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Media's Role, Power and Censorship
Nicholas Johnson
Comments as Guest on
Jeff Golden's "Jefferson Exchange"
With George Beres
Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
Ashland, Oregon
September 6, 2002
9:00-10:00 PDT

NOTES: Jefferson Public Radio (named for the "State of Jefferson," once proposed for an area of southern Oregon and northern California) is a network of a number of stations, including, among many others, KSOR-AM, KSJK Talent AM-1230 Jackson County, and KSMF Ashland. "Jefferson Exchange" is a morning talk show hosted by Jeff Golden. Cathy Campbell is the Office Manager; Brian Lambert was, on this occasion, the Engineer. The following Web sites will take you to JeffNet, the Jefferson Exchange, and "IJPR" (the Internet broadcasting service): ; ;

The Web site describes the morning program as follows:

Weekday mornings, Jeff Golden hosts this lively two-hour interactive program devoted to issues facing the State of Jefferson, the Northwest, the nation and the world. In the first hour, Jeff trades views with callers on a wide range of topics. In hour two, fascinating guests join in the discussion. Listen 8 A.M. to 10 A.M. on KSJK Talent, AM 1230 in Jackson County, KAGI Grants Pass, AM 930 in Josephine County, KTBR Roseburg AM 950 or KRVM Eugene, AM 1280 in Lane County. The program is rebroadcast each evening from 8 to 10 P.M. The Jefferson Exchange encourages listeners to call-in during the program; in the Ashland/Medford area at 552-6782, and elsewhere at 1-800-838-3760
The September 6, 2002, program was described:
Friday, Sept. 6: The trend toward large corporate domination of radio and televison stations: how does that affect broadcast standards of fairness and balance? The guests are Nicholas Johnson, former Federal Communications Commissioner, and author of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, and George Beres, a former sports information director at the University of Oregon and now host of a weekly public access TV program in Eugene, In the Public Interest.
What follows is not a complete transcript of the program. It is, primarily, a transcript only of Nicholas Johnson's remarks. This is both for technical reasons (they were, for the most part, the only portion recorded) and reasons of personal privacy and copyright (permissions have not been received beyond that). As a result, however, clarity is sacrificed to some extent because of the absence of the questions or comments to which Nicholas Johnson is responding.

Jeff Goldberg (JG): . . . [There's this] thesis that the media’s all liberal. There are Right Wing talk show hosts that carry that spear every time they can. And there’s discussion this year about how Talk Radio, in particular, has been influencing the Oregon legislature in their conversation about taxes. Lars Larson in Portland is mentioned a lot.

And just to set a little bit of context for this show, I want to offer a little bit of data—at least when it comes to Talk Radio. Now I don’t think you can have an intelligent conversation about the ideological slant of the whole media; that’s way too broad. You need to be a little more specific than that. In terms of talk radio, let me offer you a little data. It comes from an opinion column . . . entitled “The End of Fairness,” written by a JPR listener up there, Ed Monks, who is also active in alternative media.

Let me read just a little bit of this—this is from June of this year—it’s talking about two of Eugene’s stations, KUGN and KTNW. KUGN, first of all, it says that KUGN has Lars Larson, Michael Savage, Michael Medved and altogether they have 45 hours a week of Talk Radio, all of which can safely be called—and again, forgive me for the crudeness of political labels—but you can call those people very conservative. Forty-five hours a week of conservative Talk Radio hosts. Zero from another perspective. And then they just added at the time, Bill O’Reilly. You can safely put him in the conservative camp. So that becomes 55 hours of political talk on KUGN each week by conservatives. None from another point of view.

KTNW, which has Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, has 25 hours a week, conservative.

So he says, just between the two stations there are 80 hours per week, more than 4,000 hours per year, programmed by Republican and conservative hosts from political Talk Radio with not so much as a second, one second, program for hosts from the Democratic or liberal perspective on the two dominant commercial stations in Eugene. I don’t think Eugene is particularly conservative on the relative scale of American cities, so I dare say this is a pattern that repeats itself a lot.

Political opinions expressed on Talk Radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society, where government commissars or party propaganda ministers enforce the acceptable view with threats of violence.

Is that an overstatement?

And, what, if anything, should be done about this?

And what is the community right, and listenership right, to some balance in media?

