End User's Corner - June 1997

Jack SolockClassic Books on the Internet - #3

Telecommunications, Mass Media, & Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935
By Robert W. McChesney

Oxford University Press

270 p. ISBN 0-19-507174-3; 0-19-509394-1 (PBK)

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

June 1997

Once upon a time, there was a new communications technology that allowed people to interact with each other and share information across vast stretches of space in incredibly short amounts of time. It promised a revolution in the democratization of information, and indeed, of social interaction. In its early days "a significant percentage of [its sites] were operated by nonprofit organizations like religious groups, civic organizations, labor unions, and, in particular, colleges and universities." There was a private, commercial presence, but its "raison d'etre was to generate favorable publicity for the owner's primary enterprise, not to generate profits in [its] own right." In the early period of this technology, "there was little sense that [it] could be profitable." Above all, it was a technology, not a mass medium. But those in the corporate sector who had a shrewd eye could see the possibilities.

Does this sound familiar? It is actually a description of the landscape of early radio that sets the stage for a history of the early broadcast reform movement that forms the heart of Robert W. McChesney's brilliant book.

Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy tells, in exhaustive, meticulously researched detail, a little known story in American history. Between 1927 (the Radio Act of 1927) and 1935 (the Communications Act of 1934), as radio became more and more entrenched as a mass medium, legislation was systematically either passed or rejected toward a single purpose: the economic and political organization of radio along the lines of a specific "American System." That system was one of network-dominated, advertising-supported radio. This capitalist organization is one that persists to this day, in both radio and television.

The genius of this book is not in the telling of how that happened (although that story is told with an authoritative mastery of the subject), but in the uncovering of an alternative view of radio, one that was fought for vociferously, and that was crushed so thoroughly and buried so deeply that few people know of its existence. McChesney, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has admirably played the role of archaeologist here, digging out the bones of a broadcast reform movement that dared to imagine radio on a different basis than "for profit." In doing this, he shows us that the political and economic organization of American mass media was not preordained, that there were other possibilities.

These possibilities took many forms, but basically consisted of "hav[ing] a significant portion of the ether [allocated radio channels] set aside for noncommercial and nonprofit utilization." While this seems fairly harmless, and even democratic, the commercial broadcasters reacted to it as an antibody reacts to a virus, fighting the idea relentlessly for eight years, and finally killing it. Once it was killed, they attempted (consciously or unconsciously) to bury it, to wipe out the evidence that it ever had existed in the first place. In this way, the "American System" was to become "the only conceivable manner in which to organize the ether in the context of American democracy." And once that was done, they attempted (and still attempt) to wipe out whatever brakes any regulating authority had to stop their excesses.

McChesney spends most of eight of the ten chapters in the book describing the inner contours of the fight for broadcast reform, but to those interested in what this has to do with the Internet, it is his over arching vision of media as a social policy issue rather than a technical or content issue, of who owns and has the right to control a mass medium, that is crucial. Though the broadcast reformers were firing rubber bands at elephants, their critiques are still important. According to McChesney, there were three basic critiques. First, "the emerging status quo had not been 'selected' by the citizenry in any rational or democratic dialogue." Second, "the broadcast reformers emphatically asserted the right of the public, acting through its elected representatives, to establish whatever type of broadcasting system they deemed desirable, even if this might mean the elimination of the entire capitalist basis of American broadcasting." Third "that reform would necessarily have to address the contradiction between private, for-profit control of broadcasting and the communication requirements of a democratic society."

Today we take for granted that radio and television are organized the way they are. Commercial radio and television are a given. But that long-ago lost battle is very useful to study as the Internet evolves. Today, the Internet is arguably where radio was in the early 1920's. Its delivery method, the computer, is anything but a mass medium. At present it is still too expensive and unreliable (imagine your TV sending you a "channel unknown" error when you tuned into an important show).

However, the Internet is on the verge of becoming a mass medium. Already, it is in the nascent stages of metamorphosis into TV, radio, and telephone. Who can imagine what the next ten years will bring? As it becomes a mass medium, it will draw much more attention from the corporate sector than it does at present. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a fact. The question that needs to be asked now (and that McChesney points out, so effectively, has already been asked in reference to an earlier mass medium) is who will own and control the mass medium of the Internet? That this is a legitimate question to ask is one of our greatest legacies from the early history of radio.

McChesney's book portends what the answer to this question may be. Depending on your point of view, that may be a cause for celebration or for mourning. What his book teaches, in the end, is that the question of who controls information is a very important one indeed. It is an open question, even though the answer may seem not only a given, but "the American way." McChesney is an optimist. Those who feel that the political and economic organization of the Internet should be something different from radio or TV must attempt to do something about it. His story shows that the organization of a mass medium in America on a different basis from the prevailing model is a daunting task. But, as he quotes Samir Amin at the end of the book, "The future is still open. It is still to be lived."

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

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