Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture by William F. Fore
William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).Published in 1987 by Augsburg Publishing House. Used by permission of the author and copyright holder.
Chapter Ten: How to Bust the Communication Trust
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
Without a free press there can be no free society. Freedom of the press,
I have never met a person who favors censorship. Everyone is opposed to censorship. . . BUT. What follows the "but" tells us what forms of censorship a person supports, for just as almost no one favors censorship, almost no one favors absolute free speech.
It is important to sort out the issues involved in freedom of speech and the First Amendment (for these are two different things), and to develop some principles and some strategies for keeping the media of communication open and free as best suits an open and free democracy. To do this we need first to look at some of the misunderstandings about censorship.
The first misunderstanding of many people is that First Amendment protection of free speech, namely, that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press or of speech," is absolute. Only a fanatic can seriously hold that the use of words should always be acceptable in society, regardless of any of its consequences. Legally, freedom of speech in America does not include the right to utter slander, to publish libel, to shout "Fire" in a crowded theater, to incite to riot, to perjure one`s self, to advertise falsely, to conspire to overthrow the government, to use someone else`s copyright, to utter speech which is in contempt of court, or to advocate a particular religious doctrine in the public schools. After living almost 200 years the First Amendment, we have laws which either punish or prevent the freedom of all of these forms of speech.
Morally, we know that in this world we must constantly choose between conflicting evils and conflicting goods, that we sometimes have to sacrifice the beautiful in the interest of the good or true, or truth in the interest of kindness, or happiness and security in the interest of justice. The real question, then, is: To what extent are we willing to give up the value of absolute freedom of expression in order to protect society from expressions which might destroy other values in our society, or the society itself?
A second misunderstanding is that there is at present no censorship in the mass media. In fact, all mass communication media are subject to censorship, not in the sense of prior restraint by government, but in the sense of prior restraint by industry. Television network "program acceptance" departments "clear" every controversial word, action, and subject, and advertising agencies and sponsors exert powerful constraints on what is permitted to be said and seen. To be sure, private censorship is preferable to governmental censorship. But to what extent should censorship of either be tolerated in a democracy?
A third misunderstanding is that television "gives the people what they want." We have shown that what television really provides is the least offensive program to the largest number of people, at all times. Television does not attempt to provide a variety of programs for a variety of audiences, to arrange for a mix of programs over a period of several hours would provide what many different "audiences" want. Rather it attempts to reach as many different people as possible all at once. The reason is that television is not used in America primarily to inform or even to entertain, but to deliver an audience to sponsors who can sell them products. The individual viewer has only the option of choosing the least-objectionable program or of pressing the "off" button, which cuts that part of the public off from the communication system -- a system currently arranged to meet the needs of business rather than the needs of the public.
The Limits of Freedom
In American television, a small minority, in the interest of profit, exercises control and effective censorship over a medium which is protected by a governmental guaranteed monopoly but which, in the name of freedom of speech, the government itself cannot control.
To understand how this came about, we have to go back to the founding fathers and to John Stuart Mill. Mill said that every individual has an absolute right to live as he pleases, up to the point where his conduct violates the rights of others. Within that sphere of liberty the individual has the freedom to express any opinion, to develop any tastes, to live life in his own way -- a political philosophy which found its way, through Jefferson and others, into our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
With Mill`s political philosophy came Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations, which became the theoretical basis for our economic way of life. The concept of capitalism held that the best interests of all would be served if every person sought his own economic good. Competition would bring about efficiency and quality, and the true needs of the marketplace would be met.
But we soon learned that the marketplace economy did not work this way. It did not operate automatically to bring about efficiency and quality. Instead, large and powerful producers tended to get larger and more powerful until finally they monopolized parts of the marketplace. Then, instead of increasing quality, they increased profits. The needs of the marketplace were superseded by the power of monopoly. Instead of true choice increasing, it diminished. Instead of costs going down, they went up. Men such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller got richer and richer, and the commonwealth -- that is, the welfare of the average citizen -- suffered. When this happened, people realized that they needed a countervailing power to keep competition open -- to establish a true economic marketplace once again. And so citizens, through their elected representatives, created antitrust laws and set up regulatory agencies to make up for the deficiencies in Mill`s philosophy and Adam Smith`s economics.
