Public policies for communication and social responsibility

2004-09-09 00:00:00

At the second World Social Forum in 2002, I reported that
most people in the United States were media rich and
information poor. I'm afraid that for most of us, the
situation has only become worse. We have access to hundreds
of television stations, at least a dozen radio stations in
most communities (with many more on the web), and free or
cheap internet access. We socialize in bookstores, have a
half dozen or more films to choose from at any time. Some
of us even read newspapers and magazines! So how is it
possible that most of us saw no US dead and few Iraqis for
more than a year; that most could believe and still do,
that the government of Saddam Hussain had and was prepared
to use WMD's against the US or the UK. How can we know
virtually nothing of your countries unless it's in the
tourist guides, and know even less about Africa beyond
animal preserves and starving people and so on? Why is it
that the US involvement in the attempted coup against
Venezuela's President Chavez was first reported by British
reporter Duncan Campbell who was based in Los Angeles, not
by our own media? How could former President Reagan's death
be reported as the passing of an American hero, a great
communicator? He who had prosecuted wars in Nicaragua,
Guyana, Lebanon, Guatemala, El Salvador, whose social
policies created homelessness, degraded public education and
championed massive social theft in the name of

To be sure, US citizens must take personal responsibility
for some of this, as must the rise of the national security
state. But the changes in US media policy are also pivotal
in the degradation of our political discourse and the
impoverishment of our collective knowledge and imaginations.
Of course, we're here to discuss policy, so I'll leave the
US psyche behind for the moment and trust that you know only
too well from your own experiences the costs of US
obsessiveness with its own security.

Let me begin with a brief historical overview of US media
policy, especially but not exclusively as it relates to
radio. The first US telecommunications act was formulated
in the early 1930's and in the process, a prolonged debate
questioned whether electronic media, principally telephones
and radio at the time, should be considered part of the
public domain or privatized. Alas, privatization won, but
with ownership of frequencies to remain in the hands of the
national government. Broadcast frequencies could be leased
to private corporations or individuals, but licenses would
have to be reapplied for every seven years. With the
privilege of controlling frequencies came a set of social
responsibilities which changed somewhat through the years.
However, as telecommunications policy continued to develop,
there were specific attempts to insure that even those who
did not control frequencies could have access to them.
There was, for example, the Fairness Doctrine, which
required broadcasters to give airtime to individuals or
organizations which held opinions different than those of
the stations' owners. In an effort to protect newspapers
(or, more likely, due to pressure from them) there were
limitations on the amount of time radio stations could
devote to news: five minutes per hour. There were public
service and educational requirements which were minimal, but
at least a nod to the notion of public ownership. There
were also rather strict limitations on the number of
stations any individual or corporation could own and on
cross media ownership.

More than thirty years after the original telecommunications
act, when television was becoming the dominant electronic
medium, there were frequency set asides for public and
community media. In the case of radio, all frequencies
below 92 megahertz on the FM dial were set aside for non-
commercial, educational stations (NCE's). Stations like my
own, KCSB fm, were licensed to universities, community
organizations, indigenous communities and to the state
network, National Public Radio. There was even some funding
earmarked for them. And some low power stations, under 10
watts, were allowed to broadcast entirely without regulation
as long as they did not interfere with the primary broadcast
ranges of licensed stations. In the 1990's, an indigeneous
broadcasters network was established, including AIROS a
satellite delivery system.

In the 1980's, during the age of Reagan, rapid changes began
to be made. We refer to this as 'deregulation', but I want
to suggest that this may lead to a misunderstanding of what
really happened. In the name of deregulation, the Federal
Communications Commission began abolishing or abandoning
many of its regulatory mandates. What occurred was, in
fact, the re-regulation of media in the interests of
private, especially corporate media. The changes in policy
had foreseeable outcomes and in some cases were enacted to
allow for an escalation of corporate ownership. For
example, Rupert Murdoch who is Australian, had been
prohibited from owning radio and television stations in the
US because he was not a US citizen. In the blink of an eye
the regulation requiring US citizenship disappeared and
today we have Fox News! In the mid 80's, the Fairness
Doctrine was abandoned because corporate broadcasters argued
that if they were required to give others access to their
airwaves, it would have a chilling effect on their rights of
free speech. That is, they would be afraid to freely express
themselves because they might, in turn, have to allow you or
I to express ourselves, thereby utilizing time and content
which might offend their advertizers! In this same period,
the most affordable and democratized radio sector, low power
stations, were prohibited. By 1996 when the most recent US
telecommunications act was passed, debate over public versus
private rights had all but disappeared. Those of us who
argued that the airwaves were a public trust, part of a
global commons were so marginalized as to be considered by
many as the lunatic fringe. The governement conducted an
auction of frequencies for anticipated wireless uses which
granted ownership to the winners, not just use rights. The
ownership rules have also been changed to allow for ever
greater ownership which led to a frenzy of corporate take
overs with one media giant after another gobbling up their
smaller rivals.

