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The History of Media Reform: Scanning the Horizon
Nicholas Johnson

History of Media Reform Panel
National Conference on Media Reform
Madison, Wisconsin
November 7, 2003

Note: If you are coming directly to this page, and are otherwise unfamiliar with the work of former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, you may wish to visit the resources available at his main Web site,, where there are links to dozens of articles and entire books of his about mass media issues in full text, as well as a 300-page bibliography of his additional writing.

Immediately upon his return from Madison he did some minor editing of the draft originally posted here as an "advance text." This current draft was posted November 9, 2003.

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be asked to participate in this grand gathering of our current dynamo of media reform, Robert McChesney. Indeed, the number of organizers, presenters – not to mention participants – in this three-day, 12-ring circus bear witness not only to the organizers' energy, but to the current strength of the media reform movement.

And I’m relieved to know that any misstatements or omissions of mine can be immediately corrected by my two distinguished co-panelists, Sharon Maeda, and Mark Lloyd, and our moderator, Dee Dee Halleck – all of whom have also helped to shape this movement's history.

Landscapes and Horizons

According to the conference organizers this is to be a “landscape session” – as distinguished from a “tactic session.” More specifically, in our case, it is to be a “context/history session to provide background for these [subsequent] discussions” of “core policy issues and strategies, understanding and confronting corporate media, and independent/community media.”

At the same time, we have been instructed that “every session should focus on tangible solutions and strategies.”

The assignment does, thus, rather remind one of the old story about the college professor’s essay exam question: “Describe the universe and give two examples.”

Not only could doctoral dissertations and masters theses be written on this topic, they have been. Indeed, at least one, by Beth Fratkin, is devoted entirely to just one organization that played a role in that history, the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting.

Moreover, I am to restrict my remarks to ten minutes – which is itself quite a challenge for someone who’s used to speaking for entire semesters at a time. It would take more than ten minutes merely to name all of the national, regional and local media reform organizations in this country today, let alone those from the past or those located in other countries.

Given the the breadth of our assignment, the fact that Professor McChesney has already done a more than adequate job of writing the history of the electronic media reform movement, and that Mark Lloyd is about to summarize it for you again, I am going to deal with some rather significant preliminaries, and then do all that one can do with a landscape in limited time: scan the horizon.

What Are We Talking About: "Media," "Reform" and "Movement"?

There is a story line that everyone has heard, but always bears repeating with assignments such as this. The lecture is over and the professor asks his class if there are any questions. One hand goes up. "I have only one question," says the student. "Yes, young man," the professor replies, "and what would that question be?" The student blurts out, "What the hell are you talking about?"

When we talk about a "media reform movement" – whether its past history or, more importantly, before we can even begin to address its future goals and strategies – we need to have at least some level of agreement as to what we're talking about. What do we mean by "media," by "reform," and by "movement"?

Until we have done that there are many one-liners, with which you are familiar, describing our dilemma, such as, "If you don't know where you're going the odds are very good you'll never get there." Or, as I used to put it to my fellow school board members in our search for priorities, benchmarks and standards, "How would we know if we'd ever been 'successful'?"

But even these characterizations assume the unfocused group at least knows who the "we" are.

Who are "we" and what is this elephant?

What the phrase, “the media reform movement,” meant to me in the 1960s and 1970s was primarily the individuals, organizations and activities that challenged the corporate electronic media establishment – which was then primarily represented by the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and their local radio and television affiliates. Those challenges, which came primarily from the left, took the form of negotiations, litigation, lobbying the FCC and Congress, and even efforts to deny station owners a broadcast license or renewal. The issues included employment opportunities for women and minorities, increased coverage of controversial social and public policy issues (both local programming and national issues such as race, or the Viet Nam war), the need for more quality children's programming, time for political candidates available free or at reduced rates, or a more realistic portrayal of minorities and women in entertainment programming – just to illustrate a few of the concerns of that time. Many of the presenters and participants at this conference, as many of you attending this panel discussion, would not only recognize but actually come within that definition.