Now we are beginning to realize that this same flaw is at work in the marketplace of communication. The power bases of communication -- the publishers, broadcasters, cable companies, and so on -- are tending to become so centralized and so powerful that genuine competition of ideas is being suppressed. The best ideas do not necessarily win out. Indeed, many alternative ideas are not effectively communicated at all. Instead, the communication monopolies tend to restrict the output of those ideas and assumptions that challenge or even question their own values and assumptions. They tend to present only the information and ideas that benefit them most. As a result, the welfare of the average citizens, in sense of their ability to know enough about their society to make wise decisions, begins to deteriorate. Their First Amendment rights are violated de facto.
As the large communications empires become more centralized and more powerful, they also become more self-serving, until today -- as with the great iron and steel and railway and oil trusts in the l890s -- they threaten the welfare of the entire society. And, like those earlier trusts, while the efficiency of the communications empires goes up, competition goes down. The owners and operators function more and more in their private, rather than the public, interest. This leads to the conclusion that something like antitrust laws in communication are necessary today to open up the marketplace of ideas.
How did the nation get into a situation where its television is dominated by commercial interests whose primary objective is to deliver the audience to sponsors? Broadcasting is an extremely wealthy industry, and the TV networks are the wealthiest of all. For more than 25 years, commercial television operations have enjoyed a return of 50% to 70% on tangible investments each year, as compared to a 20% return by most manufacturing concerns, or roughly a 10% return for all U.S. industries.1. A major reason for this unusual profitability is that the broadcasters are subsidized in several ways. First, the tax laws allow advertisers to write off advertising as a business expense, which considerably reduces the cost to sponsors. Second, the broadcasting industry is indirectly supported by the money the audience pays each year for the cost of sets (approximately $3 billion each year), plus the cost of electricity to run them (which runs about another $1 billion).2. Third, the way the electromagnetic spectrum was carved up guaranteed that every station would have very few competitors.
The dominance of the three networks, and only three, was assured by the Federal Communications Commission when it decided to allocate television stations according to a fixed plan, rather than on a demand basis, and to allocate only three VHF stations in most middle-sized markets. The FCC also "reserved" a large amount of the remaining VHF spectrum for educational TV, thus reducing the likelihood of commercial competition. Roland Cass, an expert in broadcast law, finds that "the VHF allocation pattern virtually guaranteed the viability of three, and only three, networks, and at the same time it provided the means for networks to capture a large share of the profits earned jointly by them and their affiliates."3.
Three-network domination has had a clear effect on programming. Since advertisers want to support only the lowest possible price per viewer reached, and since there are only three networks, any one of the commercial networks will refuse to continue to air a prime-time series viewed in fewer than 15 million homes, and 20 million homes (still less than one-third of the approximately 100 million total viewers each night) is not considered a real success. Furthermore, the degree or intensity of viewer interest in a given program is irrelevant, since advertising dollars depend almost completely upon the number of viewers, not the viewers` interest in the message or program. Thus there is a built-in bias within the system toward the production of the lowest-cost program that is the least objectionable to the largest number of people -- the exact opposite of the idea that competition will force better-quality programs.
Consider an alternative system. If the bulk of the national TV audience were divided six ways instead of three, which is both technically and economically possible, a network would be encouraged to show at least some programming that was the first choice of a sixth (instead of a third) of the population, even if the other five-sixths would rate it well down in their ranking of viewing options. And if there were 12 national sources of programming, even smaller audience-interest programming would be economically possible. While the profits of the largest companies would be less, the over-all commercial viability of broadcasting would not be damaged, and the number and variety of attractive program choices would increase dramatically.4.