We had something, once upon a time, way back in the nether mists of broadcasting—until 1987—called “The Fairness Doctrine” that was based on a premise that there was an audience right, there was a civic right, to some balance and . . . to encourage conflicting viewpoints as a healthy element of a democracy. And there are more than a few people who fear, especially in the wake of 9-11, and in the energy that the [Bush] Administration seems to be putting forward towards a certain point of view especially about foreign affairs, who feel like it’s really time to join this conversation again about audience right over corporate or commercial rights.

We have two guests to talk about that today. One is Nicholas Johnson, a former member of the FCC—the Federal Communications Commission—which once upon a time was in charge of monitoring and enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. He was also chair of the FCC for a time. He’s the author of How to Talk To Back to Your Television Set, and he’s on the line with me from Iowa City, Iowa. Nicholas are you there?

Nicholas Johnson (NJ): I am, indeed, Jeff. Thank you.

* * *

NJ: Well, it’s my great pleasure. I’ve been listening to the first hour over the Internet. Sure, of course.

* * *

NJ: I do, indeed. Good morning, George.

* * *

NJ: Let me say for anybody who’s really interested in the details that I have a Web page with thousands of pages and no spam and no charges that they might want to check out. It’s simply And there they will find more about me than even my mother would ever have cared to know. I’m in Iowa City, Iowa, teaching at the University of Iowa College of Law. I was formerly in Washington, as you mentioned, as a Commissioner of the FCC. I was not, in fact, the chair, although I’m universally introduced as having been the chair, probably because I spent seven years writing dissenting opinions about what I thought was capitulation to commercial interests at the time. And we now look back on it as “The Golden Age of FCC Regulation.”

* * *

NJ: President Lyndon Johnson, and I served from 1966 through 1973.

* * *

NJ: Well, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote in a poem, “Let me count the ways." My critics charge that I was just picking the worst cases. And so I finally wrote a piece for the Yale Law Journal called “A Day in the Life”—borrowing the title from the Beatles' song—and went through an entire agenda (we used to meet on Wednesdays) explaining why everything the FCC does is wrong. Explaining, that is, at least to the satisfaction of the editors of the Yale Law Journal.

* * *

NJ:  Well, there was the ABC-ITT merger, which looks like very small-time stuff at this point, which is not unrelated to the subject you raised for your listeners this morning.

Because one of our concerns was that ITT, which was an enormous conglomerate for its time involved in an incredible array of different industries and businesses, might use ABC to serve its propaganda/corporate/marketing/advertising interests. ITT said, “Oh, of course not. We’d never do such a thing.” Well, then we found internal memos that ITT was trying to manipulate ABC content before it even bought ABC.
And while a hearing was going on this very issue, the senior vice president for public relations was calling up the presidents of the AP, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, trying to get them to change the stories that were being run about the hearing about whether ITT would ever try to manipulate the media.

Wall Street Journal reporter Eileen Shanahan did a page one column story exposing the whole thing.

Ultimately that merger was aborted.

"The ITT senior vice
president was trying to
get newspapers to change
the stories that were being 
run about the hearing, a 
hearing about whether ITT 
would ever try to manipulate
the media!"

* * *

NJ: Well, no. You’re right. These days, it’s “last man out turn out the lights.” They show up to get their paychecks and that’s about it. There’s virtually no regulation of anything.

Originally, when Congress addressed this issue back in the 1920’s, they were extraordinarily prescient. I mean, given what people now understand about the technology of broadcasting, imagine how little was understood back at the birth of this incredible invention. And yet there was a member of the House of Representatives who said on the floor, “If we should ever allow such a great power to fall into the hands of the few, then woe be to those who would dare to disagree with them.”

* * *

NJ: Oh, you’re absolutely right. You were talking about liberal and conservative, Democrats and Republicans,

I think Chomsky, Noam Chomsky, really has it more accurately.

There’s not that much difference—I’m not saying there’s no difference, there is a difference, but there’s not that much difference—between what we refer to as "liberal" and "conservative" viewpoints. Both are essentially supportive of the current establishment, those who own the major means of production, the wealthy classes.
There’s not a lot of discussion in the mass media why we should do something to see to it that the working class earns more in 2002 than they earned in 1970, when in fact, they are now earning less in real dollars. There’s not a lot of discussion about the fact that owners earned 40 times what the workers earned in 1980, they earned 80 times what the workers earned in 1990, and they now earn over 400 times what the average worker earns. There’s very little talk about the fact that there are 6,000 deaths a year in the workplace; some 70,000 deaths from workplace-related injuries; and that OSHA is so under-funded that if it were to visit every work site it’s legally obliged to visit and check it out for safety, it would take 110 years to do it. You don’t get a lot of discussion about issues like that. You don’t get a lot of discussion of the involvement of the American government and American military in genocide around the world. That does not get reported while we do report on the genocide committed by others. "There’s not that much difference between what we refer to as 'liberal' and 'conservative' viewpoints. Both are essentially supportive of the current establishment, those who own the major means of production, the wealthy classes."