But we have a bit of a "six blind men and an elephant" phenomenon going on here. It's not that those who are touching that 1960s part of the media reform movement are not accurately describing what they feel, it's just that they haven't seen the whole animal. Nor do I have either time or need to provide that detailed sketch now. But I can illustrate its breadth.

Let's begin with electronic media. Clearly, over-the-air, commercial, network affiliated radio and television stations had a dominant impact on the social, cultural, economic and political qualities of mid-20th Century America. In most ways they still do, even though their ownership has changed, those over-the-air broadcast signals reach most homes via cable, and the networks' audience share is today half what it was in the 1960s.

But surely we would want to include within any media reform movement, even the limited portion of it focused on electronic media, at least three other major components: (1) "public" (formerly "educational") broadcasting, (2) "alternative," or "community" radio, and (3) "public access" television via cable. As you know, those who can be credited with progress in each of these three areas (and others we could identify) have their own proud history, present, and future stories to tell.

What are "media"?

But electronically distributed audio-visual media – whether broadcast, cable, or satellite dish -- are not the only media. There are still books, magazines and newspapers; feature films in theaters; music CDs and MPG files; videotapes and DVDs; and let's not forget videogames. Each of these media, and their reformers, also have histories.

Moreover, we have "convergence" to consider. Just as we are living through the blending and reconfiguration of what have been called pagers, PDAs, cell phones, and digital cameras, so also can we, for example, listen to BBC "radio" on our shortwave receivers, our local educational radio stations rebroadcast (from PRI's satellite signal), or over the Internet. Indeed, without asking for permission, or trumpeting the accomplishment, the Internet has provided us, with its capacity for audio "streaming," a free, global, "cable radio" system radically altering what was formerly the geographically constrained technology called "broadcasting."

Which brings us to our other elephant. It is, this time, one that all can see – but one which we have neither time nor mission to acknowledge. The elephant in this conference's living room is "the Internet." There will be those who will say we should have long since dropped whatever else we were doing with yesterday's technologies, and focus all of our energy on the opportunities it offers for media democracy – as well as the threats that come from what Professor Larry Lessig describes as the "code" of the West Coast as well as the "code" of the East Coast. For we are as surely regulated today by software as by soft money.

What is "reform"?

And what do we mean by "reform"? For it turns out that just as there are many media mountains to climb, so are there many paths to the top of each.

Some wish to crash the locked gates of the dominant, conservative, corporate media with their own programming. (Sadly, this is necessary because the Supreme Court has consistently held that with the First Amendment right to speak over your own multi-billion-dollar broad conduit of media goes a First Amendment right to censor all others from doing so.1)

And this group is further sub-divided. There are those who perceive a political imbalance in what they characterize as "the liberal" or "the conservative" slant of corporate media. They may want more time, or more favorable treatment, of their candidate or political party, their cause or group. For them, media reform is a means, not an end.

Others may feel that task involves too much cost (in time, money and frustration) for too little benefit (in audience reached and actually influenced in meaningful ways). They may prefer to create programming on their own, alternative, media of the sort mentioned above.

Still others aren't interested in producing their own programming so much as they are in modifying, or removing, the programming that they find offensive: "sex and violence" unnecessarily inserted into programming, "infotainment" instead of journalism, excessive commercialization in commercials and product placement, bias or bigotry. Or they may want more of something, such as quality children's programming, or news of the world.

Some view education as the only true solution to "media reform" – or any other challenge, for that matter. They promote (or teach) "media literacy" modules in K-12 and college, or encourage young people to produce their own programming. Or perhaps they engage in their own public education efforts with op ed columns, magazine articles, books and lectures – or the organization of conferences such as this one.

