Return to Nicholas Johnson "Recent Publications" Web page
Nicholas Johnson Interview
Exchange with Ben Kieffer
Iowa Public Radio
WSUI-AM 910, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
February 24, 2009
"Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson draws on a half-century in government and politics. Conversation with Ben Kieffer covers Johnson's new book, Your Second Priority."
Ben Kieffer (BK): From Iowa Public Radio News I'm Ben Kieffer. This is "The Exchange." [music bridge] How will the demise of traditional newspapers and the continued rise of the Internet change the way you and I get our news and entertainment? Today I'm joined by former FCC commissioner, and now law professor, Nicholas Johnson. He's best known for his controversial term as a dissenting FCC commissioner in the late '60s and early '70s, and his book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. In his new book, Your Second Priority, he shares complaints and suggestions for understanding and improving today's mass media. Our discussion with Nicholas Johnson starts right after this news. [music bridge]
BK: This is The Exchange from Iowa Public Radio News. I'm Ben Kieffer. And my guest this hour is Nicholas Johnson. He's best known for his controversial term as a dissenting Federal Communications Commission commissioner. Appointed by President Johnson, he served as FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973. In 1970 he helped spark a media reform movement with his book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. His ideas put his face on the cover of the Rolling Stone in 1971. Now nearly four decades later he teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law with a special emphasis on communications and internet law. In his new book, titled Your Second Priority, he shares complaints and suggestions for understanding and improving today's mass media. Nicholas Johnson joins me this morning in the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City.
Good morning to you.
Nicholas Johnson (NJ): Good morning, Ben; thank you.
BK: Great to have you in our studio again. This hour we want to get your observations on how the mass media has changed over recent decades, most recently the rise of the Internet, and how the way we consume media is undergoing a dramatic shift. We also want to talk about the collapse of leading newspapers, traditional newspapers around the country, and the effect the economic turmoil is having on our media -- and of course try to include as many listener calls and emails as possible this hour.
First of all, tell us why you titled this book Your Second Priority?
NJ: Well, the reason for that is that as I was trying to build coalitions in the '60s and '70s, I explained to folks that whatever their first priority was -- whether it was feeding the hungry, or saving the whales, or women's rights, or whatever -- that their second priority, at least, had to be media reform. Because the media is so central to bringing about change, or preventing the bringing about of change, that unless you understand it, unless you work to try to reform it, unless you work to try to democratize it, make it more responsive to your own first priority, you don't have much chance of making any progress. Even with the media reform you may not make all the progress you'd like, but at least you'll have a fighting chance.
BK: So when we look back, let's just take the last hundred years as a good place to look at mass media, from newspapers 100 years ago, from newspapers to radio and then, supposedly, television was going to kill radio. And then we have television evolving into cable television. And now we have the demise of traditional newspapers. We have all this online action convergence online of material that we read, we listen to, and we watch. What do you make of it when you look over that span of a hundred years and how media has evolved?
NJ: Well, how about a span of 600 years, because we used to teach with lectures and then Gutenberg gave us the printing press -- although the Koreans gave it to us 600 years before that -- and yet, even with books, we are still lecturing on the University of Iowa campus today. Oftentimes with material that might better have been in print and required reading for students. So the printing press did not drive out the public lecture. Indeed, I did a public lecture business for awhile in the '70s and '80s.
You mentioned newspapers, and radio came along, AM radio. It didn't do away with newspapers. It affected what newspapers can most effectively do, which is true today as well. And there was concern then about FM radio when it came along and then television. "Who'd want to listen to radio when then can watch television?" Well, it turned out as many people are listening to radio as are watching television at any given time. It hasn't done away with radio, which serves some very useful purposes. If you're not supposed to use your cell phone while driving it's also very difficult to be watching television while driving, but you can listen to the radio while driving. And then we had cable to bring us television and satellite-distributed television, and none of that did away with the over-the-air television stations. And now we have the Internet, and you can read the newspaper on the Internet, you can listen to this radio station on the Internet, you can watch ABC Evening News on the Internet. And yet all those media still exist, newspapers, and radio, and television over-the-air stations, and so forth. So I think that each newly developed medium has an impact, and now the networks are looking at delivering television programs over cell phones' screens, each has its impact, but the others tend to come along in one form or another.
