalistic autonomy from media owners and advertisers as well as the personal biases of journalists, media professionalism also internalizes many of the commercial values of the corporate media and permits journalists to be oblivious to the compromises with authority they are constantly making.

Second, these corporations increasingly find that the traditional practice of journalism is unprofitable or less profitable than they would like. The relative amount of resources devoted to journalism has fallen in the past 15 years, judging from recent books by former Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires, Penn Kimball, John McMannes and Doug Underwood. Our news media are increasingly prey to sophisticated public relations campaigns serving corporate America, and commercial pressures to provide inexpensive, unthreatening schlock journalism centering on entertainers, athletes and royal families. The collapse of journalism — even by mainstream standards — is startling. In short, journalistic excellence and autonomy are direct casualties of the insatiable need for maximized profit that rules our media system and our economy. And this trend stands in stark contrast to the promise of the new information and communication technologies to break down barriers and contribute to the democratization of society.

The critical question facing us is whether the new technologies can rejuvenate journalism and political democracy or whether commercial corporations’ domination of the communication industries will be able to continue in their current path by absorbing the new technologies within their profit net. Though this question is critical to the future of democracy, it comes up only briefly when huge mergers are announced, as in the case of the Disney-ABC combination, but it is not a prominent, ongoing issue in U.S. political culture. To the contrary, the notion that corporations seeking maximum profit should rule both old and new communication technologies is sacrosanct.

The notion that the commercial basis of media could have troubling implications for democracy is outside the range of legitimate debate. Indeed, the dominant public debate over communication policy in the United States today is whether public TV and public radio should be eliminated so we may have a thoroughly market-driven system.

Commercial corporations’ domination of U.S. communication was not always taken as a given, or as something innately benevolent, American and democratic. When radio broadcasting first emerged in the 1920s, few thought it had any commercial potential and most regarded it as a promising means of public education. The pioneers of broadcasting in the 1920s were nonprofit broadcasters every bit as much as commercial enterprises; colleges and universities launched more than 200 stations between 1920 and 1926. And when commercial interests finally realized the profit potential of U.S. broadcasting and seized control, they were met by public opposition to the corporate exploitation of radio.

The most vociferous opponents of commercial radio came from these pioneering college and university radio stations that found themselves quickly on the margins once NBC and CBS — established in 1926 and 1927 respectively–began to sense the immense profitability of advertising-supported broadcasting after 1928. By the early 1930s the two networks accounted for 70 percent of U.S. broadcasting, when wattage is factored in, and more than 90 percent of nighttime broadcasting, when many smaller stations were not licensed to broadcast. From the perspective of the average American radio listener, nonprofit broadcasting effectively did not exist after 1933.

The broadcast reform movement argued that commercial broadcasting was inimical to the communication needs of a democratic society. The reformers contended that nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting had to be the dominant sector of any adequate U.S. radio system, and most of them were comfortable with the state playing a significant role, though never a monopoly role, in a more democratic broadcasting set-up. Most reform proposals called for a mixture of government, nonprofit and commercial stations, and gave the upper hand to the nonprofit sector.

This movement was not a “left-wing” movement per se, although it enjoyed left support. It had backing in several branches of U.S. society, including labor, education, intellectuals, civil libertarians, religion, farmers, women’s groups, and journalists. It probably had as much support among Republicans as it did among Democrats.

What united these broadcast reformers was their thorough distrust of and distaste for commercial broadcasting. They thought it absurd and irresponsible to permit commercial values to rule broadcasting as they did so many other areas of American life, particularly in view of its revolutionary potential to reach into every American home. They characterized commercial broadcasting as “the dollar sign’s mightiest megaphone.” If a handful of corporations dominated U.S. broadcasting, and if their primary motivation was profit, the reformers knew they would never hear the type of journalism and controversial public affairs programming that radio could produce. “There are those profess to fear the censorship of radio stations operated by the … government,” noted leading reformer Joy Elmer Morgan in 1931. “Do they fail to realize we already have a censorship–a censorship not applied by government, which is elected and maintained by the people and responsible to their control, but a censorship maintained by powerful private interests who are responsible to no one but their own selfish interests?”

The reformers also dismissed commercial broadcasters’ eternal claim that they “give the people what they want.” The reformers noted that the market was based on one-dollar, one-vote, not one-person, one-vote, and was biased toward the well-to-do. The market gave supreme control over programming to advertisers — who actually produced the shows that surrounded their ads. The reformers also noted that commercial broadcasters only gave the people what they want within the range of what was profitable to produce, which they argued was often a far narrower range than a true democracy would desire.

In the early 1930s, Americans had not become accustomed to intrusive commercials; most despised radio advertising and were eager for a system that did not require it. Business Week reported in 1932 that radio faced “a revolt of listeners” appalled by “irritating sales ballyhoo.” Yet advertising-free radio was not an option the commercial broadcasters placed on the ballot when the people voted “for what they wanted.”

