Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Why You Should Care Who Serves on the FCC

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette

September 25, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    It’s election time. School board? Nope, done that. City council? Not yet.

    U.S. senators? The president? Members of congress? None of their six-, four- and two-year terms are up this fall.

    The election I’m talking about only comes round every eight years — and this is the year in Iowa. Mark Oct. 5 on your calendar.

    Given the attention this election receives, you’re excused for not knowing. But the outcome may have more impact on you, your family and community than many of the other elections combined.

    I’m talking about who gets to control the most powerful mass communications medium humankind has ever unleashed upon itself. Who gets to use the local airwaves that we, the public, own.

    With TV sets running seven hours a day, children spending more time with television than teachers, each of us will have spent 13 years of life watching TV before we die. Indeed, TV watching has become ‘‘life’’ for many. So how do we vote?

    Like elected officials, broadcasters have limited terms. When I was a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, TV licenses lasted three years. Now they’re eight. Most incumbent officials get re-elected and most TV owners get renewed. But neither has a right to get re-elected or renewed. They both have to ‘‘run on their record.’’

    All TV licenses in a given state expire on the same day. Iowa’s TV licensees file for renewal Oct. 1. Audience members have from October through December to file comments with the FCC. Feb. 1 is renewal day.

    What’s unique this year are two FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who think Washington should come to us. They sided with the millions of Americans who opposed the FCC’s giveaway to big media. Now they’re about to hold what may be the first-ever FCC hearing in Iowa. Sponsors include the national media reform organization Free Press, the University of Iowa’s Lecture Committee, Iowans for Better Local TV, and numerous other groups.

    The hearing will be in Iowa City at the Pomerantz Center (at the corner of Market Street and T. Anne Cleary Walkway) at 7 p.m. Oct. 5. Park in the Iowa Memorial Union or North ramps. This may well be one of the fall’s biggest events after football.

    And before the forum, Iowans will have a chance to find out about how media policy affects broadcast ownership and content, and get help preparing a two-minute statement to present at the forum. Workshops will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Community of Christ Church, 1500 Blairs Ferry Rd., Hiawatha; at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the LULAC Club, 4224 Ricker Hill Rd. in Davenport; at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, in Room A of the Iowa City Public Library; and at 6 p.m. Oct. 4 at the AFSCME Office in Eastdale Plaza, 1700 S. First St., Iowa City. For details, go to www.freepress. net/future

    Why should we care?

    It’s said humans are no more conscious of the mediated environment in which we live than fish are conscious of the water in which they live. Yet polluted media is no better for us than polluted water is for fish.

    Numerous studies document that violence in TV programs increases real-life violence in our communities.

    Walter Lippmann and Noam Chomsky speak of the media’s ‘‘manufacturing consent.’’ Even when TV isn’t telling us what to think, it’s telling us what to think about. Except when, druglike, it’s designed to obliterate all thought.

    Time for ‘‘local news’’ can become so consumed with commercials, national stories, weather, fires, commentary and sports that viewers are left unaware of the most serious problems — and opportunities — they confront. Such as Iowa’s employment challenges, trends in land ownership, high school student achievement, and polluted waterways.

    The FCC requires TV stations to provide programs that serve children’s educational needs. Are they doing it? Or are they telling our daughters ‘‘success’’ requires they reshape their bodies to look like starved models?

    Contrary to all the world’s great religions, TV preaches — with programs, product placement and commercials — that happiness, indeed our very identity and life’s purpose, is to be found in hedonism and conspicuous consumption. We will be known by the companies we keep.

    Meanwhile, the FCC is permitting licensees to control more and more stations and other media. When I was there, the limit was 7 AM, 7 FM and 7 television stations. Today, five corporations control most of our country’s media. One operates 1,200 radio stations.

    They’re your airwaves. Oct. 5 is your opportunity to speak up. Be there.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is a former FCC commissioner who teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.