BK: So do you think the shift that's currently going on towards the Internet is another of the sort of piling on of the next new media and not a replacement of prior media?
NJ: Well it's going to be a replacement to some extent. You have to respond in the same way that the newspapers that had the "Extra! Extra! Read all about it" in morning editions, afternoon editions and evening editions, couldn't really keep up with radio news, and so needed to go more to a daily edition, probably a morning paper, with more insight into the stories of what happened the day before. So that was a modification with the coming of radio. With the coming of the Internet a lot of newspapers, well not just newspapers, but radio stations, television, everybody's trying to come up with some business model that will enable the newspapers to stay in business. But so far at least there is still a demand, mostly for people who are over eighty probably, for hardcopy newspapers; there's still a demand out there. They give them away free in the cafeterias here on campus trying to entice students to this newfangled communications device called "a newspaper" which most of them find quite alien, even when they're free.
BK: Now you are involved, just personally, with an experiment with your wife that you shared with me, coming in, that sort of tests out where we are in terms of the Internet and availability of media. Tell us about that experiment.
NJ: Well, we've never been really heavy television watchers. After I spent a professional career advising people to take John Prine's advice "blow up their TV and move to the country" I couldn't very well be a heavy TV watcher. But we watched the evening news on ABC, we watched George Stephanopolis Sunday morning, some of the PBS stuff, particularly my old friend Bill Moyers, and John Stewart, of course, oh my goodness -- to really explain what's going on in America. And what we've discovered is that the programs that we actually watched and cared about are all available on the Internet, along of course with most radio programming as well, along with YouTube and all kinds of other stuff in addition. So our experiment this week is to see if we can go Sunday through Saturday without actually turning on the television set, as distinguished from not watching any television content, because what we want to watch we can watch on our laptops. And what we're discovering is that we're watching less because what we have now is "a free, universal 'TVo'" that's recording everything for us and making it available whenever we want it. And one of the consequences of that is you just tend not to want it. You see, television programs your life. There's a time when the program comes on, and if you don't watch it then -- unless you have a TVo -- if you don't watch it then you're never going to get to see it. So you have to build your life around -- you know, "I can't go to the meeting this evening because my favorite show comes on tonight" kind of thing. In any event, we're only in the second or third day of this week-long experiment, and so far so good.
BK: Do you have any concerns that the razzle-dazzle of the Internet Age, all these things, the video, the effects that you can get online, are somewhat distracting from journalistic quality; thinking perhaps of the example, I don't know if you watched election night, CNN, they beamed in a correspondent, beamed in the studio with Wolf Blitzer, as an example of, perhaps, technology for it's own sake? What does that add to journalistic quality?
NJ: That's always been there, hasn't it, from the days of the circuses, and the magicians. Everybody likes razzle-dazzle and journalism has certainly never been above that.
BK: So what are your concerns when you do your experiment and you observe the media over recent years, your concerns when it comes to Your Second Priority, the future of the mass media?
NJ: I think we need to realize how important media is in every aspect of our lives. It's not just "second priority" for people who are trying to bring about some social, political, public policy change, whether of the left or the right. But it's also an issue of how the junior high school girls think about themselves and what they think is important and valuable and how thin they should be and so forth. Reviving Ophelia, that's the book I'm trying to think of. It's our economy; the propelling of all of us into conspicuous consumption, spending more money than we have on things we don't need and once we get them discover we don't like and don't use, that has helped to drive us into the economic disaster that we're in at the moment. That's partly the responsibility of the mass media. How we understand our role in the world. If you're not listening to the BBC audio, which this station carries during the night from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.
BK: And also at 3:00 p.m.
NJ: Three p.m. in the afternoon for an hour. There's going to be a large number of countries you've never heard of where things are going on that are going to impact on us, economically, militarily, in terms of terrorism, in terms of global trade. You haven't even heard of the country, let alone know anything about what's going on in the country unless you're listening to the BBC. That's a consequence of a need for reform.
BK: We have to take a short break and then we'll be back in just a moment with former FCC commissioner, now University of Iowa law faculty person, Nicholas Johnson. Your Second Priority is the title of his latest book. He shares complaints and suggestions for understanding and improving today's mass media in the new book. We'd like to get your thoughts and questions concerning the regulation of media in the Age of the Internet. Do we need any regulation? What about a new "Fairness Doctrine"? That's what we'll talk about when we come back: the possible revival of the Fairness Doctrine. How have you changed the way you consume media in recent years? Are you better or worse off than you were before the Internet? Join our conversation, 1-866-780-9100, 1-866-780-9100. We'll be right back.
