Not Your Father’s FCC

Not Your Father’s FCC

As we struggle for media democracy, let’s take encouragement from the early actions of the FCC.


“To the extent that the ownership of and control of…broadcast stations falls into fewer and fewer hands,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded, “the free dissemination of ideas and information, upon which our democracy depends, is threatened.” With those words, the FCC ordered the breakup of the leading broadcast network and banned a single company from owning more than one station per city.

Is this an FCC you recognize? Probably not. That’s because it’s not your FCC–it’s your father’s FCC (maybe even your grandfather’s). These media reforms were the work of James Lawrence Fly, the FCC chairman appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. A card-carrying New Deal trustbuster with good access to the President, Fly was a relentless opponent of “chain broadcasting”–the domination of local broadcasting by the CBS and NBC Red and Blue radio networks.

What a far cry from the media regulation we have today. In 1981 President Reagan appointed an FCC chairman who described a television set as nothing but a “toaster with pictures.” The commission went on to dismantle nearly every public-interest obligation on the books and to enable a tsunami of media consolidation. The results have been disastrous–reporters fired, newsrooms shuttered and our civic dialogue dumbed down to fact-free opinions and ideological bloviation.

The good news–to paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger Jr.–is that eras of reform follow periods of reaction. The New Deal for media in the late 1930s came not a moment too soon. The “Roaring Twenties” emphasized media commercialism and consolidation. Though educational institutions operated stations in radio’s infancy, by the time of the New Deal, fifteen years of regulatory decisions ensured that they had been crowded out by large for-profit corporations. (See Robert McChesney’s and Paul Starr’s works for gripping accounts of this fight.)

Even the early New Deal bill creating the FCC largely ratified the status quo by omitting a Senate amendment that would have allocated 25 percent of the radio spectrum to nonprofit broadcasters. Only with the reforms of the Fly-era FCC did the New Deal really begin to grapple with media consolidation. Even that momentum stalled too soon, as–in FDR’s own words–“Dr. Win-the-War” came to supplant “Dr. New Deal.”

Thankfully, the postwar years saw a reinvigorated FCC. Regulators who had listened to Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London’s rooftops were not afraid to demand that networks invest in marquee news operations. Then came the Reagan years of backlash, deregulation and consolidation.

Today, a new spirit of change is abroad in the land. The question is whether we can have media capable of covering the issues that real Americans–not just Wall Street and Madison Avenue–care about. A media environment dominated by the established interests, unwilling or unable to reflect the concerns of ordinary citizens, is the natural enemy of change and the progressive spirit in American politics. Truly democratic, diverse and vibrant media, on the other hand, are a powerful engine for turning grassroots hope into political possibility and eventually an irresistible force. All the other critical issues discussed in the magazine you are holding will be significantly influenced–perhaps determined–by whether we can democratize our media.

Where to start? First, let’s reinvigorate the license-renewal process. Under FDR, renewals were required every three years, and a station’s public-interest record was subject to FCC judgment. Today a broadcaster sends in a postcard every eight years, and there is no credible public-interest evaluation. We need to get back to renewing every three years–and add enforceable guidelines to encourage coverage of real local news, culture and civic affairs. Second, let’s revisit media ownership–this means not just preventing bad new rules (like letting more newspapers own TV stations) but revisiting the bad old rules that made this mess in the first place. And finally, let’s make sure the Internet remains free of the network consolidation and content control that wreaked such havoc on more traditional media.

The struggle for media democracy is uphill but winnable. Let us take encouragement from the great Walter Cronkite, who says, “America is a powerful and prosperous nation. We certainly should insist upon, and can afford to sustain, a media system of which we can be proud.” It is time to work together to show that it can be done. Our democracy depends upon it.

Other contributions to the forum:

Bill McKibben: A Green Corps

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: A Chaos of Experimentation

Eric Schlosser: The Bare Minimum

Frances Moore Lappé: The Only Fitting Tribute

Adolph Reed Jr.: Race and the New Deal Coalition

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: For the ‘FDR’

Andy Stern: Labor’s New Deal

Anna Deavere Smith: Potent Publics

Sherle R. Schwenninger: Democratizing Capita

Stephen Duncombe: FDR’s Democratic Propaganda

Howard Zinn: Beyond the New Deal

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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