# # #

NJ: Well, before that, I was the US Maritime Administrator.

President Johnson sent me over to Vietnam to give him a one-man report back on what I thought was going on. I came back and said, “I don’t think you can play basketball on a football field.” And I went on to explain how difficult it is to play war in an environment where you can’t tell your enemy from your allies; and you don’t have a front line; and you don’t know the language; and you know nothing of the culture; and for 2,000 years there’ve been imperialist aggressors, and you’re viewed as just the latest one.

After that candid evaluation, and prayer that we would not go on and do to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand what we’d already done to Viet Nam, he decided I’d make a terrific FCC Commissioner.

* * *

NJ: I wrote a memo for him, yes.

* * *

NJ: Yeah, I’d be happy to.

Let me preface it by saying that there are two fundamentally different philosophical perspectives in terms of the role of the media.

What’s widely accepted by folks like you and me is that we are living in a democracy in which it’s important that citizens be informed in order to engage intelligently in self governing; and that the media is there to provide a check on abuses of all institutions—corporate, university, government, whatever—to provide us the information that we need; and that out of this cacophony of voices emerges the truth, what we call a "marketplace of ideas."

* * *

NJ: Well, it turns out not so.

In any event, the Fairness Doctrine finds its roots in that philosophy, and I’ll return to that in a moment. Bear in mind, I’m trying to summarize a semester’s talking into about 20 minutes here that I’ll have out of this hour.

Chomsky’s thesis is that from 17th Century England on through to the present day, that’s precisely the wrong view of the role of the media.

He contends that, first of all, there are elites in all societies.

Second, that in totalitarian societies, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what the public thinks because you’ve got them at the other end of a gun. So long as you can control their actions through force you don’t care what they’re thinking about.
Third, in a democracy, you have to care what the people think about, because once in awhile they get up and vote, and they can create problems for you, and they have freedom of speech, and they can organize, and they can protest and whatever. And so, since you can’t control them through force, you have to control what they think.

This is what he titled his book, Manufacturing Consent.

"In a democracy you have to care what the people think about since you can't control them through force. As Chomsky titled his book, it's Manufacturing Consent."

He finds this thesis directly acknowledged by elites, as I say from the time of the 17th Century in England, that the role of the media is to entertain the masses, to divert them, to provide the kind of sports coverage that George is talking about, junk news, tell us about the latest abducted kid—even though the number of abductions has been declining and it’s not the serious national problem that it was—divert us with sports, divert us with episodic television, with celebrities, with “All Monica All the Time,” “All OJ All the Time,” whatever.

* * *

NJ: Oh yeah. I mean it’s going on right now, obviously with regard to Iraq.

* * *

NJ: Oh yeah. And I’ll explain that in a moment.

Number one, the point is that the mass media has always been big business. They’re even bigger big business now. They’re part of enormous global, multinational conglomerates. There are now six firms that control roughly 98 percent of all of the music in the world. There will soon be five or ten firms that control a similar proportion of all the media in the world. So we’re talking about very big business to begin with.

Number two, the business is sustained, not by providing product to the audience. The product is the viewers’ eyes and ears. That’s what’s being sold by the media to the advertiser. It is the advertiser who’s the consumer.

So you have big business media serving the needs of big business consumer marketing.

And it is not, therefore, surprising that media would conceive its role, and its advertisers would conceive its role, as one of providing a compatible environment in which to put a commercial. They certainly aren’t going to support a media that are questioning corporate power, that are questioning this divergence of income between management and labor.
And so you get a media, the purpose of which is not to inform a democracy, to point out what citizens have done and can do to organize and change things, to point out the corporate abuses and political abuses, and the role of campaign finance where you get back from the government $2,000 for every dollar you give in a campaign contribution. That sort of stuff simply is not going to be discussed. "What you have is big business media serving the needs of big business consumer marketing."

And that’s why I say to focus on “Oh, these guys present a Republican point of view and these guys present a Democratic point of view" is to really miss the point of what’s going on.

Okay, now back to the Fairness Doctrine.

