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Elite Control or Community Governance of Public Service Media: Which Will it Be?

Posted by Scott Sanders on

We must first understand that the U.S. public media system has been purposefully and severely handicapped by the professional culture of journalism, and by corporate and government powers, and philanthropies, from the beginning. Only with this knowledge can we discover that the primary solution to this problem is not simply more money and technology for public media but rather the direct, democratic, community control of public media. Only with this knowledge can we take action to create a public media system that enables marginalized groups to speak to themselves and to wider audiences.

Map of Tennessee

The ideal public service media system would be nonprofit, noncommercial, accountable and independent, available on multiple platforms, and require ubiquitous broadband and internet freedom. It would include public, educational and government access, community and low power radio, other community media centers, and community print and text, and have public and community media working together in new ways. Those who have historically subjugated U.S. public media have something else planned for us however. 

Professional control, corporate control, government control, and philanthropic control over public media in the U.S. together have created a system of social control and not one of social justice. I will offer governance models as solutions that I want you to keep in mind. I’ll focus on activism aimed at achieving community control over public media during two eras, 1920-1960 and 1960-present, and then upon today’s situation.

It is important to understand that by the time commercial radio gained dominance in the 1930s, journalists and publishers had won widespread acceptance of professional norms over independent news models. The journalists’ and publishers’ culture of “detached” “science” “without ideology” determined they would control media for generations.

It is crucial to recognize the racism in professional culture of the 1920’s and 30’s. Lagemann says the trustees of the Carnegie Corporation worried about and financed eugenics projects intended to help preserve the racial purity of American Society. They were convinced of the superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon “race” and were determined to preserve this nowhere more than in the “public profession of the law”. This is the same foundation that helped shape U.S. media at every key step and whose 1967 report led to the creation of U.S. public broadcasting.

The 1927 Radio Act created the Federal Radio Commission, which shoved educational stations around the dial as a cop would a vagrant, and slashed their power allotments. 128 educational stations in 1925 fell to 48 in 1930. Those left got daytime hours only.

NBC parent RCA, and CBS, in collusion with the Carnegie Corporation and J.P. Rockefeller, created the National Advisory Council on Radio Education in 1930, which advised educators to work with (surrender to?) the networks. Other educators formed the National Committee on Education by Radio, a vanguard attempting to establish a U.S. broadcasting system with the nonprofit and noncommercial sector dominant. The passage of the 1934 Radio Act was both a complete defeat of public media in the U.S. and an archetype for media governance extending to the present.

Another path was possible. In the mid-1930’s, the French government decreed each community with a state owned station would hold an annual meeting to elect a community council of program management. All persons who owned radio sets and had paid the use tax would be eligible to participate.

In 1946, pacifist Lewis Hill incorporated what became the independent Pacifica radio network, a pioneer in listener-supported radio. During the 1950’s however, the only new educational radio licenses authorized by the FCC were for itty-bitty ten-watt stations. No educators initially accepted the FCC’s 1948 invitation to request tv channels. In 1952, the FCC reserved 242 for education. By 1960, only 1/5th were in use.

Surprisingly, there was no grassroots struggle for public tv channels or funding for public tv or radio. The prime movers of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 were educational broadcasters, the Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, the Johnson administration, commercial networks, AT&T, media union officials, and some academics. Virtually 100% absent from the 1967 testimony in the House and Senate were diverse and marginalized groups advocating for civil rights, peace, the environment, the poor, and so on. Professionals and elites made a severely handicapped, small system that they could control. The handful of letters from the public in the legislative record show the people felt a government propaganda machine was being shoved down their throats. They were right.

From the start, public broadcasting was unambiguously part of the military-industrial complex. Carnegie Commission chairman James Killian was Kennedy’s chief intelligence advisor and held top posts at MIT, GM, and AT&T; Killian didn’t want public broadcasting to have independent, permanent funding. The first chair of the CPB was General Frank Pace, former army secretary, nuclear weapon technology pioneer, and head of General Dynamics. Yes, even Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had worked at the US Information Agency, the government propaganda office.

Similar links occur at elite neo-liberal philanthropies, including major early public broadcasting funder the Ford Foundation. Its co-founder Henry Ford’s Nazi ties have been researched in depth elsewhere and its history of collaboration and interlock with the CIA is almost as well known. More obscured is the fact that the first head of the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education was the president of Shell Oil and that later, in 1965, Shell became public tv’s first “enhanced underwriter.” It is also important to point out that the Ford Foundation has been linked in the past by researchers to CIA and CIA-like projects including the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Student Association, and (along with the Carnegie Corporation) the CIA-founded African-American Institute, a group active on campuses in Africa.

In 1972, African Americans picketed outside a CPB board meeting because only 7 of 887 NPR station managers were black. In 1975, women’s groups, people of color, labor and others successfully fought Nixon’s nomination of conservative funder and John Birch pamphleteer Joseph Coors to the CPB. Nixon’s disdain for public broadcasting is widely understood, but less known is the fact that activists worked very hard in the 1970’s to correct public broadcasting’s serious shortcomings.

