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Fork in the Road and Alternative Futures

Nicholas Johnson

FCC Forum, Iowa City, Iowa

October 5, 2005

Note: FreePress has made an audio of the entire evening available at It is 15.7 MB. Johnson's presentation runs from minute 29:50 to 36:04.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is one of the brightest and most courageous commissioners in FCC history. We are so grateful he is with us this evening, bringing Washington to Iowa City, listening to our concerns, sharing his.

I know how much Commissioner Michael Copps was really looking forward to being here. He’s often asked me, “Nick, when are you going to invite us to Iowa City?” He regrets his necessary absence as much or more than we do. We so appreciate his assistant, Jordan Goldstein, filling in for him.

My days on the FCC were the late 1960s and early ‘70s, days of Woodstock, revolution, and hippies. And I looked and dressed the part. Asked why, I replied, “There are so many people in Washington who want to look like public officials and behave like bandits I just thought there ought to be one who looks like a bandit and behaves like a public official.”

Commissioners Copps and Adelstein have managed to do both. They look like public officials and, wow, do they ever behave like public officials! How rare they are.

There are so many others to thank for this evening: the UI Lecture Committee, Free Press co-founder John Nicholas and skilled staffer Amanda Ballantyne, Iowans for Better Local Television, dozens of  additional sponsoring organizations and volunteers, tonight’s panelists, moderator Joan Kjaer Kirkman. And most important, you, for being here, and for taking this opportunity to speak out.

We panelists are supposed to hold ourselves to five minutes, and I want to set a good example.

That’s not easy for someone who’s used to speaking for entire semesters at a time, and has been writing about these issues for 40 years.

So if there’s anyone out there who’s interested in giving my life’s work more than five minutes, it is available in abundance on my Web site, You’ll find the full text of two books, dozens of articles, some 400 FCC dissenting opinions, links to many media reform organizations, and other resources.

Twenty-five or thirty years ago the FCC came to a fork in the road. Baseball’s Yogi Berra advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And so they took it.

In fact we were all taken.

Taken down the fork of deregulation that ultimately led to a profit-and-loss statement refecting the industry’s gargantuan profits and our losses. The fork that led to the outrage we feel about today’s television. The outrage that has brought us together this evening.

What’s the future hold?

It’s been said that “Prediction is very difficult, especially prediction about the future.” That’s another line claimed by Yogi Berra – as well as Mark Twain and Niels Bohr.

Prediction may be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

We have choices.

We can imagine alternative futures, and work to make them real.

Or we can sit back and watch present trends get worse.

What are those present trends?

Ever-more concentrated ownership. Wall Street manipulation of stock prices with ever-increasing profits from layoffs and cost cutting. More media subservience to whomever’s in the White House. More intermingling of advertising, public relations, and entertainment with what used to be national news. And virtually no local news and public affairs.

How ironic those who are so insistent that judges follow the “original intent” of the U.S. Constitution are so willing to abandon the original intent of broadcast regulation.

Those early concerns and aspirations are as sound today as they were in the 1920s.

So where does the other fork take us?

Let us imagine another future.

Nothing we talk about this evening is inevitable. It is we, our elected officials, and those they appoint to the FCC, who designed these systems. It is we who can re-design them.

President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, used to say, “Some see things as they are and ask ‘why’? I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not’?”

We’re at another fork in the road. Let’s follow Yogi Berra’s advice, take that fork, dream a little, and ask with Robert Kennedy, “why not?”