* * *

NJ: Well, if Enron is the primary advertiser in an episodic television show, do you think they’re going to continue to advertise if the show gets off on an issue of stock options and does it in an entertaining way? Of course not. They’re going to pull their ads.

* * *

NJ: There was an advertising manual in the 1930’s put out in Procter and Gamble that is reported in Barnouw’s History of Broadcasting, and it was an instruction to the writers of the shows: “There will be nothing in any program with which Procter and Gamble is associated that reflects adversely in any way whatsoever on any element of the American business community."

Now, while no one today would be quite that straightforward—there would be a lot more hypocrisy surrounding that today— I would contend that the position is still very similar to that.

* * *

NJ: Well, these are both important issues.

Let me briefly state the Fairness Doctrine. It required almost nothing of a broadcaster. It would be impossible for a professional journalist to violate it.
It had two requirements: One, that you must cover "controversial issues of public importance" in your community. Most broadcasters were unaware of that first requirement. The second requirement was that when you do, you can’t be simply an instrument of propaganda, you have to provide some range of views. You don’t have to put any given individual on, you don’t have to . . .. "It would be impossible for a professional journalist to violate the Fairness Doctrine."

* * *

NJ: Yeah, it’s very subjective, but, like I say, what do you do as a journalist? You’re looking for controversy. How do you promote it? You put on a range of views. I mean it’s pretty straightforward Journalism 101, and very seldom was anybody found to have violated it.

In terms of ownership, initially the idea was that there would be one station per owner.

By the time I got there, I thought the ownership standards were far too loose. They provided that you could own seven AM, seven FM and seven television, but no more than five VHF stations.

Now obviously, the more you permit nationwide ownership, the less local service you have, particularly since a lot of these stations are satellite fed—there’s nobody there. It simply is pumping this stuff out.

And I made the point to the broadcasters themselves, from the standpoint of their own profit maximization, that if what you’re providing is nationally-distributed music, nationally-distributed commercials and nationally-distributed news, you’re losing what it is radio has to offer to its own owners’ profit, which is a loyal local audience listening to it because it’s providing things that they can’t get elsewhere.

* * *

NJ: Well, except that you’re competing with other stations, you’re competing with the ability to download these audio services off of a satellite.

I mean, if I can get the music that I want all of the time with a satellite feed, or a cable television feed, why should I listen to a whole bunch of commercials intermixed with it just to get the same music? It doesn’t make any sense.

I’m not saying it’s not profitable. Obviously these guys who ride the stock option waves are no dummies. I’m just saying it removes radio as a unique medium offering something that can’t be obtained in other ways once you plug into a satellite and own hundreds of stations.

* * *

NJ: Well, as I wrote 30 or 40 years ago, if we don’t address these issues today, we won’t be addressing any issues that matter tomorrow.

That’s what’s largely happened to us as a result of the Fairness Doctrine going by the boards.

I think there ought to be a legally enforceable right of entry into any mass medium, whether it’s newspapers, radio or television. The stations, the papers, should not have the constitutionally enforceable First Amendment right to censor out of their mainstream conduit any ideas they don’t happen to like.

I think, on a random basis, some of those ideas ought to be able to make their way onto the station. We’ve lost that.

* * *

NJ: Are you talking about internet distribution?

* * *

NJ: Even a cable owner has censorship rights.

The Supreme Court has said that with the First Amendment right to speak goes a First Amendment right to censor. I think the Court's wrong, but clearly it has the power and I don’t. I’m no longer at the Supreme Court [Nicholas Johnson clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, 1959-60]. But that’s the justices' position.

So you cannot buy space in a local newspaper that does not want to sell that space to you. You cannot buy time on a radio station that doesn’t want to sell it to you; television stations and cable systems.
I would point out that when AT&T controlled all the telephones in America, it never confronted any First Amendment complaints from anybody. This was because the ground rules were that anybody who wants a phone can get one, and once you get one, you can say anything over it you want to.

So it’s not a matter of numbers of outlets or numbers of owners. The question is, "What are the ground rules regarding legally enforceable rights of entry into that system?"

We had those legally enforceable rights when AT&T was an absolute monopoly and controlled everything. We do not now have those legally enforceable rights with regard to monopoly papers and oligopolistic television stations.

"It’s not a matter of numbers of outlets or numbers of owners. The question is, 'What are the ground rules regarding legally enforceable rights of entry into that system?'"

* * *

NJ: Absolutely! That’s what the Supreme Court says is their First Amendment right.

