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10 Questions with Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson

Jacobs Media

February 21, 2005

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Fred Jacobs

February 21, 2005


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An Introduction To Nicholas Johnson...

Back when I was in graduate school, we closely followed the writings, opinions, and adventures of then FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson. He was appointed to the FCC during the Johnson Administration, and served throughout many of the Nixon years. His dissents were required reading for broadcast students and scholars alike.

Take a look at his popular Web site, In addition to material from his FCC years, you'll find a lengthy biography, bibliography, links to the full texts of much of his writing from the past half-century, and up-to-the-minute reports of  his current law school teaching, writing and numerous other activities.

One of the fun facts about Nick's incredible resume is the fact that he's been the only FCC Commissioner ever to make the cover of Rolling Stone. Even though it's been years since Nick served on the Commission, his views and perspectives are incredibly insightful about today's FCC and the media environment in this country.

We caught up with Nick recently, now back home in Iowa where he's teaching law and involved in a variety of different endeavors. As Bill Jacobs has been greatly involved with our Save Radio Now project (, we thought it best for him to take the lead and pose his "10 Questions...with Nick Johnson."

We look forward to your feedback.

  1. What are your thoughts regarding groups like the Parents Television Council mass emailing the FCC with complaints? Should these mass efforts receive the same attention by the Commission as individual complaints?
I don't think they should, and my guess is they don't.

On the other hand, neither should they be dismissed entirely. The AARP (like the Republican and Democratic parties) has influence with Congress because of its numbers. I suspect there has never been an issue on which every AARP member took the time to draft an original statement of position and then sent it to their representatives. In fact, just as members of Congress vote (or not) on bills they haven't read, I suspect many AARP members end up "supporting" (by virtue of their membership) positions of the organization of which they are totally (or mostly) unaware. That's the nature of organizations, Parents Television Council included. Nonetheless, as de Tocqueville noted 170 years ago, there's nothing more American than our participation in associations. Membership means something. It just doesn't mean as much as an individually crafted letter.

It's tough to run a democracy with a citizenry only 50 percent of which (give or take) bother to vote for president, and only 5 percent (or fewer) of which sometimes vote in school board or city council elections. So officials have to look to polls, and to such input as they get in the form of emails, faxes, phone calls and letters.

That means, in weighing that input, they (or their staff members) have to be alert to identical messages, and the distinctions between genuine grass roots communications and corporate bought-and-paid-for Astroturf lobbying.


"Someone who has elected to pay extra every month for a cable porn channel cannot be expected to be taken seriously when they subsequently complain about its programming."
  1. What can be done to avoid small groups of people wielding huge amounts of influence on the FCC's indecency decision making process?

  2. Rolling Stone Cover #79, April 1, 1970
If the FCC were to concern itself with television content - which for the most part it doesn't, except for indecency in programming - the need to balance, and represent, the diversity in Americans' cultural values is one of the toughest questions it (and broadcasters) would confront. The law (which is largely ignored) says broadcasting is to be regulated in "the public interest." This is a medium that comes into every home, largely uninvited, and with children in the audience at virtually all hours.

Some believe there is nothing on television that is inappropriate for children as long as responsible adults are sharing the experience with them, and explaining and reacting to the programming and commercials as they appear. This is kind of what "media education" (which some believe the only true, long term, effective media reform) is all about. Others believe that there is programming from which all children - and, therefore, necessarily adults as well - should be shielded.

Of course, the matter is further complicated by the fact that there is sometimes a wee bit of hypocrisy that creeps into this dialogue when it turns out that those who protest the loudest are often to be found in the audiences that give shows the ratings they need to keep them on the air.

There is also a bit of hypocrisy in the FCC, and broadcasters, repeating the mantra, "the public interest is what interests the public" (that is, "ratings rule") when it comes to justifying the laughing banter between the hair-sprayed anchors offering weather, sports, fires and fender-benders as local "news," but then switch to intricate analysis of programming details when it comes to Howard Stern (who also seems to "interest the public").

What we are largely doing about this issue in fact involves technological solutions.