Filmmaker DeeDee Halleck and physicist Larry Hall organized The National Task Force for Public Broadcasting in the late 1970’s. They characterized public broadcasting as a system closed to creative staff, independent producers, and interested citizens. It assembled the powerful grass roots coalition missing from the 1967 deliberations. Its most significant victories were requirements for open meetings and access to records. Similar movements emerged in Boston, New York, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. and addressed lack of diversity on boards, neglect of local programming, censorship of controversial programming, under-representation of minorities in employment and programming, and insufficient citizen participation generally.

1978’s A Public Trust: The Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting called for public involvement in station governance, mixed boards with staff appointed and elected seats, and funding from spectrum fees. Congress and the FCC ignored these, its most important recommendations.

President Reagan and the Congress imposed major cuts to CPB. The Cable Act of 1984, befitting its Orwellian year, gave municipalities the right to request funding for public access channels but Aufderheide tells us that by 1990 only 17% of cable systems actually had public access channels. The unrelenting campaign by cable companies and municipalities against community television would have had far worse consequences were it not for activist organizing to save public access (PEG).

That’s where my personal story begins. I became an active community tv producer in Evanston, Illinois in the mid-eighties, co-creating a progressive news program. But the cable provider wanted to eliminate our access. My co-producer and I were banned — almost permanently. Instead of walking away, I organized for an independent democratic governance structure, akin to the models forged earlier in Canada and elsewhere, and helped carry the nonprofit Evanston Community Media Center through the legislative course — and we won. I know how that’s done. In the process, I was threatened with arrest several times and arrested for loitering.

Congress heard the complaints of independent producers in 1987 when it directed the CPB to establish the Independent Television Service to address the concerns of minorities and working people. Activism increased in the 1990’s in Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and elsewhere. I led Chicago efforts, which included a large coalition to press for programming and structural reforms. We increased the diversity of Chicago public tv station WTTW’s trustees, but the lock local elites have on the station is formidable. An FCC warning concerning home shopping with my name on it was cited in an FCC fine levied against WTTW for airing commercials — the first and only such fine ever involving a large public tv station.

More recently, Chicago Media Action activists issued a study of WTTW’s nightly news show that swept out three elite news execs. And while co-panelist Cass Sunstein nodded in approval at a 2005 event, I told the entire public broadcasting system that it had failed on the run up to the Iraq invasion. We’ve sought wider distribution of “Democracy Now!”, and advocated for Chicago Access Network TV, low power radio, and other needs. A critical public radio fight holds the remaining key we need.

In 1999, the CPB insisted Pacifica radio centralize and be more secretive. Program hosts and the station manager at Berkeley’s KPFA were fired. A network gag rule was implemented. Listeners issued thousands of protests. In June 1999, activists who staged a sit-in at Pacifica’s offices were arrested and charged with trespassing. In July, a Pacifica veteran was physically removed by guards in the middle of a broadcast. Some 400 staged a sit-in. 53 were arrested. Next, some 10-15,000 rallied and a lawsuit was filed.

Pacifica ‘s struggle created a governance model of great importance. Today, 2/3 of each Pacifica station board is member elected using instant runoff voting and proportional representation. The remainder are staff appointed. The station boards select the national board. This structure is unique and, on this scale, unprecedented. But virtually no other models of direct action aimed at public media in the U.S. have been found — to date.

So the early movement to create community controlled public media in the U.S. failed miserably. Then the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and U.S. government funded and shaped public media to their purposes. Since, corporations have dominated it. Now, some tell us that new funding and technology will fix it.

The rotary press, telegraph, radio, and tv were each proclaimed to be democratic when first introduced; it may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard. That fact will not change until we win the capacity to shape at least the public part of that system, as it is vulnerable to sustained local organizing in ways that commercial media is not.

To be very clear, social justice movements need a radically re-envisioned U.S. public service media system that would be almost unrecognizable alongside the current version. Public service media’s governance could resemble Pacifica’s, the French model, public access models, or the publicly elected boards of many public schools, public libraries, community colleges, and public utilities. Gale research says about 94% of Americans living in school districts elect their public school trustees. But 0% of Americans watching or listening to CPB funded outlets — except the five owned by Pacifica — have any direct say about the selection of public station trustees. 

Public media elites offer us a “partnership” in which they’re the parents and we’re the children, anxiously waiting with our bibs on for our media to be spoon fed to us. Unless we change this power relationship, we will remain subject to the arbitrary dominance of wealthy, racist, militarists shaping new technologies to sustain their power.

Democratic participation in civic and cultural media production only happens when the powerless can speak to themselves and to wider audiences. The oppressed and marginalized have a rare historic opportunity to wholly re-envision our public service media system. We could use it to create stories, produce culture, and change conditions.

Will we? 

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Scott Sanders has co-founded a number of media activist organizations including Chicago Media Action, and led efforts to constitute public community media centers with member elected boards and to increase diversity on non-elected public media boards. He also led campaigns resulting in the only FCC fine of a major public tv station concerning commercialism. He is a video documentarian and periodicals and technology librarian producing research for MMTC, MAP, and the University of Chicago, and author of articles for Truthout, Counterpunch, Z magazine, FAIR Extra!, and a number of daily newspapers.

For part I of this series see: http://www.media-alliance.org/article.php?id=1908