In addition to setting up a three-network system which froze out the smaller broadcasters (such as the Dumont network), for many years the FCC misregulated broadcasting`s greatest potential rival, cable TV. In l959, when cable was small and vulnerable, the FCC insisted that it lacked authority to regulate it. But when cable finally grew to become a threat to broadcasters, the FCC found that it had authority, and it asserted that authority to cripple cable-TV; among other restrictions, it required cable to carry local on-air broadcasting and prohibited it from importing distant stations which would provide competition to stations (and diversity for the audience). Regarding the FCC`s many subsequent rulings on cable, Cass writes " . . . it is plain that each of them serves the interests of TV broadcasters -- each of the regulations either raises the cost of providing cable services or reduces the attractiveness of cable programming."5.
And, since 1980, the FCC has gone farther than ever before in allowing the broadcast industry to establish a monopoly over the flow of entertainment, news and information to the American public. Through a series of rulings, the FCC has deregulated broadcasting to such an extent that the broadcaster has virtually no accountability for the license which provides such enormous profits.
Deregulation has resulted in the creation of even larger communications conglomerates. For example, by abolishing its former rule that a single company could own no more than seven TV stations, the FCC set the stage for Capital Cities, already one of the largest "group" owners of stations, to buy ABC, and for General Electric to buy RCA-NBC. And by removing the requirement that a broadcaster must hold a station at least three years before selling it, the FCC has encouraged enormous trafficking in stations -- the buying and selling of stations like real estate. For example, in late 1986, the FCC pre-approved the sale of 160 stations, in some cases even before the applications were completed, in order to allow broadcasters to benefit from the sales before the tax laws changed. The deregulation of broadcasting is pernicious. It strikes at the heart of the democratic ideals of wide-ranging and robust discussion, of protection of the rights of minority views, of a genuine freedom of information. What can the average citizen do to insist on public responsibility of those in positions of power in television?
Three Strategies to Keep Media Open
How do you bust a communication trust? The Bill of Rights does not forbid the Congress from making laws abridging the freedom to make money, and so Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But the Bill of Rights does forbid Congress from restricting speech, because ideas -- no matter how repugnant or revolutionary -- must be capable of being heard and considered in a democracy. Restriction of an idea is the first step toward thought control and totalitarianism. If government had been able constitutionally to restrict the press, the history of Vietnam and Watergate, for example, would have been entirely different, and today we might be enjoying considerably less freedom and democratic participation than we do.
But if governmental censorship for adults is to be avoided, and if private censorship (self-regulation) tends to be self-serving and repressive in another way, then how can members of the public express their views and work their will regarding the kind of society the mass media are cultivating? If the world of television is having a profound effect on the kind of real world we are living in, then the question is: Can television become more responsive to the need for citizens to determine who they are, what values they wish to support, and what kind of society they wish to live in, without endangering genuine freedom of expression?
I suggest that there are three approaches which can get at this problem, and do so without endangering First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
The first approach is direct political action. This requires local and national coalitions of public interest groups to organize to demand that the existing regulatory processes work to protect the public rather than the industry they are supposed to regulate. The Federal Communications Commission has never, on its own initiative, withdrawn the license of a single television station. The few times when licenses have been withdrawn, the FCC has been ordered to do so by the courts, in effect, over the protests of the FCC itself. Congress keeps the Commission`s budget pitifully small -- about the size of Anacin`s annual advertising budget. And over the years, many administrations have added to the problem by making certain that appointees were not found "objectionable" to industry leaders.
The result is that the American system of broadcasting has become, in the words of media historian Eric Barnouw, "an extraordinary example of governmental laissez-faire. It has allowed private companies, almost without restraints, to set up toll gates across public highways of communication and to exact a toll from the public. . . . Meanwhile the tolls, levied substantially on a what-the-traffic-will-bear basis, have tended to eliminate some elements of society from the marketplace of ideas and to give dominance to others."6.
If the situation is so blatantly unjust, why doesn`t the Congress unleash the FCC? Why can`t the members of Congress just give the FCC enough money to do the job and insist on independent appointees from the president? The answer lies in a simple political fact of life: all members of Congress depend on their local radio and television stations to get elected. Those stations represent the most vital linkage they have to their constituents. The stations provide the positive image and the news and information that add up to crucial votes at every election.