Someone who buys a book, magazine, music CD or videogame, or rents a DVD or videotape of a movie, has little grounds for complaining about its offensive content once she gets it home - unless it has been fraudulently advertised. Similarly, someone who doesn't buy it has little basis for complaining that his neighbor did. (The exception would be those who are concerned, like fish noticing the polluted water through which they swim, with the cultural values, commercial and otherwise, that permeate our society and to which their children are exposed regardless of what the parents do at home.)

Similarly, one of the justifications for applying a dual standard to (a) the programming on cable that comes from over-the-air stations (often on the "basic tier") and (b) that which comes from cable programmers without TV stations, often at an added cost per channel (and those justifications are hard to find) is that such a system offers choices (and therefore responsibilities) that come closer to what we have with other media. 

The proposal for "v-chips" in TV receivers was another technological "solution."

Someone who has elected to pay extra every month for a cable porn channel cannot be expected to be taken seriously when they subsequently complain about its programming.

  1. What are your thoughts on the possibility of performers and air personalities being personally fined tens of thousands of dollars?
I would prefer that we place the responsibility for such violations of FCC regulations as may occur on management and owners. Otherwise, when management is encouraging the very behavior for which fines are being assessed it leaves the personality little choice but (a) complying with corporate directives, and being fined, or (b) being fired. That hardly seems fair. Besides, that's what managers get the big bucks for: defining corporate mission, goals, standards, delegation orders, management information reporting systems (or MBWA, "management by walking around"), and listening to (or watching) their own station. It just makes more sense to include this responsibility, as well.

"I dream of what television could be for this country. But I don't have to ask, "why not"? I know."
  1. Recently President Bush stated "As a free speech advocate, I often told parents who were complaining about content, you're the first line of responsibility: they put an off button (on) the TV for a reason. Turn it off." Comments on his comment?
This comment, often used by broadcasting apologists, is either deliberately disingenuous or irresponsibly uninformed.

Of course, there is an "off" switch. And of course most parents should probably exercise more supervision of what their kids are watching.

(And, not incidentally, there should be more emphasis upon the harm that any television watching does to a child under the age of, say, 8. Television watching is an activity (or lack thereof) that impedes many facets of a young child's development, from physical, to intellectual, to social according to some pediatricians and psychologists.)

But when a few corporations are permitted to exact exorbitant profits from the use of public property (the airwaves), ostensibly licensed to them to "serve the public interest," knowing that many two-year-olds can make their way across the living room to the "on" switch, and that this economy keeps many single parents, and two-working-parent families from supervising their children as they could with a society willing to guarantee them a "livable wage," it is both cruel and criminally irresponsible to make arguments like that.

In addition, I have often said the greatest evil that comes from (some of those in) the broadcasting and cable industries is not the harm that they do, but the good that they fail to do. Robert Kennedy used to say, "Some see things as they are and ask 'why'? I dream of things that never were and ask 'why not'?" 

I dream of what television could be for this country. But I don't have to ask, "why not"? I know.

  1. Current commissioner Kevin Martin recently stated that he believes the FCC should also look at indecency on paid services by saying "it is a subject that the FCC will have to face -- whether or not there should be changes made to level the playing field." How realistic is this and should the FCC be addressing these issues on satellite radio?
(a) If the FCC wanted to come up with programming standards generally (for example, requirements of local news and public affairs, public service announcements, and so forth, like we used to have) that could be done in a way that would make a substantial public contribution. But it's not about to do that. 

(b) Failing that, I think it is inappropriate to single out "indecency" for attention, even if one could come up with a reasonable definition (for what, in any other medium, is constitutionally protected speech). 

(c) My preference, when I was an FCC commissioner, and now, would be to leave such issues, and enforcement of the relevant laws, to the Department of Justice. It's my belief (no data, just belief) that this focus on indecency is being done by this Administration, not only to play to its conservative religious base, but also to keep the broadcasters off balance, fearing where the FCC might strike next. Broadcasters can be relatively sure that if they continue to praise the president and his programs, and savage his critics, withhold information and spread misinformation, and repeat the White House "talking points," they will probably be OK. 

(d) Having said all of that, he does have a point that there is an "issue" here. Why should cable channel programming from over-the-air stations be judged differently from cable channel programming from cable programming suppliers who don't operate stations? There are, of course, a number of answers to that, including the "scarcity" rationale for use of the spectrum, the 20-30 percent of American homes that don't have cable, and the one I outlined in question 2, above.