BK: My guest today has served as FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973. He was appointed by President Johnson. In 1970 he helped spark a media reform movement with his book, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. Now, nearly four decades later, his new book is titled Your Second Priority, talking about understanding and improving today's mass media. Nicholas Johnson is with us, now on the faculty of the University of Iowa College of Law, entertaining your questions and comments. 1-866-780-9100, 1-866-780-9100, is our toll-free number, 1-866-780-9100. What are your concerns about the regulation, or non-regulation, of the media in the Age of the Internet? Do we need any regulation? 1-866-780-9100. And what is this new media environment, evolving media environment, Nick Johnson? What does it mean for local consumption of media, media that really concerns our lives and our local communities?
NJ: Well, I'm glad you asked that because just before the break I was talking about the importance of our understanding what's going on globally in a variety of countries and its impact upon us. But obviously somebody's going to be covering those stories. I mentioned the BBC. Locally, if you don't have local media covering the stories nobody's covering the stories.
I used to say I could walk into a town, and look around the town, and tell you something about the quality of its local newspaper. Because the comunitarian idea of Amitai Etzioni, the holding together of a community, the building of a community, a sense of community spirit, the kind of thing that happened during the floods when we came together to help each other, that's dependent upon local media. We don't have local media when we have stations owned by distant chains and conglomerates and whatever.
In Iowa City, Johnson County, and Eastern Iowa citizens have come together for FM Iowa under a new provision of the FCC that permits local, relatively low power, FM stations. They now have a license for one in Iowa City, KUBU, 89.5 maybe. I don't know; I'll have to check and see the exact frequency. It's not on the air yet, but will be. And that's something where folks in this community can come and contribute programming, and work with those folks. There are also three or four stations elsewhere around the state of Iowa. So this is not something that's limited to Iowa City. This is state wide. It's going to be a new movement, and I think it will help in building communities, holding people in the communities who might otherwise be leaving the state, and so forth.
BK: Isn't there less of an emphasis on traditional, terrestrial radio though, when anybody can have an Internet radio station?
NJ: Yes, but anybody can't be broadcasting to someone who's driving across the state, or sitting on their tractor and tending to their crops, working in the shop. You're not going to be hooking up your laptop in the midst of all that to listen. Radio is still there; as I was walking over here this morning listening to the radio. I would not have been carrying a laptop and listening to that or a handheld device, getting it off the Internet. You can just pick it up off the air.
BK: If you'd like to join our conversation, 1-866-780-9100. Let's go to Iowa City. Ray is with us. Hi, Ray.
Ray: Hi. I have a large concern about all of this saturation advertising that we're experiencing. Take CNN for example. I mean they cannot even complete a thought without having to go to advertising, and the consequence of that is that we get no thoiughts. All we get is advertising. And if all we're going to have is advertising then I'm for just cutting the line. I mean, if they want to advertise 24 hours a day. Maybe we could do this; maybe all the advertisers could have 60 channels of advertising and then we could have, I don't know, 20, 30 channels of programming. And if you want to sit and spend your whole life watching advertising then fine, do it. But for the few of us that are left on this planet that would like a whole program and a whole thought, you know I would appreciate at least one channel -- that would be beyond Channel 13, which would is Iowa Public Television, and they do a great job -- but I would appreciate at least one other channel that has an actual program on it.
BK: Ray, how, like it or not that's the way we fund commercial television, commercial radio, in this country. How do you propose . . .
Ray: Well, Canadian television isn't funded that way.
BK: Is there the political will for us to tax our people to support broadcasters? It hasn't happened so far.
Ray: Well, I've been in a number of other countries and they do it in a completely different way in other countries. There are commercials, but there are also much larger segments of programming. I mean I realize the financial pinch everybody is in today, but believe me it doesn't do grey matter any good to have all this parsing of programs into minute segments and then these large blocks of advertising. I mean, Nick is well aware that there was this whole debate back in the '60s and '70s about is television pitched to the IQ of a three-year-old? And I don't frankly see that we've progressed very much beyond that point in 2009.
BK: Okay, Ray, let me ask Professor Johnson for a comment on your comment.