More than the franking privilege, more than local newspapers, more than any other single medium, television is the politician`s lifeblood. And at present there is nothing but goodwill -- or money -- that gets the incumbent broadcasting time. There is no law which says broadcasters must provide time between elections for those in office to report to their constituencies. Who can afford to bite the hand that feeds the voters? And so each time a bill comes up that would strengthen the FCC, all members of Congress are made acutely aware that a vote against the interests of the broadcasters back home could cost the vital exposure that keeps them in office. This, then, is the Gordian knot of broadcast regulation. If by law or regulation stations could be required to provide time regularly to members of Congress, on the basis that it is the right of all citizens to have an opportunity to see and hear their chosen representatives, and if a similar requirement were to insure free access to all congressional candidates during elections -- only then can the knot be severed. The results would be messy, and some boring TV undoubtedly would result. But the First Amendment would be implemented, not violated, by such a requirement, and one of the prices of citizenship may just be that we have to give up a few hours of entertainment each year in order to make representative government work.
The second approach to making communication more open and responsive to citizens` needs is economic pressure. But if political action requires the strength of Samson, then economic pressures require the wisdom of Solomon. How can one exert economic pressure against a repressive system without becoming equally repressive? Consumer education is the solution least subject to abuse, and although it is slow and expensive, in the long run it is essential. Media education is just beginning to take hold in the public schools and it is almost altogether missing in the churches. Yet teaching people how to understand what the media are doing to them and helping them learn the techniques of media discrimination so that they can develop values and opinions and points of view which are their own should have a very high priority among educators and church leaders.
But education alone is not enough. What is also needed is countervailing power, and here the moral dilemmas emerge. Surely some kind of concerted citizen action is valid. Action for Children`s Television (ACT), which grew out of the moral outrage of a few mothers in Boston and became a nationwide movement, performs an important public service. It organized protests against TV advertising of high-sugar foods to children. It cooperated with members of Congress to get support for bills to require one hour of children`s programming daily during children`s prime viewing time. It evaluates children`s programming and provides this information to parents. It deserves continued support.
There are other economic strategies that have had various degrees of success. Church related groups have organized stockholder action among corporations that advertise on high-violence programs. In one campaign, a dozen major advertisers agreed to avoid sponsoring ads on high violence programs. The irony of this modest success is that in response to the pressure against violence the industry began to increase the amount of sexual titillation to compensate for turning down the violence.
Another example of the unpredictable outcome of citizen economic action is the boycott Dr. Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University waged against General Motors Corporation for its sponsorship of "Jesus of Nazareth," the Zeffirelli biblical epic on the NBC network. Dr. Jones proclaimed it was un-Christian since it did not portray a literal version of the biblical events, and his threat to divert buyers from GM cars so upset GM management that they withdrew their ads and sponsorship just two weeks before air time. But Proctor and Gamble, the largest sponsor of them all, saw the opportunity and bought up all of the spots for the series. The religious controversy merely provided NBC invaluable free advertising, and the series attracted one of the largest audiences in TV history. The program series has since been aired almost every year, and remains one of the better Bible epics. So much for boycott!
It is possible to draw some guidelines as to what is and is not a morally acceptable expression of the public will and the use of countervailing force within the communication industry. For example, in the case of the Action for Children`s Television call for a ban on commercials for children too young to discriminate, or the church`s protest against excessive and gratuitous violence, the criticism was aimed at a class of programming rather than against an individual program. In addition, the objections are not to an idea presented on a particular program, but against the overall quality or approach -- in one case exploitation of children, in the other gratuitous violence. Finally, the objections are based on careful research developed by responsible experts and widely accepted by the public, in one case that children`s ads exploit children who are not yet old enough to discriminate, and in the other that violence on television causes violence in actual behavior. There are other moral distinctions. In the case of ACT and the churches, the approach to the communications industry has been through a combination of education, public protest and stockholder action. Bob Jones, on the other hand, proposed boycott as the immediate and first step, and from a position of moral certitude which was presumptious, vain, and intimidating, especially to Christians. Said Dr. Bob: "Those who love and know the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, as their personal Lord and Saviour will, I am sure, make their protest known both verbally and by spending their automobile dollars elsewhere."7.
