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The Real World

Lawrence K. Grossman

My quarrel with Robert McChesney's jeremiad against the American media system has more to do with its rhetoric than its substance, and my concerns about his proposed media reforms have more to do with their sense of reality than with their goals. Whatever the problems with the popular and profitable commercial media system we have now, there's no need to dismantle it, as McChesney suggests, in order to get something better.

McChesney is certainly justified in railing against the electronic media's excessive commercialism, its diminishing notions of public service, its awful local news, and its exploitative children's and youth programs. (No criticism is too harsh for a media system that ranks the odious Jerry Springer Show first or nearly first among all nationally syndicated TV series.) McChesney's prediction that the Internet, despite all the hype, will not automatically deliver "more democratic or public service oriented media" is right on target, as is his call for a well-financed not-for-profit public telecommunications system.

But his inflammatory attack castigating every aspect of what he regards as our morally depraved, noncompetitive commercial media system is the mirror image of equally voracious attacks by the ideological right. In the end, I fear, such high-pitched rhetoric will be more harmful than helpful in sorting out the real causes of our major media problem and producing constructive, useful proposals for democratic reform. Nor does McChesney reflect the world I know with his conclusion, born more of wish than reality, that "the train of media reform is leaving the station" thanks to the work of fringe activist groups like FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), Rocky Mountain Media Watch, the Media and Democracy Conferences in San Francisco and New York, and others. The impact of these pressure groups on the mainstream media is marginal at best, and in the current climate they exercise far less clout than archconservative organizations like the National Federation for Decency, the Moral Majority, AIM (Accuracy in Media), the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and their ilk.

Change is inevitable in the new telecommunications age, and for the future health of our democracy, basic changes in the nation's media system certainly must be made. The required conversion to digital TV makes this the ideal time to reexamine, in a disciplined, hard-headed, constructive way, the nation's communications policies. I am optimistic enough to believe that such a reexamination will demonstrate that we can add to our popular and profitable but inadequate commercial system a major new, not-for-profit public telecommunications system, a pioneering and affordable twenty-first-century counterpart of the BBC for this country.

McChesney acknowledges that his own proposal for an ideal media system is "wholly implausible," and he's right. He calls for aggressive antitrust action to break up our present-day multimedia entertainment conglomerates. He also proposes a bevy of small, do-good, community access radio and television stations and public service production centers throughout the country, paid for by enlightened government and idealistic labor unions. McChesney's proposal is clearly well-intentioned but hardly feasible. The likely response to that idea was best described by the late impresario Sol Hurok: "If people don't want to come, nobody can stop them."

Yes, radio and television, cable and satellites are overwhelming the public sphere with the siren songs of entertainment, sports, movies, music, gossip and a host of other diversions. Yes, the electronic press is becoming an even more vast escapist wasteland, pouring out tabloid nonfiction, trivia, crime, sex, gossip and scandal; focusing almost entirely on the mistakes government makes and the bad things government does, rather than on the essential services government provides. The media contribute in a major way to the public's increasing cynicism, its disengagement from politics, and distrust of government.

But give credit where credit is due. American media succeed brilliantly in giving audiences here and throughout the world what they want. The problem with our mainstream electronic media is that they utterly fail to give the American people the services they need- critically important services such as education; quality children's programs; lifelong learning; job retraining; meaningful, in-depth civic information about key political issues; public health information; and original arts and culture. Commercial radio and television fail to offer the essential higher things of life because, while such services make for a more civilized, better informed society and a healthier democracy, they do not make money; they cost money. The multimedia company officials who decide what goes out over our airwaves are essentially in the entertainment business rather than in the civic information and public service business because entertainment is where the lion's share of the profits are. As Disney chairman Michael Eisner said to the press when he bought ABC, "Imagine the enormous financial potential we'll have, given the growing global appetite for nonpolitical entertainment and sports."

The market gives no credit for investments in services that improve the human condition and the quality of democracy, but that eat into profits and diminish cash flow. If market forces require lowering program standards to increase audience appeal, or replacing important global news with local crime stories to attract more viewers, that's exactly what the media companies end up doing. Obviously, what this country badly needs is an appealing, not-for-profit public telecommunications system that will operate parallel to the commercial media system we have now and will fill the needs the commercial system neglects. The new telecommunications superhighway should be our civic center, our source of lifelong learning, our educator, our vital information provider, our electronic arts center, as well as our center of amusement and diversion. We need to develop telecourses, quality programs, CD-ROMs, print-outs, and websites that provide civic, public health, and government information; free opportunities for civil political discourse; and presentations about science, the arts and culture-all well-produced, well-presented, well-promoted, well-marketed, and interactive.

As we enter the brave new world of interactive telecommunications, it's time for this nation to end the pretense that commercial broadcasters and telecommunications companies, whose primary obligation is to their bottom line, can be made to serve all of the people's needs. Hence the need in our knowledge-based society for an alternative not-for-profit system, an effective, newly designed, well-financed public telecommunication system, with broad lanes of its own reserved on the new electronic superhighway.

In my home state of Connecticut, we're trying to create just such a broad-brush public interest telecommunications model to fill the state's growing educational, civic information, and cultural needs. I serve on the board of Connecticut Public TV and chair its strategic planning committee. To prepare for CPTV's move to digital transmission, we're starting to bring together the state government, Connecticut's public and private universities, its public health agencies, libraries, museums, schools, and civic and community groups in order to map their assets and assess their needs and resources for the telecommunications age. Together, our goal is to develop an inclusive, effective, interactive public interest telecommunications freeway, capable of serving the educational, informational, civic, and cultural communications needs of all the people in our state.

With any luck, what we're trying to do in Connecticut can be a useful model for other states and communities as well as for the country as a whole. For instance, the Library of Congress, paid for by taxpayers, now supplies-free-of-charge to all members of Congress and their staffs at their request-fair-minded, authoritative research and information about major public issues. Why not make that information service available on demand to all of the nation's citizens in useful, interesting, inviting forms? With the convergence of television, telephones, satellites, and computers, the multimedia tools are there to do the job.

The best news is that we don't have to start from scratch to build such a system. We can build on the strong base of what we already have: our great not-for-profit research universities, and networks of public libraries, museums, public health and other public service agencies that now supply reliable, intelligent, and useful education and information to the people who come through their doors. In the digital era, it would be shameful not to use these trusted education and information providers to deliver electronically to every household, school, hospital, prison, daycare center, library, museum, and nursing home well-produced, critically needed information and educational materials using video, voice, and data, complete with opportunities for talk back, feedback, and interactive discussion.

We should use our existing public service institutions to create a vast electronic public interest freeway system. While individually they do not have a great deal of political clout, when joined together they can generate impressive political support to raise the money they need to perform these services. By definition, the commercial marketplace will not fund a not-for-profit public telecommunications system. But with the right policies in place, we can raise substantial money for a public trust fund to be used for that purpose. All that will be required is a thin slice off the top of the billions of dollars that come in from spectrum auctions. To fatten the trust fund, we might also tax commercial companies that use the publicly owned spectrum a modest annual license fee and impose a small transaction fee on the sale and merger of such companies. Congress has a brilliant precedent to follow here-the farsighted Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 that authorized hundreds of thousands of acres of public land to be sold in order to finance America's state universities, making higher education available to all for the very first time. The equivalent of the public land of a century ago is the publicly owned spectrum of today.

It is not necessary to dismantle the extraordinarily popular and profitable commercial media system we have now to create a great new public telecommunications system. There's no reason this country cannot enjoy the benefits of both in the century ahead.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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