What You Don’t Know Can Kill You

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).

This article is based on a speech delivered at the National Academy of Homiletics in Washington, D.C. on December 3, 2009. It appeared as the lead article in the Summer 1 issue of The Progressive Christian magazine. Used by permission of the author.


The media environment in America is seriously dysfunctional and therefore a threat to the democratic process. The author analyses the problem and suggests remedies, including regulation in the public interest..

A few months ago I discovered that I am living in an America that is different from the one in which I grew up. And many of the differences are not good. It is far beyond the scope of this article to try to analyze them all. Instead, I want focus on the one area that I believe is a key to most of the differences, namely the role of the mass media in our society.

The media environment in which I grew up was far from perfect. I have no illusions about that. It was the time when, early on, Father Charles Coughlin used the radio to attack blacks and Jews. It was a time of the Ku Klux Khan and John Birch Society. It was a time of slap-stick comedy on radio and the retread of old vaudeville acts on TV, and a bit later it was the time of the fraudulent quiz shows like "The 64 Thousand Dollar Question" and Charles van Doren, a contestant who was secretly fed the answers by CBS executives.

But it also was the time of Edward R. Murrow and his war reports, live, from London, and of "See It Now," It was the time of the Lux Radio Theater, NBC White papers and hour long CBS documentaries that ran in prime time. It was a time when TV first flexed its muscles to bring down a towering political figure -- the telecast of the McCarthy hearings and that riveting moment when the defense lawyer, Joseph Welsh, faced Senator Joe McCarthy and said in exasperation, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" -- and Joe McCarthy was finished. It was the time when Public Broadcasting was chartered and, at its the beginning, fairly well funded by the Congress. It was a time when just about every major town in the nation had both a morning and an evening newspaper.

In the early sixties, I was asked to lead the National Council of Churches' Broadcasting and Film Commission. Our 42 member denominations cooperated with the three networks (and yes, there were only three) in many joint productions. -- more than a hundred each year. But we also worked with the FCC to seek fairness and responsibility among broadcasters whom we understood to be still very much licensed in the "public convenience, interest and necessity." In theological jargon, we tried to be in the world but not of it.

Early during that period, Dr. Everett Parker, the Director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ and a member of my Communication Commission, brought us an idea. He said, "There’s a TV station in Jackson Mississippi that is flagrantly failing to meet the needs of the black half of its community, and together we could do something about it." Jackson had a population that was one-half black, yet WLBT, the leading TV station in the area, carried not a single program about the situation of blacks in the South, not a single on-air black personality, no black ownership, nobody in the station who was black, except the man who swept up at night. In fact, when network feeds came down with a program about race, the station went off the air with the sign "We are having technical difficulties."

This seemed so egregious that I took the idea to my Commission and they voted to join in action with the United Church of Christ. We went to the FCC with a request that they revoke the license of WLBT. But the FCC said, "Sorry. We can’t hear your petition; you don’t have standing before us." They claimed that only people who owned a license or who wanted to buy a license had standing before the regulatory commissions – but not the general public! So -- we sued the FCC in the DC Court of Appeals, and after a year or so the Court ruled that the FCC had to grant standing to any legitimate representative of the public.

This was a significant decision. It held that every governmental agency must grant standing to the public, and it still holds true today. This opened up the door for Ralph Nader’s work with the Transportation Safety Board and the Food and Drug Administration. It also spelled the end of cigarette advertising on TV when John Banzaff, a young lawyer, successfully petitioned the FCC to require stations to provide equal time for a statement on the dangers of smoking every time they aired a cigarette ad. Somehow the stations didn't like the idea of giving away all that free time, so cigarette advertising was banned -- by the broadcast industry!

Now that we had standing, we next asked the FCC to examine the logs and hiring practices of WLBT. We were sure they would revoke the license. The FCC sent an examiner down to Jackson, and he came back and with a straight face said that he found that WLBT was in compliance with its obligation to meet the needs and interests of its viewing public. So we sued the FCC again After several years of some fairly intense battles, the D.C. Appellate Court once again agreed with us, and directed the FCC to revoke WLBT’s license.

This was truly a landmark decision. It was the first of only two times a TV station has ever had its license revoked. And it was a decision that was heard across the entire nation. Every TV station realized that they had to begin to seriously meet the interests of their minority publics, or risk losing their license. So a blow was struck that had much the same effect as the Civil Rights legislation, but in the area of information access that the Civil Rights Act did not cover.