Another example of the vagaries of boycott is the campaign waged against 7-Eleven Stores by the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his organization, in an attempt to get the chain to remove Playboy and Penthouse magazines from their shelves. At first the boycott seemed successful, in part because the Attorney General`s Report on Pornography listed the stores as "selling pornography." However, nearby stores reported that their sales of these two magazines soared, which means that while Playboy and Penthouse suffered slightly or perhaps not at all in the long run (because of the free publicity), the individual 7-Eleven owner-franchisers suffered considerable economic damage not only from the loss of magazine sales but from losses of additional sales from people who went to other stores to purchase Playboy and Penthouse. On the other hand, Cesar Chavez vividly demonstrated that boycott can be used as a successful tool for redressing grievance. He used it in the case of the California grape-pickers` boycott as a last resort, after every other approach, including recourse to the courts, had failed. Still, boycott is a very blunt tool which inevitably hurts many innocent people in the process of hurting the targeted adversary. It should be used only after every other avenue has been exhausted, and then only with considerable precision and care, since unforseen results are likely.
Given the fact that there is no genuine "box office" for television, stockholder action probably represents one of the better approaches for making the will of the consumer known. But there can be unforseen results here as well. In an attempt to be as inoffensive as possible, sponsors may become reluctant to support any program with bite and controversy, with the result that TV may become even more devoid of serious content. This is another of the many ironies facing those who attempt to use economic sanctions to improve the openness of communication.
The third general approach to media reform is a time-honored solution to repression of all kinds: create new possibilities. While we need to deal with the political givens, we need also to redefine those givens and to find those "zones of freedom" where we can help ourselves and others to see things differently.
One of the most significant creative alternatives to commercial broadcasting is Public Broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by Congress in l967 to promote the development of the nation`s noncommercial broadcast stations. The CPB budget grew steadily from $3 million in l968 to $35 million in l972. In l969 the CPB set up the Public Broadcasting Service, which soon became a cooperative of member stations and the heart of a fourth network. In l972, with "Sesame Street" leading the way, public broadcasting was beginning to gather a significant audience, and from then until l980, federal funding for public broadcasting system steadily increased.
However, in 1980, the situation changed dramatically. The new Reagan Administration vowed to reduce federal funding for public broadcasting, and, by 1984, after a series of Presidential vetoes, funding had been cut by 40% below the l981 level. To stay on the air, public broadcasting stations were forced resort to year-round fund raising campaigns, to accept forms of "underwriter recognition" that looked suspiciously like commercials, and to tailor their programming schedule to whatever corporate underwriters would support.
We are the only nation in the Western world which takes the importance of public broadcasting so lightly. The entire income from all sources for the public radio and television system is about a half-billion dollars a year, or about one-half of what we spend on dog food.8. Where are our priorities? Do we really care more about our dogs than our children?
In addition, National Public Radio is one of our national treasurers, providing the only quality radio program for children on a daily basis, and airing every afternoon what is considered by news professionals to be the best radio news program in the world today, "All Things Considered." NPR is equally endangered by the current administration`s hostility and lack of support. It deserves concerted action on the part of local groups to help fund their local NPR stations, and by national groups to insist that Congress increase the level of federal funding.
These "zones of freedom" can be found in curious places. For example, when "Sixty Minutes" originally went on the air, it was treated by management as a showcase for the News Division and was not expected to pull a substantial audience. Instead, "Sixty Minutes" eventually developed a large audience right in the middle of Sunday prime-time, a time, most of the industry thought, when people would opt for pure entertainment. When President Carter said he wanted to try to continue communicating with ordinary people, and seemed to mean it, Richard Salant, President of CBS News, suggested a radio call-in program. The result was Ask President Carter, which had millions of listeners, and thousands of telephone calls -- a new possibility in mass communication. Ronald Reagan continued the weekly radio program, but without the call-in feature that made it unique.
