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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/31/10

Elite Control or Community Governance of Public Service Media: Which Will it Be?

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(Based upon comments delivered on June 24, 2010 at the U.S. Social Forum workshop, "Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue: Lessons from the U.S. and Latin America". This article first appeared at

We must first understand that the U.S. public media system has been purposefully and severely handicapped by the professional culture of journalism, and by corporate and government powers, and philanthropies, from the beginning. Only with this knowledge can we discover that the primary solution to this problem is not simply more money and technology for public media but rather the direct, democratic, community control of public media. Only with this knowledge can we take action to create a public media system that enables marginalized groups to speak to themselves and to wider audiences.

The ideal public service media system would be nonprofit, noncommercial, accountable and independent, available on multiple platforms, and require ubiquitous broadband and internet freedom. It would include public, educational and government access, community and low power radio, other community media centers, and community print and text, and have public and community media working together in new ways. Those who have historically subjugated U.S. public media have something else planned for us however.

Professional control, corporate control, government control, and philanthropic control over public media in the U.S. together have created a system of social control and not one of social justice. I will offer governance models as solutions that I want you to keep in mind. I'll focus on activism aimed at achieving community control over public media during two eras, 1920-1960 and 1960-present, and then upon today's situation.

It is important to understand that by the time commercial radio gained dominance in the 1930s, journalists and publishers had won widespread acceptance of professional norms over independent news models. The journalists' and publishers' culture of "detached" "science" "without ideology" determined they would control media for generations.

It is crucial to recognize the racism in professional culture of the 1920's and 30's. Lagemann says the trustees of the Carnegie Corporation worried about and financed eugenics projects intended to help preserve the racial purity of American Society. They were convinced of the superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon "race" and were determined to preserve this nowhere more than in the "public profession of the law". This is the same foundation that helped shape U.S. media at every key step and whose 1967 report led to the creation of U.S. public broadcasting.

The 1927 Radio Act created the Federal Radio Commission, which shoved educational stations around the dial as a cop would a vagrant, and slashed their power allotments. 128 educational stations in 1925 fell to 48 in 1930. Those left got daytime hours only.

NBC parent RCA, and CBS, in collusion with the Carnegie Corporation and J.P. Rockefeller, created the National Advisory Council on Radio Education in 1930, which advised educators to work with (surrender to?) the networks. Other educators formed the National Committee on Education by Radio, a vanguard attempting to establish a U.S. broadcasting system with the nonprofit and noncommercial sector dominant. The passage of the 1934 Radio Act was both a complete defeat of public media in the U.S. and an archetype for media governance extending to the present.

Another path was possible. In the mid-1930's, the French government decreed each community with a state owned station would hold an annual meeting to elect a community council of program management. All persons who owned radio sets and had paid the use tax would be eligible to participate.

In 1946, pacifist Lewis Hill incorporated what became the independent Pacifica radio network, a pioneer in listener-supported radio. During the 1950's however, the only new educational radio licenses authorized by the FCC were for itty-bitty ten-watt stations. No educators initially accepted the FCC's 1948 invitation to request tv channels. In 1952, the FCC reserved 242 for education. By 1960, only 1/5th were in use.

Surprisingly, there was no grassroots struggle for public tv channels or funding for public tv or radio. The prime movers of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 were educational broadcasters, the Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, the Johnson administration, commercial networks, AT&T, media union officials, and some academics. Virtually 100% absent from the 1967 testimony in the House and Senate were diverse and marginalized groups advocating for civil rights, peace, the environment, the poor, and so on. Professionals and elites made a severely handicapped, small system that they could control. The handful of letters from the public in the legislative record show the people felt a government propaganda machine was being shoved down their throats. They were right.

From the start, public broadcasting was unambiguously part of the military-industrial complex. Carnegie Commission chairman James Killian was Kennedy's chief intelligence adviser and held top posts at MIT, GM, and AT&T; Killian didn't want public broadcasting to have independent, permanent funding. The first chair of the CPB was General Frank Pace, former army secretary, nuclear weapon technology pioneer, and head of General Dynamics. Yes, even Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had worked at the US Information Agency, the government propaganda office.

Similar links occur at elite neo-liberal philanthropies, including major early public broadcasting funder the Ford Foundation. Its co-founder Henry Ford's Nazi ties have been researched in depth elsewhere and its history of collaboration and interlock with the CIA is almost as well known. More obscured is the fact that the first head of the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education was the president of Shell Oil and that later, in 1965, Shell became public tv's first "enhanced underwriter." It is also important to point out that the Ford Foundation has been linked in the past by researchers to CIA and CIA-like projects including the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Student Association, and (along with the Carnegie Corporation) the CIA-founded African-American Institute, a group active on campuses in Africa.

In 1972, African Americans picketed outside a CPB board meeting because only 7 of 887 NPR station managers were black. In 1975, women's groups, people of color, labor and others successfully fought Nixon's nomination of conservative funder and John Birch pamphleteer Joseph Coors to the CPB. Nixon's disdain for public broadcasting is widely understood, but less known is the fact that activists worked very hard in the 1970's to correct public broadcasting's serious shortcomings.

Filmmaker DeeDee Halleck and physicist Larry Hall organized The National Task Force for Public Broadcasting in the late 1970's. They characterized public broadcasting as a system closed to creative staff, independent producers, and interested citizens. It assembled the powerful grass roots coalition missing from the 1967 deliberations. Its most significant victories were requirements for open meetings and access to records. Similar movements emerged in Boston, New York, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. and addressed lack of diversity on boards, neglect of local programming, censorship of controversial programming, under-representation of minorities in employment and programming, and insufficient citizen participation generally.

1978's A Public Trust: The Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting called for public involvement in station governance, mixed boards with staff appointed and elected seats, and funding from spectrum fees. Congress and the FCC ignored these, its most important recommendations.

President Reagan and the Congress imposed major cuts to CPB. The Cable Act of 1984, befitting its Orwellian year, gave municipalities the right to request funding for public access channels but Aufderheide tells us that by 1990 only 17% of cable systems actually had public access channels. The unrelenting campaign by cable companies and municipalities against community television would have had far worse consequences were it not for activist organizing to save public access (PEG).

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Scott Sanders has co-founded a number of media activist organizations including Chicago Media Action, and led efforts to constitute public community media centers with member elected boards and to increase diversity on non-elected public media (more...)
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