NJ: This is simply one example of the United States' commitment to for-profit everything, privatizing, contracting out. Civilized, industrialized nations that put a greater value on the welfare of their people virtually all have, for example, universal, single-payer health care. The idea of running the health care system as a profit-making business is an anathema to them.
They fund public broadcasting because they see its value and importance to their culture, and to the education of the people, and the information they need to intelligently participate in self-governing. At the time we created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and soon thereafter, we were never willing to spend more than one percent of what civilized nations spend on public broadcasting, whether you measure it in absolute dollars, or per capita cost, or percentage of gross domestic product.
We're just not interested in what I described as the communitarian movement, the interest in social good, in public good. Reagan got elected on the motto that "government is the problem not the solution." Right now the Obama Administration is having difficulty taking over the banks as virtually everybody says they should in the way Sweden did at one point because it raises the word "nationalization." Nationalization is thought to be "socialism" and socialism is thought to be "communism," and communism is thought to be the epicenter of the "axis of evil," and there you have it.
This is just one example of the ways in which we pay a price for corporatizing everything.
BK: Ray, thank you very much for your comments from Iowa City. Right before our break we've got a couple minutes left. Let's go to Janet in Cedar Falls. Janet, are you there? Janet is not there, we've got some sort of technical problem with that. Mike is in Iowa City. Hi, Mike.
Mike: Hi, Nick, I know that this is your second priority, obviously the name of the book. I've been working on media reform for a number of years, as you well know. But another one of my priorities is campaign finance reform, and I call it my first priority. If my second priority is media reform then my first priority might be campaign finance reform, to level the playing field, so people can really get what they want. I'd like your thoughts on campaign finance reform.
BK: We've got about a minute left. The connection there.
NJ: Mike's absolutely right that until you get campaign finance reform you're not going to get reform of anything else. I was on the national board of Common Cause for awhile, and what we discovered after nearly 30 years of trying to get meaningful campaign finance reform is that apparently legislation has to be passed by incumbants. And it turns out that incumbants are not in favor of changing a system that profits them very nicely and returns them to office with all of its perks. And the people who pay the money sort of softly grumble about it, but since they get back 1000-to-2000-to-one on what they've contributed they're actually rather satisfied with it as well.
BK: We have to take a short break. Thank you, Mike, calling from Iowa City. Join our conversation when we come back with former FCC commissioner, now UI faculty member, Nicholas Johnson. What are your thoughts and questions concerning the regulation of media in the Internet Age? Do we need any regulation? What sort? How have you changed the way you consume media in recent years? Are you better or worse off than you were before the Internet? 1-866-780-9100 is our toll free number, 1-866-780-9100, or TheExchange@iowapublicradio.org. We'll be back in just a few minutes.
BK: And we're back with The Exchange on Iowa Public Radio. Tomorrow on this program we celebrate Peace Corps Week by talking to volunteers who have been in the Peace Corps around the world. They'll share their experiences. In 1961 John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. At that time Kennedy saw it as a means of countering the notions of "the ugly American" and "Yankee imperialism." Now President Obama plans to double the Peace Corps by 2011. Tomorrow we'll look at the Peace Corps and hear from some volunteers who have served around the world, here on The Exchange.
Today we're talking with Nicholas Johnson, best known as a controversial, dissenting Federal Communications Commission commissioner, appointed by President Johnson. That was nearly four decades ago. He also wrote a book, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set then. These ideas put his face on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1971. Now he's a University of Iowa College of Law professor, emphasizing work on communications and Internet law. Your Second Priority is the title of his latest book. He shares in it complaints and suggestions for understanding and improving today's mass media. What are your thoughts and questions concerning the regulation of media in the Internet Age? Do we need any regulations? Let the market dictate what happens out there? What about a revival of the Fairness Doctrine? We want to turn our sights on that here in just a moment. That telephone number to join our conversation, 1-866-780-9100, is the number, 1-866-780-9100, or TheExchange@IowaPublicRadio.org.
Professor Johnson, recently media outlets have been abuzz with talk about the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Some Democratic legislators have expressed interest in reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine. No one has introduced legislation to do so since 2005, according to my information. Now this month Senator Tom Harkin in an interview with Politico.com, "We've got to get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again." In response to that, Iowa Congressman Steve King, "It is incredible that in today's modern media age, where information is easily accessible in so many different forms, Tom Harkin wants to squelch your First Amendment rights in favor of Chinese-style censorship," according to Iowa Congressman Steve King.
