Net neutrality is a 21st century concern, but the policy debate that erupted between FCC chairs, business and citizens echoes an eerily similar fray— from 70 years ago. Bob speaks with Victor Pickard, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of America’s Battle for Media Democracy.
Song: "Newsreel" by Randy Newman
Brooke: It’s central to our lives, for information and entertainment; and the primary source of shared culture. Its distribution is in the hands of a few corporate leviathans. It serves the public interest, except when it doesn't. Its vaunted role as a tool of democracy is constantly being usurped by the naked exigencies of commerce. I speak, of course, of….radio, 70 years ago. In light of the FCC’s ruling on the future of the internet, last week Bob took a little trip back to the future with Victor Pickard, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. In his new book, “America’s Battle for Media Democracy,” he traces an eerily familiar policy debate taken up by a much earlier incarnation of the FCC.
Pickard: You had just nbc and cbs, there was also a smaller network mutual. broadcasting system, but in many ways you were dealing with radio duopolies and monopolies. And it was manifesting in not just nonstop soap operas, some racist programming like Amos and Andy, you had a purge of liberal commentators throughout the '40s, and so people were concerned that the most popular medium of the time - radio - was not living up to its democratic potential.
Bob: Who was fighting this fight and how did they go about fighting it?
Pickard: At this time you saw a spike in activism around the labor movement, the civil rights movement. There was also a feisty consumer rights movement. And they found that their messages were not getting into the media. There were letter-writing campaigns, petitions, some coordination with natural allies at the FCC. There was pressure from above and below that advanced this media reform coalition in a number of inconceivable policy interventions for us to consider today.
Bob: There was one commissioner who spoke out about the triviality of the programming in what we would hear again 20 years later by Newton Minnow in his famous assault on the "vast wasteland" of TV. Who was that?
Pickard: James Lawrence Fly, better known as Larry Fly, certainly not a household name today, but in the 1940s he struck fear in the hearts of commercial broadcasters. He was known as an anti-monopolist crusader - he'd cut his teeth during various political battles in FDR's New Deal government in the 1930s and when he arrived at the FCC, he set out to take on radio monopolies and that's exactly what he did.
Bob: That's the twilight zone thing for me: a New Deal activist big government that found favor with the public and OMG southern liberals - southern liberals on the FCC at the time.
Pickard: We have a very different FCC in action today, but at the time in the late 30s and throughout the 40s, even when the New Deal agenda was in various stages of retreat, it arrived later and stayed longer at the FCC. In fact, the FCC was kind of the New Deal's last stand.
Bob: And as a result of the agitation, what happened?
Pickard: Larry Fly initiated this very aggressive study on the lack of competition in radio markets as well as other problems and the findings of this study led to a number of rules that forced NBC to divest itself of one of its major networks - this is actually how we got ABC. And this is pretty inconceivable for us today - it would be like Tom Wheeler forcing comcast to break itself up. It's a form of trust-busting almost. This was the first initiative. Then we had what was known as the FCC blue book - to create license renewals, contingent on very meaningful public interest obligations.
Bob: [Laughs] Yeah, I remember when to get access to the public airwaves, broadcasters had to demonstrate some sort of publicmindedness.
Pickard: It's a quaint idea.
Bob: So quaint. Ahh...
Pickard: In fact, Larry Fly was fond of saying that the air belongs to the public, so therefore radio should be in the public interest. And it was treated as a almost communistic attempt by big government to take over the airwaves from the commercial broadcasters. And that's what really led to the diminished expectations of these initiatives - they were largely stymied by red-baiting throughout the decade. We ended with the fairness doctrine, which is probably something that many of your listeners have at least heard of.
Bob: Yeah its gone now, but for decades it did prescribe various public spirited measures by broadcasters. What were they?
Pickard: In two parts of the fairness doctrine - the first part's often forgotten, which is that broadcasters should cover significant issues - issues that are important to local communities, and then to do so in a balanced manner. Many people conflate it with the 'equal time rule' but today, in many ways, it lives on. Anytime you hear of something mildly proactive by the FCC, certain constituencies, especially conservative activists, will call that a stealth or a back-door fairness doctrine. They've even likened the net neutrality protections as a fairness doctrine for the internet, which of course is not true at all.
Bob: The political environment has changed quite a bit in the last 70 years, but in this case, citizen activists seem to have had quite an effect on Tom Wheeler. In what ways does the past predict the current situation?
Pickard: Well I think it really stands as testament for the power of public engagement around these media policies. As you noted, the shift in this debate has been quite dramatic over the last 6 months and I think much of that can be attributed to the nearly 4 million people who wrote into the FCC in response to their open internet proposals. But I also think it shows that there needs to be sustained public engagement. We ignore media policy at our own peril. And how this debate plays out may determine whether we follow the path of broadcasting or begin to create a media system worthy of its democratic promise.
Bob: Victor, many thanks.
Pickard: Thanks for having me on the show, Bob.
Bob: Victor Pickard is an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book on this topic is titled, America's Battle for Media Democracy.