Some new possibilities occur simply by accident. Perhaps the most significant thing about the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings by Public Broadcasting was not that it brought the scandal into so many homes, but rather that it gave many people a new vision of what television really could do for them and their nation. They realized, perhaps for the first time that there is no reason why television has to supply only soaps by day and sitcoms and violence by night. Another vision of TV`s possibilities occurred when PBS began to telecast great movies, uninterrupted, and people began asking why movies on commercial TV have to be halted every 10 minutes by jarring commercials. The response by the broadcasters that is that "someone has to pay for the shows," but this distinctly lacks imagination. In England and Europe the commercials come in bunches, several minutes at a time, at the end of programs and, in some countries, only once an evening. Their commercials sell and broadcasters still make a profit.
Another zone of creative new possibility is community radio. These are usually small stations which put on the air what the larger commercial stations would not dare, with the result that they garner a small but significant audience of people who are willing to pay (through "listener subscriptions") for the privilege of not having their radio horizons hemmed in by talk-rock-news-and-top-40 music. Community radio also deserves stronger local support. And the potential for cable TV, low-power television, point-to-point TV, and other "narrowcast" innovations as creative alternatives to commercial broadcasting have been discussed in Chapter 7.
Organizing for Media Reform
The three strategies discussed above -- political action, economic sanctions, and the creation of new possibilities -- all depend on organized citizen action. But during the firwt years of television, organized groups could scarcely expect to achieve any results at all, because the Federal Communications Commission refused to recognize representatives of the public as "parties of interest" in license procedings. It was only in 1966, litigation brought against the FCC by the United Church of Christ, that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals told the FCC it was required to permit citizens to participate in its business! This single ruling set the stage for the development of not only the broadcast reform movement, but the involvement of all other citizen action groups in other governmental agencies as well.
The reform groups that developed after 1966 were both many and varied. Most represented minorities which felt excluded from television: the Gray Panther Media Task Force, the National Organization for Women, the National Black Media Coalition, Action for Children`s Television. Some, such as the Committee on Open Media, sought access for all under-represented groups, and a few, such as the Citizens Communications Law Center, offered pro bono legal assistance. The church-related groups supported a number of justice-related issues, and chief among the groups were the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches, the United States Catholic Conference, and the Inter-religious Committee for Corporate Responsibility. From 1969 until 1977 many of these groups found themselves members of the Advisory Committee of National Organizations (ACNO) of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and ACNO served as a forum and a stimulus for their activities. They were in constant contact with the FCC, the courts, the Congress, corporations interested in media reform, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the public.
The list of accomplishments achieved by these reform groups during the period 1966 to 1980 is impressive. The right of the public to participate in regulation of the broadcasting industry was affirmed. Attempts by the broadcasters to reduce their public service obligations were beaten back. Presidential debates, increased public affairs, innovations in news coverage, fewer commercials on children`s programs, more female and minority on-air employment, greater minority ownership of stations, "free speech messages" in many cities, greater responsiveness to viewer`s letters, and a temporary reduction in violent programs -- all were brought about through the efforts of the broadcast reform groups.9. Unfortunately, virtually every one of these progressive steps has been reversed since 1980 when deregulation began. Since then, many of the reform groups have disbanded, unable to attract support because they could no longer get a hearing in Congress, the FCC, or the White House.
What are the possibilities for broadcast reform in the future? Fortunately, politics tends to move in cycles, and the growing public disaffection with the commercialization of television and radio is bound to be heard eventually in Washington. Given a political environment that is not actively hostile, the reform movement can be regenerated, but to do so it will need to take a somewhat different shape.