  1. Can there ever really be a true definition of what is considered indecent and what is not? And why doesn't the FCC want to "pre-screen" material so stations and personalities might receive some guidance?
I don't think so. Not only can't a society as diverse as ours come up with cross-cultural definitions and agreements that will work to the satisfactions of all, I doubt you could find absolute agreement within states or communities, ethnic groups, religions, or even large families!

For the FCC to "pre-screen" would clearly be a form of censorship that would raise First Amendment issues. Moreover, it would take the heat off of the broadcasters if that is, indeed, as I suggested in my answer 5(c), above, a part of the Administration's and FCC's purpose.


"What does this tell you about the consequences of media consolidation, especially when it is turned over primarily to those of one political party (as the bumper sticker has it, "The 'liberal media' are just as liberal as their conservative owners permit them to be")...
  1. Is the current state of indecency a political issue or is there more to it than that?
I've discussed a number of the facets of the "indecency" debate in answers above. 

In fairness, I do also believe that there is a real concern on the part of many people in this country, variously expressed as "an erosion of our moral values," "where we're headed as a country," "we've lost our compass," "we need a return to religion," "family values," and so forth. 

Some parents' concern about "indecency" in media has been with us since the time of the Greeks - more recently, concern over paperback books, or comics, 100 years ago, and music, movies and television more recently. These concerns are sometimes coupled today with concerns about abortion and gay and lesbian relationships. 

But the concern also comes from Bible readers who focus on Jesus' focus on "the lesser of these," commercialism (goods on earth will only rust, attract moths and thieves), the "money changers," selfishness and greed. 

These people cannot be ignored, nor should they be in a democracy. So I don't think it's all about politics.

  1. Cartoons are being pixilated. PBS shows are being re-edited. TV stations are fearful of showing "Saving Private Ryan." Radio stations are editing songs that they've played for years. What does this tell you about the state and the role of the FCC in 2005?
I would rather ask, "What does this tell you about the consequences of media consolidation, especially when it is turned over primarily to those of one political party (as the bumper sticker has it, "The 'liberal media' are just as liberal as their conservative owners permit them to be"), about the role of advertisers, about the focus on stock prices and subservience to the financial community, about the erosion of journalistic standards among those hired as marketing and finance majors with no journalistic training or insight, about a citizenry beaten down into apathy, about the fear of losing an inflated salary, about the treatment of whistle blowers, and basic courage and integrity: the disappearance of our 'Man (and Woman) for All Seasons'?"
  1. Howard Stern credits the FCC (besides the money, of course) for driving him out of commercial radio and into satellite radio. Is the FCC facilitating the end of personality radio for terrestrial broadcasters by pushing controversial DJs to satellite?
If your definition of "personality radio" is Howard Stern (and Howard Stern wannabes), then "Yes." Hopefully there are other genres of "personality" out there that the FCC is willing to keep here on earth.
  1. Why has the indecency issue become one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on? Where are the free speech advocates in Congress?
You're just asking, "Where have all the flowers gone?" Where are the consumer advocates? Where are the anti-war advocates? Where are those who will argue that we don't really need more weapons of war than the next 20 countries combined; that we should have signed the land mine treaty? Who will point out the hypocrisy that we have hundreds of times more nuclear weapons than do the new nuclear powers we worry about? Where are the opponents to corporate (not just single mother) welfare programs? Where are the supporters of public financing of campaigns (the only true "campaign finance reform" - as we've just seen in this last election)? Where are the fiscally responsible defenders of our grandchildren's federal debt? Where are those with the courage to say that more often than not government can be the solution rather than the problem; that we usually get more for the dollar we pay in taxes than the dollar we gave to Enron; that we should be raising, rather than cutting, taxes? Where are the advocates of today's version of "The Great Society"? Why don't we have what every other civilized, industrialized nation has: universal, single-payer health care? Why do we deal with the escalating costs of pharmaceuticals by giving money to seniors to pass along directly to drug companies, rather than negotiating those prices down with bulk purchases?

The answer? As "Deep Throat" told Woodward and Bernstein, "Follow the money."

***Bonus Question***

And where are the "lone dissenters" like Nick Johnson on today's FCC?

Check out Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. You've got to admire their energy and courage in taking the media ownership scandal to the people with their speeches and numerous public forums all around the country.
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