Now, Professor Johnson, there are many out there who are wondering, "What exactly is 'the Fairness Doctrine'?" Get us up to speed on that. What is it? What was it? Why was it created? And why was it revoked?
NJ: Steven King's comment reminds me of a law professor's remark to a student in a class I was attending -- it was not me -- following a particularly inapposite recitation. The professor said, "You have a capacity for subtracting, rather than adding, to the sum total of human knowledge."
So let me "take it from the top," as we say in Hollywood.
It's virtually impossible for a professional journalist to violate the Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine came about because the station is granted a monopoly by the federal government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, to operate on a given frequency in a given community during given hours. And it is very much like the responsibility of a member of Congress who probably will be re-elected, but does not have a constitutional right to be re-elected. The broadcasters operated under a license for a fixed term, initially 18 months, subsequently extended to three years. Most of them got a renewal of their license, but they had no right to have a renewal of their license. They are a community asset. They are like an elected public official. They are there to serve the community.
And so what that meant was that they could not engage in unrelieved propaganda from one point of view. The station could not. And that was considered the Fairness Doctrine, and something the FCC had created and Congress went along with. And then in 1958, I believe it was, it was actually enacted into a provision of the Communications Act.
What it provides, simply, are two things. The first was not known by many broadcasters, and that was that they are required to cover "controversial issues of public importance." You can't just run a radio station as a jukebox with commercials. You have to have some news, some public affairs, some dealing with the issues confronting your community for the reasons that we were talking about before the break.
The second provision most of them did know about, and that was that when you do that you need to present a range of views on that subject. You can't just hammer away on one side of it.
There was not a requirement of a particular format. There was not a requirement you put any named individual on the air. There was not a requirement of "equal time." There was simply a requirement that you could not use your station as an unrelieved instrument of propaganda for a single point of view.
It was ultimately repealed as a result of pressure from the broadcasters' trade association, notwithstanding the fact that many news directors told me that they thought it was terrific because when the advertising vice president came in and said, "You guys have got to lay off going after that used car dealer! We're losing advertising revenue," they were able to respond to the advertising vice president by saying, "Hey, look, we're terribly sorry, but the Fairness Doctrine of the FCC requires us to do that, otherwise we may lose our license."
BK: So this was revoked in the 1980s during the Reagan term?
NJ: Yes, I believe so.
BK: So the effect of that revocation was?
NJ: Well, the effect of the revocation was to remove from the station this limitation on propagandizing. As I say, a professional journalist couldn't violate it. Why? What does a professional journalist do? They look for controversial issues. That's how you build audience. That's how you build readership in your newspaper. And when you write the story you talk to a variety of people and get different points of view. Why? Because it makes a better story. So there's nothing in the Fairness Doctrine that impedes good quality journalism. What the conservatives are arguing is, "Oh, if you pass the Fairness Doctrine you're trying to get rid of Rush Limbaugh." Well, what's wrong with that is that the Fairness Doctrine has nothing to do with Rush Limbaugh. Any station that wants to carry Limbaugh or Hannidy or any of the other right wing commentators, or Air America, or whatever, is perfectly free to do it. And the program has no obligation to comply with the Fairness Doctrine. The obligation to comply with the Fairness Doctrine is on the station. So they have to have some other programming on than just one conservative talk show host after another for 24 hours running. But aside from that they can have any given program on. There's no requirement that the content of an individual program be interferred with.
BK: I wanted to play this ad we've posted on the Web site, "Protect Fairness dot com," in response to Senator Harkin's comments:
"The biggest spending bill in U.S. history, passed with no debate, no transparency. The mainstream media? Out to lunch; refusing to ask the tough questions. Now politicians like Schumer, Clinton and Pellosi want to reward the liberal media. They call it the Fairness Doctrine. We call it censorship. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin says we need to bring the Fairness Doctrine back. Shame on you, Senator Harkin. Stop the Fairness Doctrine. Visit Protect Fairness dot com today. Paid for by the United Republican Fund."
So it seems that there is a basic misunderstanding or a not meeting of minds as to what the Fairness Doctrine is. Here this group sees it as "censorship."