An analysis of the broadcast reform movement shows that concensus regarding content among the various groups was impossible; each minority was motivated primarily to get their own message across. Only the church organizations and legal aid groups were interested more generally in achieving a free marketplace of ideas. Furthermore, the smaller, more ad hoc groups not affiliated with established institutions had to indulge in grandstand plays in order to attract volunteers and money. And when ACNO dissolved, the groups lacked any opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from each other`s experience.
An effective broadcast reform movement in the future will need a number of member groups which are affiliated with large, national organizations. It will have to attract a large public base which can be both a base of financial support and a channel for citizen education. Finally, it will require some central organization which can be flexible enough to involve groups with different agendas but strong enough to provide them with resources and a forum for the exchange and coordination of ideas and plans.
The central thrusts of a reborn reform movement should be stockholder action to effect corporate decision-making, the mobilization of public influence on Congress, the development of improved rating systems, the encouragement of research to support policy-making, and the creation of support mechanisms to encourage and inform creative people working in the media industries.10.
One of the enduring problems of our society is that our social engineering lags behind our technical engineering, with the result that large commercial power bases tend to take over and dominate those parts of the new technology that increase their power and profits. Unfortunately, the public usually never knows what it has missed until it is far too late to create the laws and regulations so that the new technology also benefits the public welfare.
There will be no remedial action to counter the overdose of violence on TV, nor will there be a a thorough airing of matters of public importance, or the opportunity for the public to hear "fringe" positions, or quality programming for children, so long as the television industry is able to neutralize regulation through its power over members of Congress, and at the same time can forestall the development of economic countervailing forces by invoking the shibboleths of freedom, censorship and the First Amendment. Freedom without responsibility is the freedom of the "free fox in the free henhouse" and leads to domination and repression that can be more dangerous in a democracy than the governmental regulation of licenses to insure the responsible use of a valuable public resource.
What is needed certainly is not governmental censorship. What is needed is a freeing up of the existing regulatory system so that broadcasters would once again be expected to use their license in the public interest. What is needed is the busting of media trusts. There is danger of censorship. But there is also the reality of monopoly, exercised by large corporate interests which keep the public from knowing what is going on in their own society. What is needed is media education so that people will not be helpless illiterates in their media world. What is needed is public action against sponsors, agencies, networks, and stations which will form the countervailing economic force that pits the public`s interest against industry`s profit motive. What is needed are new ideas and approaches in how to use these media in ways that can open up their potential for the public commonweal.
The Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting in l979 challenged the country to rethink its vision of what broadcasting could be:
The United States is the only Western nation relying so exclusively upon advertising effectiveness as the gatekeeper of its broadcasting activities. The consequences of using the public spectrum primarily for commercial purposes are numerous, and increasingly disturbing. The idea of broadcasting as a force in the public interest, a display case for the best of America`s creative arts, a forum of public debate -- advancing the democratic conversation and enhancing the public imagination -- has receded before the inexorable force of audience maximization.11.
In all probability it will be necessary for us to go to the economic roots of the problem before solutions become workable. Government will need to perform new roles in subsidizing alternatives to the communication media we now have. It will have to provide a substantial and continuing financial base for public broadcasting. It will be required to create and maintain an open marketplace of ideas.
Open communication is necessary to our social structure, and essential to maintaining national stability as well as allowing for social reform. We cannot hope to approach the problems of the 21st century in America successfully until our communication processes are genuinely open and the original meaning and intent of the First Amendment two centuries ago is realized in the communication media of today.
1. Ronald A. Cass, Revolution in the Wasteland (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, l981), p. 61.
2. Ibid., p. 13.
3. Ibid., p. 45.
4. Ibid., p. 69.
5. Ibid., p. 53.
6. Eric Barnouw, The Image Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, l970), p. 335.
7. Anne W. Branscomb, "An Outsider Looking into the Poverty of Public Broadcasting," address at the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, 14 November l977.
8. Anne W. Branscomb and Maria Savage, "The Broadcast Reform Movement: At the Crossroads," Journal of Communication, 28/4, 1978, pp.30-31.
9. Ibid., p. 34.
10. "The Public Trust," the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting, (l979), p. 21.