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Let People Choose

Stephen Ansolabehere

The deregulation juggernaut has rolled through nearly every industry in the United States over the last two decades. Of all the industries that the US has opened up, communications has perhaps the most profound effects on American democracy. Democratic government requires that citizens be able to learn about the choices they face and make reasoned decisions. Consequently, information about public affairs should be readily available and discourse should be open and free.

The deregulation of the American media, Robert McChesney argues, threatens that public interest. Media conglomerates, driven by profit motives, may squelch political discourse. So we need to put the genie back in the bottle: bolster public television, break the media industry into market-specific competitive firms, clamp down on licensing, give free air time to (subsidize) candidates, and promote lots of nonprofit media firms.

From the perspective of a child of the 1970s and 1980s, all of this seems quite strange. I grew up with three television stations plus Sesame Street, one newspaper, and a slew of radio stations, offering all manner of rock music. Not much choice, except for the music.

Today, I can tune into Congress marking up a bill, or cops on the prowl, or sports, or gardening, or sitcoms, or cartoons, or my choice of movies, or two different public television channels. Local and national news runs twenty-four hours a day. ABC, CBS, and NBC offer up the same fare as always. My town has two papers: one about community affairs and politics; the other on local arts and entertainment. The Boston Globe and Boston Herald serve the entire metropolitan area, and at my local grocery store I can pick up newspapers from twenty countries.

Many of these changes came about through technological innovations, such as satellites and microcomputers. But many others have come about because the federal government relaxed restrictions on the communications industry. The approval of cable expansion in the 1970s set the stage for industry growth in the 1980s. The infusion of capital from investors outside of local communities has spurred the growth of community newspapers. The auctioning of spectrum has opened up new venues for broadcasting and cable casting.

The world isn't perfect: little of this is free. But much it wouldn't exist at all if it were.

Is there an alternative to this new world? Perhaps, but I am wary of the government as provider of that alternative. The federal government-the Federal Communications Commission and the US Congress and President-was entrusted with the broadcasting industry from its early days (the 1920s for radio, the 1940s for television). The stick was licensing; the carrot, beginning in the 1960s, money for public television. Who benefited from this arrangement? ABC, NBC, and CBS.

Under the guise of the public's interest in maintaining sound spectrum utilization, the FCC chose in 1948 to stick with a system of broadcasting for television, with a very limited spectrum of channels. We did not go the route of cable television, even though it was a live option in 1948. (Japan chose to develop a cable system at about that time.) Whether an example of regulatory capture or of simple industrial inertia, the decision to go with broadcasting in 1948 created the oligopoly that dominated television through the 1970s.

What of public discourse? The licensing rules developed by the FCC under the Communications Act of 1934 required broadcasters to give "equal time" to all perspectives and cover issues fairly. Few stations lost licenses or were restrained by the FCC for violating equal time and fairness rules; those that did tended to be small operators who propounded ideological views on the far left or far right. It is unclear whether these specific licensing rules had any effect on what others said over the air. What is clear is that political programming could only be a limited part of programming, usually covering only such special events as debates and conventions. Today it is not. GOP TV, a spin-off of the Pat Robertson campaign of 1988, can be seen on cable across the nation. That was unthinkable two decades ago.

Not all that the US government touches in broadcasting turns to rust. Public television has shone, producing a handful of widely watched programs, including Sesame Street and the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. It has also allowed for considerable experimentation and the importation of foreign programming. But it is hard to see this as a model for an entire industry. PBS rarely attracts big audiences. Converting the entire industry to this sort of provider might very well ruin what we already have, which is considerable.

This is not to say that the debate about media ownership should not be engaged. Media owners might use their firms to further their own political interests, as was often alleged of William Randolph Hearst. This, though, is true of any media system. Small local papers can damage public understanding just as surely as large media conglomerates. Whether democracy works depends on a separate question: can people assert their own interests?

The market-based solutions of the 1980s and 1990s stand on an optimistic assumption about people. Though they may not be particularly well-informed, people know what they want. Newspapers, TV, radio, and other media can provide the information and entertainment that people seek. If a program does not offer what people want to watch or the information they seek to know, they can change the channel, or read a paper, or call friends, or surf the Net. Media providers must be responsive to the ability of their audiences to exit if they do not provide what people desire. Profit and competition is one way to increase that degree of responsiveness. That at least is the idea behind the current American experiment in making the media more democratic.

As an opening volley, Robert McChesney's piece is certainly provocative, but in one respect, it starts us on the wrong foot. The marketplace of ideas, McChesney argues, will not work because commercialization will force on people content that they do not need to make public decisions. I find the assumptions about people contained in this argument to be deeply troubling. People, it is assumed, do not know what they want. They do not use television to seek information or entertainment or public discourse. Rather, television shapes people's visions of what they want. Perhaps this is true. If so, we should not discuss whether to regulate the media, but whether democracy itself is possible.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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