NJ: I think there is a deliberate effort to misrepresent what it was when it existed. I think they're either incredibly ignorant or willingly manipulative in a fraudulent way in describing it in the way that spot describes it.
BK: Now in June of 2008 Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, his press secretary wrote that Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters. And then in February of 2009, this month, a White House spokesperson said that President Obama continues to oppose the revival of the doctrine. Do you know anything behind that?
NJ: I'd rather not comment on that, because I think we need to support our president at the moment, to see if he can get us through this economic collapse, following which I will be happy to tell you everything I think about that particular position.
BK: Let's go to our callers; running out of time. Let's go to Waterloo where Dave has been standing by. Good morning, Dave, welcome to our program. Dave are you there? Dave has left. Let's go to Julie in Belle Plaine. Hi, Julie.
Julie: Hi. How are you all doing today?
BK: We're doing fine. How are you?
Julie: Thank you very much for your intelligent discussion. Thank you very much for coming on the program, Mr. Johnson. And thanks to NPR and IPR for carrying it.
BK: Very good. What's your question?
Julie: I wanted to weigh in. I appreciate your bringing up the Fairness Doctrine, and I wanted to say I think that should be done also because it does speak to the constitutional mission of a free press and its function within a democracy, which is to allow debates and entertain the diversity of views among the people. And the whole concept of democracy is that from many different ideas we get to choose the best ones and decide which we think are the best ones as a free people. And I think that if the Fairness Doctrine is applied in spirit and intent that there would be more facts and more information, less spin, and that the people need the information in the form of facts, not judgments and opinions. And although certain programs, as Mr. Johnson brought up, they're free to get on their soap box, there still should be a balance in there so that the entire range of debate among a diverse people is entertained. So thank you very much for your program and I'll take my comments off the air.
BK: Thank you, Julie, calling from Belle Plaine.
NJ: Well, I think Julie's got it, and if she were one of my law students and put that on the final exam she'd get an "A." I think she understands what it's about.
BK: Here's an email from Ben in Iowa City that goes along these lines. Ben asks: "With only a handful of companies owning many of the country's newspapers, radio and TV stations, what is the risk to elections? Is it possible for one or two companies to influence the elections of a majority of our representatives?"
NJ: I think absolutely so. I think it's very dangerous, and I've in Your Second Priority one of the sections of the book deals with media ownership issues. We're seeing the same thing now with the banks; the argument that a bank is "too big to fail." My response to that is that "if you're too big to fail you're too big." I would say the same about media. We talked about the value of local media to the local community, building the local community, economically and culturally, and so forth. It's very difficult to do that when the local station is run remotely by somebody in L.A., Miami or New York who's never been to the Iowa town where the station is located.
BK: Another email, an anonymous email, "Is the real threat to news a declining interest among young people? Other than "The Daily Show," which you mentioned earlier, what news do they get?"
NJ: Let us not forget blogs, said the blogger of FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. That is one of the phenomenon now going on with the Internet. And I don't mean to suggest that FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com is truly the equivalent of the New York Times, though I do believe there are some mornings when it comes very close. There's an enormous amount out there now. I think 100 million blogs, is that it? Yeah, that would be about right. They have had some impact. And it is a wonderful, democratizing feature.
BK: Is there a revival of the public square on the Internet?
NJ: There really is; the equivalent of the single broadside newspapers of old. And now, of course, we have community radio stations already mentioned, like the KUBU-FM that's coming to eastern Iowa. We have right down the street from where we are the public access television, where anyone can make their own television program and put it on the cable system. I don't mean to suggest that those are truly competing with professional journalism and mainstream media. But I do think it's become a much larger force than it ever has been before, as a result of the Internet, with the blogs and You Tube and the other opportunities for people to participate in this process. And the newspapers that have on their Web sites an opportunity for readers to comment; and I would acknowledge that those comments are not always the most valuable.
BK: Unmoderated, unregulated, you can get some strange comments.
NJ: Or the most civil, but it's an example of a real, radical change in was once a "from the few to the many" and is now "from the few to the many, and from the many back to the few."
BK: Let's go and try Dave again. Dave called again. Good morning, Dave, We have you this time?
