A Struggle From the Past With a Message for Today
Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. By Robert McChesney (Oxford University Press, 393 pp.)
Revisionist historians tell us stories that debunk dominant myths, discover new kinds of heroes and illuminate oppositional movements hidden beneath hegemonic tales of the status quo. In Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, journalism professor Robert McChesney uncovers a coherent media reform movement that decried the corporate-controlled, advertising-sponsored broadcasting system whose programming and purposes debased democratic thought and citizen action.
The book recaptures the unequal struggle between the powerful commercial interests and the public interest in the early days of radio broadcasting. Democratic forces that are again gathering to reclaim the right of public participation in media policy-making can find historical guidance and challenging implications in this new book.
In the mid-1920s, broadcasting benefited from a rich mix of stations operated by non-profit and civic organizations, religious groups, labor unions and, in particular, colleges and universities. But in mid-1928, the Federal Radio Commission, predecessor to today’s FCC, announced its landmark frequency reallocation plan, General Order 40, which reassigned 94 percent of all broadcasters to new frequencies.
The FRC determined that allocation in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity” should favor “well-rounded” broadcasters, not special interests – unless, of course, those were advertisers’ self-interests. Numerous non-profits fell victim to this logic and saw their hours reduced and their time turned over to commercial broadcasters. By the end of the decade, the contours of the modern U.S. network-dominated, advertising-supported broadcasting system were in place.
It was that time that an organized, although not always unified, opposition to commercial broadcasting emerged. Groups like the ACLU, through its influential Radio Committee, saw the emergence of commercial broadcasting as undermining core ideals of liberal democratic political theory. Said one reformer of the day, “With its radio broadcasting in the hands of money-changers, no nation can be free.”
According to McChesney, the single creates obstacle facing the broadcast reformers was the commercial broadcasting industry itself, especially the radio lobby, which emerged full force by the early 1930s. The industry devoted its considerable resources to publicizing the market as quintessentially democratic.
To the broadcast reform movement, with far less resources but far more democratic imagination, the commercial status quo was inimical to the communication requirements of a democratic society. Private control, they felt, rendered genuine freedom of thought impossible. Political censorship was commonplace. Advertising’s trivializing effect upon program content was also a concern. In 1931 Upton Sinclair wrote, “The conditions of our radio constitute a national scandal and disgrace. If allowed to continue for another 10 years, we shall have the most debased and vulgarized people in the world.”
In rich detail, McChesney shows how the broadcasting industry achieved legislative victory with the enactment of the Communications Act of 1934, still the primary regulatory broadcast statute in the United States, which consolidated the commercial status quo.
McChesney’s well-researched study discredits the notion that criticism of a corporate media system is a recent phenomenon. Why that movement failed, and the legacy it left for the future, has much to offer those who strive to develop a vision of a democratic media system as well as a more democratic society.
Laurien Alexandre is the dean of academic affairs at Antioch University in Los Angeles.