From FCC bad boy to Citizen Nick

By Aaron Barnhart
Copyright ©1999 Aaron Barnhart. Redistribution prohibited.*

Nick Johnson is not your typical Iowa City, Iowa, school board member. It's doubtful any of his colleagues on the board were ever denounced by Spiro Agnew, or had Bob Dole call for their resignation, or saw their face on the cover of Rolling Stone.

A quarter century after his tumultuous tenure on the FCC ended, Mr. Johnson is stirring the pot again, not only serving on the local school board but writing newspaper columns that routinely infuriate other officials in the school district.

"Here I am on the school board, getting myself into trouble again," Mr. Johnson says, with a lick of mischief in his voice.

In truth, say both his admirers and critics, he can't help himself. Since being appointed the nation's maritime administrator by Lyndon Johnson at the age of 29, Nicholas Johnson has not been shy about his opinions.

Even today, as a visiting professor of law at the University of Iowa, he cannot resist the urge to lecture, whether to media professionals in Georgia (the republic) or educators in his home town.

When he was appointed to the FCC in 1966, Mr. Johnson was 32, the youngest commissioner ever.

[His confirmation sailed through; Congress was more interested in LBJ's pick as chairman, made the same time as Mr. Johnson's selection. But i]

In the seven acrimonious years that followed, [it would be] he was the FCC's enfant terrible [who captured the] capturing headlines [. He bickered] and bickering with broadcasters and Ma Bell [,]. He  dissented -- often scathingly -- with majority decisions, and accused his fellow commissioners of kowtowing to "Big Television and Big Business."

[He took his battles to the op-ed pages of the New York Times and other papers and wrote two incendiary books while in office.]

He ridiculed the FCC for going after radio stations that played songs with drug lyrics while at the same time giving violent TV shows a free ride.

He encouraged viewers to challenge the license renewals of station owners if their local news wasn't serving the community. And he urged boycotts of commercial TV, which he once called "the foremost enemy of intelligent consumerism."

As one of his last acts, Mr. Johnson even testified against the man named to succeed him, James H. Quello, calling his appointment "abysmal and preposterous."

In a way, he was a product of his time. He wore his hair long. He identified openly with the social causes of that era, notably Ralph Nader's consumer movement.

In 1972 Bantam published Test Pattern for Living, which may rank as one of the strangest books ever written by a sitting federal official.

A true period piece, the book's even-numbered pages featured quotes from such philosophers as Paul Goodman, Charles Manson and Frank Zappa, while on the odd-numbered pages Mr. Johnson weighed in on a mess of topics, from aerosol sprays to advertising, from the quality of the American diet (poor) to the quality of TV news (worse).

He was only one man, and often cast the sole dissenting vote on agency matters.

In 1972, Judith Martin wrote in the Washington Post that the broadcast industry largely dismissed Mr. Johnson as a "radical young gadfly commissioner."

But he probably poisoned a proposed megamerger between ABC and ITT (small potatoes today but a big deal back then) with his harsh 85-page dissent.

He did push successfully for TV stations to air anti-smoking ads. And he was the driving force behind the prime access rule, which he thought would encourage alternative-minded TV producers, rather than Paramount and the King brothers.

Yet one doesn't have to agree with his point of view to wish someone like Mr. Johnson were on the FCC today. At a time when communications are undergoing unprecedented changes -- technological, economic and in content -- the level of public debate about these matters is appalling.

Inside the FCC, the sharpest voice seems to belong to Harold Furchtgott-Roth, an enthusiast of continuing deregulation. There is no one on the commission to provide counterpoint to Mr. Furchtgott-Roth, which is to say there is no Nick Johnson.

Not long ago, I came across Mr. Johnson's massive website (http://soli.inav.net/~njohnson) a compilation of seemingly everything he has written or has been written about him, with links to scores of articles published since 1996 and a 333-page bibliography going back to the early 1950s.

I'm too young to recall Talk Back to Your TV Set -- which Mr. Johnson published in 1970 and now makes available for free from his website -- but I was amazed at how well the book holds up today.

In it, Mr. Johnson anticipated nearly every tectonic shift to come in the telecommunications landscape. He predicted the ongoing consolidation of media companies and the demise of fin-syn.

He foresaw the transformation of cable from a rural antenna service into a media giant that could dispense dozens of channels and eventually support computer networks. (Alas, his hope that cable "might be a vigorous and useful check on the big telephone monopolies" turned out wishful.)

Predictions aside, the book contains a spirited discussion of the role of mass media in the lives of ordinary Americans that is as fresh and insightful today as when Mr. Johnson wrote it 30 years ago:

["I think it is fair to ask what these network executives are doing. ... What right has television to tear down every night what the American people are spending $50 to $60 billion a year to build up every day through their school system? Giving the people what they want? Nonsense."]
I [decided to call] called up Mr. Johnson, and in the course of two long phone conversations we wandered all over the media map, though everything we discussed seemed to be connected to everything else, much as it is on his website.

As for the major policy issues he raised 30 years ago -- media ownership, the lack of diversity in mass media, the industry's denial of responsibility for media violence, the poverty of noncommercial programming on American TV -- they are still with us. But Mr. Johnson is patient and an optimist.

"I've had public health people tell me they can still see in tobacco consumption, epidemeological statistics, the impact of those anti-smoking spots 30 years ago," he says. "I think some of what has happened in tobacco policy has clearly been an improvement."

"We do have a cumulative effect," says Mr. Johnson. "It was Thomas Paine in Common Sense who said, `Words pile up and afterwards men do things. First the words.' " 



* This article appeared in Electronic Media, May 24, 1999, pp. 12, 16. It appeared under the headline indicated above, in a section called "Viewpoint/EM-Mail/The Little Picture."  Aaron Barnhart, who is on the staff of the Kansas City Star, provides a rich source of his writing and other links at the "TV Barn" http://www.tvbarn.com He has at least two e-mail addresses of which I am aware: aaron@tvbarn.com and barnhart@echonyc.com The text is as it appears in the Electronic Media article. The material in brackets was contained in the version on the tvbarn.com Web site (as of May 26, 1999).

A friend sent me the piece from what appears to be a list-serve: LATE-SHOW-NEWS@AMERICAN.EDU  (sent by something called the "The LATE SHOW NEWS Broadcast System"). At the end of that message was the following slug, for those possibly interested in subscribing:

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