Dave: Yes, sir. Thanks for taking my call. I'm going to make a couple real quick comments and get off your entertaining show. I guess my biggest agreement is with the previous caller, about all the commercialization on some of these radio stations. If they can throw $8 billion at a high speed rail system I think they can probably fund another form of stations like NPR. I listen to NPR all the time. I listen to the BBC. And I think Mr. Johnson's right when he says that you have to to be able to be informed. Without getting all these opinions about everything from all these economists and all these think tank people. I didn't realize that we had all these expert economists that could determine each feature of our economy. But it seems to me if we could get just a little bit more factual news instead of opinionated news and maybe a little bit of good news in this day and age would probably go a long way. Instead of just listening to how horrible everything is, and how terrible. I think people got a fair amount of money maybe, but they're not going to spend it right now because that's all you hear about, how terrible everything is. I think if we had a little bit of good news maybe it would help. Thank you.
BK: Okay, Dave, thank you for calling. Winding up our show I wanted to refocus, unless you had a comment to react to Dave. We have an anniversary that occurred to me. I was reminded by my daughter. She's a part of the school newspaper at West High in Iowa City. She had a black arm band to wear to school today. She is on the school newspaper. Today is the fortieth anniversary of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court known as Tinker v. Des Moines, which defined constitutional rights of students in U.S. public schools, and I wanted to go there because it is the anniversary. But also because it has to do with the First Amendment, which we've been talking about this whole hour. Tell us the significance of Tinker v. Des Moines, Professor Johnson.
NJ: First of all, Happy Anniversary. I would sing "Happy Birthday," but that song has now been copyright, and I don't have permission to sing it. My congratulations to your daughter for knowing that and for celebrating it and wearing the black arm band at West High School today.
BK: The significance of the black arm band.
NJ: It was worn by students in the Des Moines high school to protest the Viet Nam War. The administration, for whatever reason, whether they thought the Viet Nam War was a really nifty thing that ought to be encouraged, or whether they legitimately felt that this was going to be disruptive, told the students they had to take off the arm bands -- much like the principal at City High (your daughter is with Jerry Arganbright, who's the principal out at West) but the principal at City High, who will go unnamed, on one occasion simply went out and seized all the student newspapers and destroyed them, because he was concerned about a story in the newspaper.
It goes to the First Amendment rights of students in an institutional environment such as a school. There are some restraints on that, as there are for those who are in another kind prison as prisoners who can be controlled by the warden in some of their free speech rights. But to the extent possible the Court has tried to expand the First Amendment rights of those who write for student papers or who have blogs or whatever. There was a recent case where a kid was not on school property, standing across the street, and there was a parade and he had a sign, "Bong hits for Jesus." It was thought inappropriate.
You get very colorful speech from students and I'm usually on the side of the students I must say.
BK: What is in your future? We've got a couple of minutes left. What are you working on now? What mountain are you trying to move at the moment?
NJ: I got these two books out last year. You very kindly did a program earlier on the other one called Are We There Yet?, which was a compilation of some my writing about politics and government; and then this one, Your Second Priority, both of which I should say are available at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. And my Web site, www.nicholasjohnson.org, has links to Amazon and the publisher for both of the books.
I'm doing a lot of blogging. I've created, oh, I don't know, well over 600 blog entries in the last couple years, trying to keep the University of Iowa honest, which is really a fulltime job, and now it's been supplanted with my efforts to revive the global economy, which is a really tough assignment.
BK: In less than a minute, what are your thoughts on the economic crisis and the economy that you've been writing about?
NJ: I lay it all out, exactly what we should do. And then two or three weeks later Obama comes around and recommends what I propose. It's a heavy responsibility that I have.
BK: Okay, I want to thank you very much for joining us today. Nicholas Johnson, former FCC commissioner, now on the University of Iowa law faculty. Your Second Priority is the title of his latest book, in which he shares complaints and suggestions for understanding and improving today's mass media. And if you'd like to get in touch with Nicholas Johnson he just mentioned those Web sites and his blog.
The exchange today produced by Katherine Perkins and Jeff Schmidt, production assistance from Julie Englander and John Pamble. Our producer assistant today, Scott Gratton. If you'd like to hear the entire program, perhaps you only caught part of it, podcasting or on demand audio is available for this program by going to Iowa Public Radio dot org.
Our theme music was composed and performed by Dan Knight. The Exchange is a production of Iowa Public Radio. I'm Ben Keiffer. Thanks for joining us.
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