There are those who focus on public policy and legal solutions: the former license challenges, proposing (or opposing) FCC regulations, lobbying Congress, or filing law suits or appeals. They are not so focused on the production of programming as on opening up the media to the programming of others.

Each of these media and reform orientations have a history that is certainly worthy of more than a 10-minute review.

Are we a "movement" or a "Congress"?

Finally, we have some question as to what we mean by the media reform "movement." The 1500 or more people gathered here are a very diverse lot. We may be in sync, we may be in sympathy with one another's goals and activities, but our tent is even bigger than our elephants. It includes communications studies academics who have neither interest, nor competence, in helping the AFL-CIO get a better shake from corporate mass media. It includes lawyers who have little interest, or competence, in making videos for their local public access cable channel. There are professional television producers, making programs America needs to see, who neither have, nor need, an understanding of the details of FCC regulation.

We therefore appear to be, in short, less a "movement," in the sense of individuals with a single focus, than we are a Congress of representatives of diverse special interests – albeit public interest oriented and compatible special interests.

The Ancient History of Media Reform

It is too narrow to look only to the ‘60s and beyond. Given the thousands of years of history of humankind, the 1960s represent the beginning of the clock striking midnight at the end of the human day.

There have undoubtedly been media reformers from the time of the first cave paintings, papyrus writing, and stone tablets.

Parents have probably always complained about the corrupting influence on youth of the media of their time. Greek parents complained centuries ago. Comic books came under attack in their early days, as did paperback books. The Harold Hill character in the Broadway play, “Music Man,” warns the parents of River City than their sons may have “A dime novel hidden in the corn crib.”2 Today’s parents likely have neither a corn crib or a son who reads too much, but they (and their representatives in Congress) do have similar concerns about the media of our time.

Global Media

Just as we are not really addressing the Internet as media in this panel, so are we also not addressing issues of global media. Given that over-the-air signals – whether from antenna towers or communications satellites – honor no national boundaries, that the Internet is, almost by definition, a global network, and that the galloping global media merger movement has created a handful of firms determined to conquer Planet Earth, media reform has to be equally global if it is to continue to be relevant.

What that means, and what is going on now within other countries, are not subjects for this panel. But they are too important to be omitted without acknowledgment.

Intra-Institutional Media Reform

The Radio Act. Media reform can and has come from within. The Radio Act of 1928, later incorporated into the Communications Act of 1934, can be thought of as a kind of media reform.

Most of the world’s nations around that time, and since, considered broadcasting too potentially useful to society to hand over to commercial purposes, and too potentially politically powerful to hand over to individual citizens. Broadcasting was run by either a government agency or a public corporation with some modest firewall between it and the government.

At radio's birth, only in America, with our fear of socialism, was our ersatz compromise attempted: private broadcast operators licensed for very limited terms by the government to serve “the public interest.” Often the radio station operator would have only one station, live in the town where his or her station was located, and play a major role in its operation. The FCC called that “integration of ownership and management” and accorded it a great plus in the comparative hearings in which applicants became licensees.

As late as 1946 the FCC, with the authorship of its chief economist, Dallas W. Smythe, enacted a document formally titled Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, colloquially known as the "Blue Book." It was, if anything, an even more reform-minded demand of commercial broadcasters than what you and I are asking of them today.

Of course, these early intentions were soon increasingly corrupted with the passing years. It is that corruption that motivated much of the subsequent media reform movement. But the initial idea, practice, and programming content was not that different from what we today call community radio, or public access programming on cable.

Public broadcasting. Many land grant colleges had “educational” radio stations in operation almost a decade before the Radio Act of 1928 – such as my home town University of Iowa’s WSUI. The first woman FCC Commissioner, Freda Hennock [Frieda Hennock], accomplished as much or more media reform as any one of our current organizations when she fought to reserve FM channels for educational purposes. We have witnessed a corruption of this concept as well, as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, created in the 1960s to provide a non-commercial broadcasting service, has watched its member radio and television stations slide down the same greasy commercialized slope as the commercial stations did 30 years earlier. But again, at least the initial idea was quite consistent with goals we seek.

