Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Changing the landscape...

... more musing on Spocko's question....

The 1934 Communications Act firmly established the principle that the airwaves were a public commodity which could be regulated at the federal level--hence the creation of the Federal Communications Commission. Moreover, through a series of legislative battles during the debate on that legislation, it was established that broadcast licensing had to serve the public interest.

While much of that debate centered around the right to use public interest airwaves for commercial purposes--advertising--the need to regulate was obvious, since the technology was improving rapidly and the frequency bands were becoming increasingly crowded.

But, it was the coming of television that prompted the FCC to establish the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, as television was perceived as being even more powerfully influential than radio had been. The doctrine prevailed until 1987, when Reagan's appointee to the FCC, Mark Fowler, pushed through a radical ruling eliminating most of the provisions of Fairness Doctrine, with the remaining pieces--the right to use a licensee's frequency to respond to personal attacks and the so-called "political editorial" rule--being eliminated in 2000.

Every challenge to the Fairness Doctrine was rooted in the rather Orwellian principle that mandating broadcast of opposing views was a limitation on free speech, despite the fact that previous court cases, with Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC being the most prominent example, established that space on broadcasting bands was finite and could not be monopolized. In Red Lion, Byron White wrote for the majority:

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others.... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

And yet, it is precisely monopoly in broadcasting--particularly radio--which has been the goal of the conservative/reactionary right for decades. Pro-business groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute have lately been on a crusade to get the FCC to permanently sell off portions of the public airwaves instead of licensing specific frequencies or leasing blocks of frequencies, thus making them a trade commodity and not subject to licensing--effectively privatizing more of the commons.

Much of this can be traced back to Reaganomics, true, but, ultimately, it originates in the so-called Powell Manifesto of 1971, in which Lewis Powell exhorted the business community to find every possible way of promoting corporate views and of dominating the public information landscape--and to tithe to that effort as might an individual to a church. The big business community embraced his call to arms, and the result has been the most successful propaganda effort in history. In order to consolidate and homogenize that propaganda message, it was essential that dissenting voices be stifled, and how best to do that but by denying them access to the public airwaves? Rush Limbaugh could not have found the niche he has if Premiere Radio Networks was required to offer program time to someone who would come on after Limbaugh and skewer him and his rhetorical sleights-of-hand. Limbaugh was, in effect, created by the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine. Once the opportunity for response to personal attacks was eliminated in 2000, it opened the door to outright hate speech, such as that regularly broadcast by Michael Savage and his ilk.

With the complete dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine, networks are free to provide 24-hour programming with a right-wing, corporatist slant, and, importantly, have increased hour-by-hour follow-on listenership, which makes them more attractive outlets for advertisers, and fulfill their public service requirements by offering the occasional 30-second PSA. Quite simply, it's a variation on the old principle of revolution--the first thing one does is seize the radio and tv stations.

That seizure can happen quite literally, as happened in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2002. Every commercial broadcasting operation in Venezuela is owned and operated by Chavez's political opposition, and yet, during the April, 2002, coup it was considered essential that the rogue military units capture and shut down the public television station, as it was the only news outlet for the deposed government. Similar tactics were used in this summer's coup in Honduras. The lesson, of course, is that no opposing views can be tolerated whatsoever.

In the U.S., the revolution was accomplished through the legal and regulatory processes, despite the earlier determinations that the airwaves were part of the public commons and had to serve the public interest. So complete is the takeover that public service requirements are almost non-existent. One of the best examples was the 2002 train derailment in Minot, ND, which went unannounced by any radio station in the area for over ninety minutes as a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia drifted from the wrecked train, largely because the designated emergency announcement station in town was a Clear Channel station running on automatic pilot and had no one on duty to break into the programming and give emergency instructions.

It's a sign of Democratic fecklessness that talk of reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine actually subsided after Democrats gained the Senate, the House and the White House. Any time there is talk of it, the right wing propaganda outlets go into full Wurlitzer mode, and the Dems quietly drop the issue for fear of provoking a right-wing populist backlash against them (failing to understand, of course, that such a backlash occurs anytime they propose something that threatens the power of the corporatist state). So, it doesn't seem likely that any relief is going to come from the Democrats at the national level.

The other alternatives seem bleak, as well. Spocko's long been known for his campaigns to inform advertisers of the programming they sponsor, and while he's had some successes, it's, to my mind, a Sisyphusean task. If the wingnutz still control the airwaves, they still control the direction of the debate--and control of the minds of a significant minority population.

Then, there's the problem of money. The right wing seems to have most of it (and their media efforts are singularly directed at protecting what they have and increasing both wealth and power). Lefty interests are badly marginalized for lack of money--and because of a splintering of effort into hundreds of smaller special interests. That's part of the reason why, every so often, someone laments the absence of Dem players such as George Soros in broadcasting. True, Soros could bankroll a CNN-level operation from his own wallet and have plenty to spare, but, he's consistently said he's not interested, nor are any other of the Dem-leaning well-heeled. The system as it is works quite well for them.

However, there have not been many attempts to bring left-leaning operations together to make media changes on a large scale--such as that specifically prescribed by Lewis Powell in 1971. The idea of tithing to a media/think tank/PR operation on the scale of what the reactionary right has accomplished over thirty-odd years may be the only way to change the media landscape in the long run, in the absence of legislation to bring back some semblance of the Fairness Doctrine.

The network of think-tanks that sprang up from Powell's prescription now dominate the news and opinion sector of Washington, D.C., while older so-called liberal institutions (Brookings comes immediately to mind) are now more properly neoliberal, with aims and outlooks not very much different than those of the neoconservatives. The rolodexes of the Washington press are full of the names and phone numbers of ideologues at the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and their ilk. When clueless reporters, editors and producers need someone for background, the sheer volume of such sources virtually ensures that they're going to be heard, and, more often than not, heard in the majority.

A second change that will have to made by left-leaning organizations is the way they fund their operations. Because money is scarce on the left, they've tended to micromanage budgets. If they don't get relatively quick results, the funding gets yanked. That's got to change. The right wing in this country funded their flagship think-tanks year after year after year without expectation of immediate results. Even underground efforts such as Richard Mellon Scaife's Arkansas Project were funded for nearly a decade, and managed to harass and preoccupy Democrats for most of Clinton's presidency and culminated in his impeachment. It's fine to be results-oriented, but only with the understanding that the results come by steady application of money and effort. After all, it is precisely that strategy that has provided the reactionary right a constant voice on the airwaves.

Left-leaning organizations will also have to learn to network in more effective ways--not at occasional conferences, or annual events, but all the time, and separate and apart from official or quasi-official Democratic Party operations, with much of that networking time devoted to how to regain access to the media and/or developing new broadcasting outlets, and working on funding those outlets for the long term. Being able to fund solid investigative reporting is the key to breaking back into the media, but, so far, efforts to that end, such as The Real News, simply haven't been funded to a level adequate to make them a 24-hour broadcasting reality, nor ones with staying power.

In the meantime, maybe the occasional guerrilla effort is appropriate. Offshore pirate radio might be useful in the short term, but, everyone buying into such an effort ought to understand from the outset that the power of the state eventually ends those operations, and there needs to be something more enduring to replace such ephemeral efforts.

More on this subject later.


  • Well done Montag. The context is very helpful and much appreciated.

    By Anonymous SunnyN, at 12:54 AM  

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