* * *

NJ: Yeah. I don’t think he’s [FCC Chairman Powell] incompetent, I just disagree with him. I mean, I think he’s wrong-headed on a lot of this, or he’s serving a master and doing it very well.

But that’s part of what you get when you vote for a president, when you vote for George Bush. You get his power to make about 4,000 presidential appointments that are going to affect everything from the quality of food to the fact that the same day he goes to visit the coal miners they pulled out of the mine he can cut expenditures for coal mine safety.

* * *

NJ: You mean compared with that of the other commissioners?

* * *

NJ: Well, there are all kinds of things they could do. But, of course, if they were to, then Congress cuts them off at the knees. Because ultimately, you don’t cross big media. That’s the one thing every politician needs.

* * *

NJ: I’m reminded of the title of a book by an associate of Marshall McLuhan. The title was, They Became What They Beheld. I think the media has created the audience that we have.

Most civilized nations back in the 1920’s—Japan, Germany, England, Sweden—recognized immediately that anything as powerful as broadcasting was simply too important to be turned over to a profit-maximizing formula. So they had public corporations, usually very different from the government. Sverges Radio really brought down Prime Minister Palme in Sweden. So this is not government propaganda. This is a public corporation that’s run for purposes other than profit maximization.

Now, as a result of that, you create a population that is interested in this stuff. I refuse to believe that the people of England are inherently, genetically, more intelligent than Americans. And yet, the BBC gets good ratings for some very serious programming. They have reporters around the world. We can listen to BBC news on our local radio station here in Iowa City, the university station. On the BBC you hear about news from countries that are not even mentioned in this country, or known to Americans as countries if they are only listening to commercial radio and television. The BBC gives us some detail on what’s going on in those countries.

So I think we’ve created this audience. And I think that Noam Chomsky’s thesis has some supporting evidence here in the United States in terms of what we’ve done. American media may very well have one reporter in Paris whose responsibility includes the entirety of the African continent. Needless to say, you’re not going to get a lot of news out of Africa as a result of that.

I think we’re discovering the price we pay for our ignorance about the rest of the world in all kinds of ways—economically, militarily and so forth—as a result of not really having very much information about other countries and peoples.

* * *

NJ: What I think about that, Jeff, is that we should think about the reverse. That’s always the way I deal with somebody who charges me with advocating conspiracy theory.

Don’t you think that the programming would change? Of course it would!

So the point is not that these folks all get together every morning at breakfast and decide, “How are we going to brainwash the American people today?” The point is that the net effect is the same as if that was going on.

As a result of this dumbing down, as a result of junk news, as a result of supermarket tabloid-style journalism, less than 50 percent of the people are voting.

We’re about to have a school board election in a county that has the highest educational level of any county in the United States, and we’ll be lucky to get 10 percent of the voters out.

"The point is not that these folks all get together every morning at breakfast and decide, 'How are we going to brainwash the American people today?' The point is that the net effect is the same as if that was going on."

Some people gain from widespread popular apathy and ignorance, and other people lose.

I remember a disc jockey who I talked to when I was on the FCC. He told me about the first job he got.

The owner of the station came to him, handed him a stack of records, and said, “Here, boy, you play these.”

My friend happened to be an African American, and he said to the owner, “Well, what about the news?”

The owner said, “Boy, we don’t have news on this station.”

My friend suggested, “Well, maybe I could just get something off the wire and read that.”

The owner said, “Boy, we don’t have a wire.”

As a final idea, my friend suggested, “Well, maybe I could just read the local newspaper and tell people something about what’s in there."

The exasperated owner decided it was time to bring this conversation to a halt. "Look, boy," he said. "I don’t seem to have made myself clear to you. You’re not gonna educate the people of this community at my expense.” Except he didn’t say “people,” he said something much more offensive.

Now the thing you can admire about that station owner is his total lack of any hypocrisy. He’s straight up front. “I gain economically from ignorance. Your people gain from knowledge. You’re going to keep them ignorant.”

* * *

NJ: Well, they’re [third parties] excluded [from the televised presidential debates] because the Democrats and Republicans control the Presidential Debate Commission.

* * *

NJ: Well, they certainly do in a number of civilized countries around the world. Of course, that’s quite a standard for us to aspire to, but we might think about it.

* * *

NJ: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, George. And thank you, Suzie [the last caller], for that wonderful conclusion to all of this.

JG: That’s very efficient. Nick Johnson, thank you very much for the point of view you’re putting out nationally, and for your time on the program today.

[20020910, 20020916]