The broadcast reformers lost for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the ample political clout of the broadcasting industry, which was able to dominate both politicians and media coverage of the debate. The reformers were not without influence, though. In 1932 public opposition to commercial broadcasting forced the Congress to pass the Couzens-Dill resolution, that required the Federal Radio Commission to make a critical evaluation of the role of advertising in radio. (The FRC report, effectively written by the industry, turned out to be a whitewash.)

Then in 1934, with almost no media coverage, broadcast reformers built strong congressional support for an amendment to the Communications Act that would have reserved 25 percent of frequencies for nonprofit use. Opponents undercut that support, however, by proposing a study by the new FCC. It was the first of many FCC studies that went nowhere.

With the defeat of the ambitious frequency reservation proposal and the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, the fundamental structural questions about the electronic media had been thoroughly marginalized. Since 1935 all broadcast and communication policy debates have been predicated upon the notion that the needs of the private sector come first, and that these are largely compatible with the public interest. There has been virtually no public debate over how best to develop FM radio, television, cable or the information highway. With media corporations holding first and unobstructed claim to the public spectrum, they were able to write large sections of the recently passed Communications Act.

This consolidation of the status quo after 1935 was accomplished with breathtaking speed. There have been dissidents on the FCC, but they have been mostly ineffectual. When structural reform became off-limits, the only legitimate manner to criticize U.S. broadcasting became to state that it was uncompetitive, and therefore needed aggressive regulation.

This was a far cry from the critique of the early 1930s reformers; they had argued that the problem was not merely one of lack of competition. More fundamentally, they argued that if a broadcast system is market-driven, it will tend to serve the well-to-do and downplay programming that might empower the disenfranchised or serve any public value not defined by its profitability. Missing was the view that broadcasting had to be removed from the marketplace altogether to begin to fulfill its social promise. Commercial broadcasting, which had fought hard to fend off BBC-style public-service radio, called itself “the American system.” By 1937, CBS founder William Paley was able to say without serious challenge, “he who attacks the American system … attacks democracy itself.”

The defeat of the broadcast reform movement in 1934 led to the dark ages of U.S. public broadcasting. If the 1930s reformers sought a system where the dominant sector was nonprofit and noncommercial, all future advocates of public broadcasting had to accept that the system was established primarily to benefit the commercial broadcasters.

This made public broadcasting in the U.S. fundamentally different from Britain or Canada or nearly any other nation with a comparable political economy. While the BBC and the CBC regarded their mandate as serving entire nations, the U.S. public broadcasters realized that they could only survive politically by staying on the margin. They could not take listeners or viewers from the commercial broadcasters. They could only provide programs that were unprofitable for the commercial broadcasters to produce. At the same time, politicians hostile to public broadcasting have insisted that public broadcasting remain within the same ideological confines as the commercial system. This encouraged U.S. public broadcasting after 1935 to emphasize elite cultural programming at the expense of generating a large following.

In short, since 1935 U.S. public broadcasting has been in a no-win situation. It has had to concede that the commercial broadcasters were giving people what they wanted. Its own offerings were therefore what the audience needed if they’d only realize it. Giving people their vitamins is hardly the stuff to generate mass public support.

The major function of nonprofit broadcasting in the United States from 1920 to 1960 was, in fact, to pioneer new sections of the electromagnetic spectrum when the commercial interests did not yet find them profitable. Thus it was educational broadcasters who played an enormous role in developing AM broadcasting in the 1920s, and then FM radio and UHF television in the 1940s and 1950s. In each case, once it became clear that money could be made, the educators were displaced and the communications companies seized the reins. This may also be the fate of the Internet, which was pioneered as a government-subsidized public service by the nonprofit sector until capital moved in.

Even with noncommercial broadcasting relegated to the backwaters of the FM and UHF bands in many cities, the commercial broadcasters fought it tooth and nail well into the 1960s. After many halting starts, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and soon thereafter PBS and NPR. The commercial broadcasters finally agreed not to oppose public broadcasting, primarily because they believed the new public system could be responsible for doing the unprofitable cultural and public affairs programming that critics were constantly lambasting them for neglecting.

There was a catch, however. Government dropped the initial Carnegie Commission plan to have CPB funded by a tax on receivers, similar to the BBC method, depriving public broadcasting of a stable source of income necessary for planning as well as editorial autonomy. From its outset the public system would be severely handicapped. This was the only public system the commercial broadcasters would permit.

Although U.S. public broadcasting has produced much good fare, and employs many talented and dedicated proponents of public service broadcasting, the system has been supremely compromised by its structure, and it is unimpressive in comparison to the great public service systems of Europe. Indeed, in international discussions of public broadcasting, the term “PBS-style system” refers to a public system that is marginal and ineffective. It is the fate that the BBC, CBC and others wish to avoid.