The point of the story is this: in those decades, in spite of the fact that broadcasters were already very strong, levers of power were still accessible to the public. Stations could still be held to some public accountability. The public could still be heard. During this same period, the Fairness Doctrine and the Right of Reply Rules were also in place. When statements were made on radio and television that slandered individuals, or strong positions about issues of public importance were aired which needed balance and rebuttal, it was possible for ordinary citizens to demand that the station provide time for reply.

In fact, in one other action, called the Red Lion case, we raised the issue of whether citizens had a right to reply on a station even if the station owner refused. We took this one to the Supreme Court, and the decision, written by Chief Justice White, held that the First Amendment does not protect private censorship by the broadcaster and that, between the right of the broadcaster and the right of the listeners and viewers, "it is the right of the viewers and listeners that is paramount."

But all that was then, and this is now. Today I am living in a different America, one in which the nature of the mass media has changed radically.

The New Broadcast Dispensation began in earnest in 1980. That year, President Ronald Reagan, explaining that government was the problem and not the solution, proceeded to gut the FCC. He reduced the number of Commissioners from 7 to 5. He cut both the budget and staff almost in half. He selected a Chairman who famously said that the television set is no different from an electric toaster -- thus signaling that he completely rejected, or at least misunderstood, the enormous cultural power of the medium. The FCC and the Congress soon made critical changes in all the rules. They did away with the Fairness Doctrine and the right of reply. Instead of having to ascertain their local community's needs and interests every three years and then planning how their station would program to meet those needs, the broadcaster was now required only to send a post card each year to the Commission, stating weather or not they had met the community's needs! It would be laughable if it were not so shocking.

It is shocking because democracy simply cannot exist for long without an informed electorate, and today we do not have an informed electorate. We do not have the ground rules that make it possible for there to be an informed electorate. We have among the electorate 30 per cent functionally illiterate, and when you can't read, you get your news and information from only one source -- television. Meanwhile, television has become totally integrated into the capitalist political economy. Instead of diversity and the clash of ideas we have monopoly and information and ideas that systematically favor the rich and powerful and keep the poor and uneducated uninformed and unmotivated.

Ralph Nader claims that today America is "growing young people up corporate rather than growing them up civic." This puts the issue clearly. People who grow up civic are taught how to relate meaningfully to others, to put the good of the group first, to consume wisely and to use amusement sparingly, and to be concerned for rights of others, for their environment, and for the future of human kind. That used to be pretty much the underlying theme in America. I believe it was the dominant theme when I was working in the media. But during the last forty years people have been grown up corporate. They have been taught to look inward, to put themselves first, to consume endlessly, to seek out the maximum possible amusement, and to be unconcerned for others, their environment or even the future. That is the dominant theme in America today. We have moved from an ideal of the common good, the commonwealth, to a vision that "greed is good."

Acting within this framework, the communication media are actually suppressing democracy through its influence on the political process. During the past forty years, voters have been taught by TV to make political judgments based on how they feel about a particular candidate, rather than how to evaluate a candidate's actual positions and actions. We know from research that television bypasses the cognitive centers of the brain and goes directly into the centers of feeling. So every ten second sound bite and every misleading commercial further separates the voter from the real issues. Every shouting match on Fox News further trains people to expect entertainment rather reasoned debate. And so of course the candidate with the most money for media exposure is the one most likely to win.

Large corporate interests have unparalleled power over politicians and their vote. We have witnessed this almost daily during the struggle over the universal health care bill. In fact, Rupert Murdock, the media mogul who last year captured the Wall Street Journal recently said that he would be willing to keep his Fox News Channel on the air even if it were not profitable, because he wants "the political leverage he can get out of being a major network." As Robert McChesney puts it, the electronic media are "a poison pill for democracy."

Of course, the whole mix media has changed with the advent of cable TV and the Internet. But an interesting thing happened as cable developed. It over developed. So many groups got into the pie that the slices have remained extremely thin. According to a recent analysis by the Chicago Tribune, Fox News averages just 2.6 million viewers on a typical weeknight, or less than 1 per cent of Americans. MSNBC does even worse, with 831,000 per night. The three major network newscasts, which still aim at a modicum of balance and depth, pull in a combined total of more than 20 million viewers each evening. Still, the flamboyant channels provide outlets for the strident and the calculated misdirection -- a home for every latter day charlatan and snake oil salesman. And the effects of the media's brain washing can been seen everywhere. Millions of citizens actually vote against their own self-interest, and cries like "Let's keep the government out of Medicare!" are both astonishing and depressing.

The jury is still out on the long-term effects of the Internet. Blogs provide almost instant response to emerging issues and are valuable to those who write up the news. But if the audiences of cable TV are fragmented, the audiences for Internet sites are shattered. The rapid disappearance of the daily newspaper leaves a gaping hole in information gathering that may possibly be filled to some extent by Internet web sites. But mass media it is not.