All of that has brought us to a corporately owned media in
the hands of five corporations with cross ownership of
radio, television, publishing houses, book stores, film
companies and distributors. The Federal Communications
Commission is headed by Michael Powell, the son of Colin
Powell, who likened the digital divide to a 'Mercedes
divide', saying that of course, we would all like to have a
Mercedes but that was simply not possible. At this time,
the FCC is spending more time worrying about the baring of a
simgle woman's breast on television than issues of access,
interference and other public concerns. We have a system of
content controls which prohibits us from saying 'shit' in
daytime hours, but allows us to say 'go kill Arabs' or other
hate speech at any hour of day or night.

Beyond the FCC, through the US Copyright offices, there has
been a corporate initiative to severely limit what radio
stations can web cast. The Digital Millennium Copyright
Act, passed by the US Congress, resulted in significant
costs to even NCE stations, and initially included reporting
requirements which would have allowed the music industry to
track who was listening to us, when and what they were
listening to. That is just one effort to privitize and
control the internet. We can only guess at what is being
done under the Patriot Act which has given government new
powers of surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism.

The control of media in the hands of a very few corporations
has made government propaganda and censorship entirely
unnecessary. Those corporations have close ties to the
government and to the military. So war, for example, is
good business. The Fox Network beat the drums for war far
more loudly and steadily than even the most hawkish of
politicians. They shamelessly construct news to reflect
their own political agendas and to control content on their
media outlets to the exclusion of other perspectives.

Of course, all of this has important international
implications far beyond what people in the US do not know.
The corporations which control our media are multinational
and spread like a disease across the globe. USAID offers
training and equipment to community media bringing
individuals to the US so that they can model themselves on
our media and our FCC. Fortunately, many of those people
are savvy about what is happening, but sometimes find out
too late that the price of US equipment is the
relinquishment of a substantial amount of broadcast time.
And there are the threats posed by bilateral and
multilateral trade agreements which would subjugate
community and national media to corporate ones.

All of this points to the needs for media policy, but it as
well illustrates that policy built on weak or bad principles
will serve us poorly. In contrast, the Civil Society
Declaration from the World Summit on the Information Society
was entitled 'Shaping Information Societies for Human
Needs'; the document calls for policy and media which
promote literacy, access to health information, poverty
eradication, cultural enrichment, etc. From the outset,
we must demand policies which serve those needs, not
corporate ones nor ones which simply consolidate state

The good news about media policy in the United States is
that there is a growing public and grassroots recognition of
the need for a truly free media based on principles of
social justice. And that recognition has been translated
into action in a number of ways. So let me tell you a
couple of those stories. FCC Chairman Michael Powell
attempted to impose a further deregulation of media
ownership a year or so ago, but a campaign was launched
against it by tiny grassroots organizations like the
Prometheus Radio Project (really a half dozen individuals)
which resulted in hundreds of thousands of letters of
opposition being sent to the US Congress. And Mr. Powell
was at least slowed down. Public opposition has also
emboldened his fellow commissioners to resist his initiaves;
they have held required public hearings on these matters
when Powell did not want to do so. There was only one such
meeting held on all of the West Coast. It was held on very
short notice and convened at one of the most remote, small
cities in California rather than in a major metropolitan
area. Nonetheless, hundreds of people drove many hours to
reach the hearings where they called for the return of the
Fairness Doctrine, for more local programming and less
commercialism, and for more stringent ownership regulations.
At the same time, there has been an explosion of media
activism with conferences, teach-ins, public lectures and
public actions demanding media democracy. A group of people
of color calling for media justice declared: "Media Justice
speaks to the need to go beyond creating greater access to
the same rotten corporate media structure. We are
interested in more than paternalistic conceptualizations of
'access', more than paper rights, more than taking up space
in a crowded boxcar along the corporate information
highway…we seek new relationships to media and a new vision
and reality for its ownership, control, access, and
structure. "

One final measure of the public demand for better media is
exhibited on the best seller list where books by media
critics like Al Franken, Amy Goodman and Jim Hightower are
topping the lists. And this despite their being denied time
on the corporate media. You probably know about the success
of Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911" which continues to
fill theaters a month after its release. More surprising,
the documentary "Control Room" about Al Jazeerah during the
first months of the invasion of Iraq has been brought into
mainstream movie theaters after brief screeings in art film
houses. And it has remained in theaters more than two
months after its appearance

While it may have been slow in coming and may have taken a
stolen presidential election to awaken people, large numbers
of them are expressing themselves through their actions and
their pocket books. They are demanding media accountability
which will be very difficult to realize given the corporate
media landscape. The final piece off good news is that
there is international organizing for communication rights
which is providing us with both models and strategies.
Included prominently among these is taking media into our
own hands, a perfectly rational thing to do absent good
governance. We are becoming the media, creating an
historical record that is not finding a place in the
corporate media. Even where we fail to make an apparent
differnce today, that historical record will remain for
those who come after us and want to continue to insist on
universal right to communicate across borders and other

* Elizabeth Robinson. AMARC. Paper at the Roundtable
"Public policies for communication and social
responsibility", Americas Social Forum, Quito, July 2004.