Cable television. One of our complaints about television in the early 1960s was the oligopolistic domination by three networks. At the time of the proposed (and ultimately aborted) ITT-ABC merger it was argued that ABC was such a weak third that it was really a two-and-one-half network economy. We wanted more diversity, more channels, more choice. Well, cable has offered at least some of that – notwithstanding Bruce Springsteen’s observation that, even with 57 channels, there’s still “nothin’ on.”3 Cable was a step down the road we’d mapped. At a minimum our thumbs get a lot more exercise surfing cable’s offering than they did 40 years ago.

And by turning an economy of scarcity into an economy of abundance – albeit one controlled by gatekeepers the Supreme Court says can be censors – cable offered us the technological opportunity to have, in my community, six channels programmed for people not for profit.

Commercial broadcasters. Nor should we overlook the possibility of reform from within the commercial broadcasting industry itself. When I was an FCC Commissioner a fellow named Don McGannon was president of Westinghouse broadcasting. Among other things, he imposed upon his own chain of TV stations a prohibition on cigarette advertising, and a requirement of dinner hour local programming, long before either were required by law.

And of course there are numerous examples of courageous and responsible electronic journalists within commercial and public broadcasting, from CBS' Edward R. Murrow4 in the 1950s and 1960s, to Bill Moyers today. It may not happen as often as we'd like, but it is possible for "the system" to produce programming not significantly different from what we'd produce and broadcast if we had the money and facilities.

Media Reform for All

We tend to assume in our discussions, and as I have in this paper, that much if not all of what we refer to as "media reform" involves interests, perspectives and activities supporting in one way or another in a "liberal" or "progressive" agenda.

Once again, that is far too narrow a view. Indeed, much of our current challenge today comes from what partisan and ideological conservative individuals and institutions have done to influence the media. Notwithstanding the creative and courageous dissenting votes, opinions and leadership from Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, the FCC majority is still engaged in pounding the final nails in the coffin of any meaningful notion of "public interest" broadcasting. Combined with the Commission majority's ever-increasing loosening of any restraints on media ownership, it has given conservatives an unprecedented – and in some regions of the country virtually monolithic – influence over what Americans read, see and hear.

Media reform is not just for us. It is for everyone.

When I was chair of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting in the 1970s one of our most successful projects was an effort to reduce the levels of violence in television programming. It was a subject that concerned many American parents, and had been the subject of numerous congressional and presidential task forces and, at that time, some 2500 academic studies showing a relationship between exposure to televised violence and increased violent behavior. And yet, despite network promises of reform, levels of violence continued to rise.

Without going into detail as to what we did and how we did it, the bottom line is that we were able to identify, and publicize, the ten U.S. corporations that advertised most heavily in the most violent shows – what we called “Americas ten bloodiest corporations.” It worked. Their sales declined enough that they dropped those shows. Levels of televised violence actually declined – for what I believe, but do not know for sure, was the first and only time that has happened.

Many cheered our accomplishment and the project was generally well received.

But when the Reverend Jerry Falwell decided to use the same tactic with regard to the programs he didn't like, that became another story – as it has this past week with the Republicans’ threat of a boycott over the now-cancelled CBS mini-series about the Reagans.

Media reform is a game that all can play, and do, regardless of where they come from and whether we agree with their motives and results or not.

Media Reform as Democratization.

Most of the time we think of democracy in relation to government; it is an alternative to the divine right of kings, or dictators. We are proud of America's expansion of the franchise. Even though we began with none who could vote but white, male, landowners over 21, we have continued to expand their number to include African Americans and non landowners, women, and those 18 to 21 years of age.