That leaves us with only one fairly strong and balanced communication system available to all -- and that is public broadcasting. For almost a half century PBS and NPR have managed to survive. Every new administration has wished they would go away, and Richard Nixon almost killed them. Congress continues to shamefully under fund them so that stations have been forced to go to the public, tin cup in hand. But they have survived. And they provide some of the only serious alternative programming in the entire media environment..

Now what is the role of religion in this gloomy media situation? Does religion have anything to say relevant to the current role of media in society? Of course it does. The biblical view of man says that he is creator of historical events and therefore is responsible for all his actions -- past, present and future. When Jesus placed the Great Commandment to love God with all your heart and mind and soul above the Ten Commandments, he introduced human kind to a new dimension of freedom and responsibility. To Christians, God goes ahead of our human history, calling us, leading us, opening up ever new and larger possibilities. This is what differentiates the living God from every false god. And in our world, the mass media are the agents that act either to open up or to restrict this freedom.

TV is the dominant releasing force, revealing new worlds of ideas and peoples and cultures. And it is also the great constricting force, limiting our freedom by manipulation and stultification. So this situation is not merely a public concern. It is a Christian concern. For without the freedom that comes with an open information environment, human beings are pressed into fear and neurosis that makes them less than human, and makes our society less than it should be.

I believe that is what is happening right now. I believe that the media are making our society less than it should be. America is becoming a declining power. Our reputation around the world is in tatters. Our schools are desperate for rejuvenation. Our highways and transportation systems are in a dangerous state of decay. Our banking system demands a major overhauling. Our military is overreaching and spending billions to police the world as if no-one had ever read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Congress doesn’t dare seriously reform the bankers or Wall Street. And we citizens are afraid to rein in the so-called Defense budget that consumes 54 per cent of our tax money, or to stop the military-industrial complex because it has contrived to employ workers in almost every city and town in the nation -- with the result that support for the war machine has become in millions of homes a bread and butter issue, instead of a moral issue.

What specific remedies need to be taken to deal with these problems are almost overwhelming in their complexity. But the fundamental first principle is clear. Unless the general public -- not just the highly educated leaders of church and society, but the general public -- knows about these problem with all their pros and cons, and are able to weigh and consider alternatives and solutions from every standpoint -- left, right and center -- unless that happens, our nation will never be able to fight its way back toward solutions that will build us up, strengthen our resolve, and re-create the nation I used to love and I now would love to reform.

Yes, it is true today that What You Don’t Know Can Kill You. And it can kill America. The one essential requirement for starting reform in every area I have mentioned is having truly open media. So we need to fight once again for a return to sensible regulation. We must fight for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine and the Right of Reply Rules (under which Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Beck would have a hard time justifying many of their wild accusations, and therefore just might go the way of cigarette advertising). We must fight for an FCC that expects TV and radio stations to provide free time to all candidates for national public office. The result would be boring at times, but not so boring if the Congress also set strict limits on the length of campaigns. Meanwhile the cost of campaigns would plummet, as paying for more TV time would no longer provide the only route to winning an election. And we must fight for an FCC that requires stations to provide programs without commercials for children during the late afternoons, and to provide at least 25 minutes of genuine news during prime time instead of infotainment. Finally, we must fight to expand the non-commercial broadcast system that is made possible by the new digital spectrum to PBS stations, and fight off attempts to privatize what is left of public broadcasting.

The "We" I have in mind here is the institutional church, the power of thousands and even millions of people in the pews of our denominations. This is where the communication offices of the churches have responsibility. This is where the National Council of Churches -- and the National PTA, the National Library Association and other national organizations -- should wield their clout to make a difference in the halls of Congress, even as it was done a half-century ago.

About that time theologian Paul Tillich had already identified the problem, and he laid down a challenge:

"Yes, knowledge equals power. Three and four decades ago we still had a reasonable amount of information available to every citizen. The question of saving power in the nation is the question of whether there is a minority, even a small one, which is willing to resist the anxiety produced by propaganda, the conformity enforced by threat, the hatred stimulated by ignorance. The future of this country and its spiritual values is not dependent as much on atomic defense as on the influence such groups will have on the spirit in which the nation will think and act."

Tillich's challenge is more urgent now than it was then. Today our media environment is seriously dysfunctional. We must all decide whether we will be a part of that group, that small minority, that is willing to resist the propaganda, the conformity, the hatred and to create an open media environment. Because what we don’t know can kill us. And it can kill our society. But what we do know can bring to us, the nation, and the world, a truly abundant life.











*Fore, Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media, (Friendship Press, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115), Chapter 11, "What We Can Do."