The funding system is the primary culprit. With the government providing only about 15 percent of their revenues, the public stations depend on corporate donations, foundation grants and listener/viewer contributions for the bulk of their support. In effect, this has made PBS and NPR stations commercial enterprises. Contrary to the fundamental principles of public broadcasting, large corporations through their underwriting have tremendous influence in determining what programming can be funded. And cash-poor stations tend to chosen programs that appeal to an affluent rather than working-class audiences, since they have far more disposable income to contribute. If the federal subsidy is fully eliminated, the bias toward corporate interests (“enhanced underwriting”) and an upper-income target audience will be magnified.

Moreover, although the federal grant to CPB provides only around 15 percent of the stations’ income, this has provided openings for congressional right-wingers–who have opposed public broadcasting in earnest since the Nixon Administration–to constantly harass PBS and NPR. These politicians will never be satisfied until public broadcasting is crushed, but they use their influence over the meager subsidies to discourage any programming that falls outside of the ideological boundaries established by commercial broadcasting. (Of course, to the extent the public system duplicates commercial broadcasting, it becomes duplicative, irrelevant and unworthy of support.) And, as some recent examinations of public broadcasting reveal, this right-wing attack has had a marked effect on PBS and NPR content, especially concerning news and public affairs. In short, the public system has barely offered a critical alternative to the journalism and public affairs found on the commercial media.

For some on the political left, who oppose commercial broadcasting in principle, the corruption of PBS, to the point where its primetime public affairs is now dominated by the political right, has been so profound that they agree that it is proper to end the public subsidy and let the system become more explicitly commercial. To these leftists, the battle over public broadcasting appears to be a contest among factions of the elite, with little to be gained or lost for the bulk of the citizenry.

Indeed, with conservatives’ and neo-liberals’ success in dominating PBS programming, the logical question is why Newt Gingrich and so many other conservatives are still eager to further cripple U.S. public broadcasting, especially when its core audience includes many affluent conservatives.

Gingrich and many Republicans state that the revolutionary expansion in channels brought on by the communication revolution has rendered moot the argument for government-subsidized broadcasting. The marketplace can now effectively meet consumer demand, they say, and there is no justification for wasting taxpayer money to subsidize one of the competitors. In their idealization of the marketplace, they avoid exploring the paradox that its unfettered workings require the extremes of Hollywood sex and violence that they abhor.

In fact, their much-pronounced principle that the government should not interfere in markets is hollow rhetoric as applied to the electronic media. The entire process by which the government has licensed the publicly owned airwaves at no charge to commercial broadcasters for the past 70 years has been a massive subsidy to the owners of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Adding insult to injury, these private companies have been able to sell these freely acquired licenses to other corporations and pocket the proceeds. Indeed, the entire history of communications in the United States is one of repeated direct and indirect government subsidies to a small category of private business owners.

These same corporate interests will benefit if the crippled public broadcasting system is encouraged to sell off valuable frequencies to keep operating, as some members of Congress have suggested.

But even if there were no corporate interest in dismantling the public system, the right wing still would be attacking PBS and NPR. The reason is that it wants to disband publicly subsidized journalism and investigative reporting. The right is obsessed with what it regards as the liberal, even left-wing, bias of U.S. journalism and it detects this bias most often on PBS and NPR.

The right realizes that the marketplace implicitly censors commercially supported journalism to keep it within a range they can accept, and is angered by journalism that is not so well controlled. Although much of the public broadcasting journalism and public affairs programming is indistinguishable from commercial journalism, occasional stories and programs get produced that would never clear the political hurdle in the commercial media.

This is precisely why it is so important for those who believe in journalism, free expression and democracy to make the fight on behalf of public broadcasting. It is now more necessary than ever for public policy to mandate a well-funded, independent journalism and communication system. Once the principle of publicly funded broadcasting is abandoned, it will be ever more difficult to reinstate it.

The right-wing assault on public broadcasting is not an isolated or exceptional phenomenon. It is part of a wholesale attack on all institutions that have some autonomy from the marketplace and its owners. Thus public libraries and public education–two institutions far more significant than public broadcasting in U.S. culture — are being primed for privatization. Advertising-supported schools and schooling-for-profit, notions regarded as obscene only a decade ago, are moving to the center of education policy debates. To the extent that corporate interests take control of the universities, the country will lose its ability to generate a democratic and critical civic debate. The reign of wealth will become entrenched and commercial values unassailable.

Commercial corporations’ domination of U.S. communication was not always taken as a given, or as something innately benevolent, American and democratic. … Business Week reported in 1932 that radio faced ‘a revolt of listeners’ appalled by ‘irritating sales ballyhoo.’ …

Although U.S. public broadcasting can be characterized as “small potatoes” in terms of dollars, its loss or survival will help define society for the coming generations. Will the market and profits be sacrosanct in that society — off-limits to political debate? Will the citizen be replaced by the consumer? Will the commercial values of greed, materialism and selfishness tower over all others, weakening our bonds of community and feeding the sense of moral bankruptcy so prevalent already in our society?

This was precisely how the 1930s broadcast reformers understood the long-term implications of their fight for the control of broadcasting; they remain the fundamental questions before us today.