But demands for democracy have long since ceased to be limited to government and politics. Student councils are given additional power, sometimes with representation on boards of regents. The laity of the Catholic Church, as well as other religions, demands and receives more say in governance. In 1976 the UAW president, Doug Framer, was appointed to the board of directors of the Chrysler Corporation.5 Ombudspersons within newspaper organizations and institutions of all kinds process complaints that formerly would have gone unheard. Parents are more likely to hold family councils, with meaningful input from children, than would have been the case 50 or 100 years ago. Consumers may organize to protest a store's purchase of products made by child or prison labor. The civic education movement gets students out of their schools and into communities where they can experience democracy.

Democracy has become, in short, a process, an ideology, that empowers individuals to influence all of the institutions and other forces that impact upon their lives, not just their governmental institutions.

The electronic media influence the upbringing and socialization of our children, whom we elect to office, how we spend our money, if not what we think at least what we think about, how we spend our time (in quantities that ultimately become our lives), the stories we tell and the dreams we dream in ways that even shape how we perceive and what we believe.

Given that power it is not surprising that you and I, indeed all Americans, feel not only a desire, but something akin to what Thomas Jefferson once characterized as an “inalienable right,” to influence what the electronic media brings into our homes.

Our challenge – even in the best of times – is how to structure that democratization, that popular influence and control.

In this panel session we are to paint landscapes, not draft tactical manuals, and besides I'm over time. This is a time to end, not begin another presentation anew.

But I would at least like to point out the difficulty of our task.

Consider the issues as to which limiting multiple media ownership might help. But what then? Should we elect our broadcasters and cable operators? Aside from the political impossibility of creating such a system, are you confident we'd get any better than what we have? We may not respond to the broadcasters’ mantra that “the public interest is what interests the public.” But do we have any reason to believe the television viewers of America would vote at the ballot box for something significantly different from what they now vote for with their remotes and TiVos?

Surely the Republicans have the right to complain about CBS' Reagan program – as we have to complain about, say, Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." The question is, what next? What procedure do we then use to hear and resolve the complaints? Would a nationwide poll be helpful? Should there be some independent body to evaluate the precise content of such a program? If so, by what standard? Would there then be an appeal process from that body's decision and, if so, to whom?

The task represented by these questions, and the hundreds more like them, is not impossible, but neither is it easy.

At a minimum we need to start from the realization that there are multiple media, multiple reforms, multiple movements, and, therefore, multiple histories.

And that is why my contribution to this landscape is nothing more than a scan of the horizon.


1. For references to a sampling of these Supreme Court cases limiting citizens' First Amendment rights see, Nicholas Johnson, "Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland," Federal Communications Law Journal, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 521, 529 n. 24 (2003), (last visited Nov. 9, 2003).

2. “Ya Got Trouble.” (last visited Nov. 6, 2003).

3. Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels (And Nothing’ On)”:

I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills
With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills
Man came by to hook up my cable TV
We settled in for the night my baby and me
We switched 'round and 'round 'til half past dawn
There was fifty-seven channels and nothing' on

Well now home entertainment was my baby's wish
So I hopped into town for a satellite dish
I tied it to the top of my Japanese car
I came home and I pointed it out into the stars
A message came back from the great beyond
There's fifty-seven channels and nothing' on (last visited Nov. 6, 2003)

4. During the week prior to this conference CBS spent an entire evening of network television bragging about itself on its 75th birthday. The celebration included honoring the memory of Edward R. Murrow, who was permitted to do the documentaries about Senator Joseph McCarthy (at the height of our nation's frightened, and frightening, witch burning of "communists and pinkos") and migrant farm workers (“Harvest of Shame”) to which CBS executives have been pointing with pride ever since. How sadly ironic that, shortly thereafter, this once proud network, with its professional journalistic traditions, was capitulating to partisan Republican pressure by canceling the sweeps week broadcast of a multi-million-dollar docu-drama about former President Ronald Reagan!

5. UAW, “Bargaining for America,” (last visited Nov. 6, 2003)

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