Information Highway debate recalls 1934 media defeat
The history of the first media industry war has now been told by University of Wisconsin historian Robert W. McChesney. His Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 was published last year by Oxford University Press.The American WayThe story it tells provides a valuable historical frame for understanding the issue of public access to the Information Highway.McChesney chronicles how NBC and its allies amassed a small army of attorneys and engineers to turn public opinion, key members of Congress, the White House, and the newly-formed Federal Radio Commission (later to become the FCC) to its view that broadcasting in the hands of network-controlled chains was the American Way.Led by NBC President Merlin Aylesworth, the broadcast lobby depoliticized the policy debate over who should control broadcasting by framing it mainly as a problem of engineering and finance: i.e., how can broadcasting reach the most Americans, and who can best afford to accomplish the task?(The use of free speech arguments to justify private ownership of broadcasting did not emerge until after the industry had used Congress and the federal regulatory agencies to consolidate its ownership of the airwaves.)To establish its hegemony, the industry had to clear the airwaves of a substantial number of non-profit broadcasters mostly colleges and universities.
By 1925, America had 128 active college radio stations. An almost equal number of non-profit stations were operated by labor unions, religious groups and various civic organizations.Commercial broadcasting also had to defuse substantial public outrage over the growing barrage of advertising directed at radio listeners. Engulfed as we are today with incessant advertising pitches, its difficult to imagine just how intrusive and irritating radio ads were once considered by the American public.Moreover, the networks goal of privatizing Americas public airwaves had to overcome a diverse group of opponents who deeply believed that such an outcome was fundamentally undemocratic and could seriously limit the voices, opinions and issues considered to have a legitimate place on the public agenda. Republicans for Reform The opposition was comprised of Elements of education, labor, religion, the press, civic groups, and the intelligentsia and even included prominent, progressive Republicans such as Frances Payne Bolton, whose husband, Chester Bolton, was a member of Congress, and whose foundation the Payne Fund supported the reform movement with grants totalling $250,000.
Indeed, one party loyalist telegrammed President Herbert Hoover in 1930: The loyal patriotic flag-loving Republicans of this nation are expecting you to direct a policy that will save this nation from becoming the pawns and chattels of the . . . chain monopolies.As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover urged broadcasters to seek alternative sources of funding in order to minimize on-air advertising because the radio listener cannot ignore advertising in which he is not interested. As president, Hoover was embarrassed when radio announcers thanked a tobacco company for granting him time for a speech on Lincolns birthday.Hoover repeatedly criticized the industrys growing reliance on entertainment fare to the exclusion of public affairs and educational programming. And he praised college radio stations as a step toward the realization of the true mission of radio. He called for a 2 percent tax on radio set sales to pay for daily programs of the best skill and talent.Despite opposition, the industry held two powerful trump cards: virtually unlimited capital resources via corporate owners such as RCA, United Fruit Co., General Electric, Westinghouse, AT&T; and a well-oiled and well-funded lobbying and public relations machine. In turn, this double-barrelled clout attracted powerful allies: attorneys, engineers and federal regulators who used Washingtons revolving door to embark on lucrative careers in the industry they were charged to regulate; friendly politicians who enjoyed the prestige and visibility of having their speeches broadcast; friendly print media led by the industry-backed Broadcasting magazine as well as key journalists such as Orrin Dunlap, Jr., the broadcasting editor of the New York Times.Through painstaking research into corporate and government archives as well as the personal papers of a legion of activists, McChesney delivers a blow-by-blow account of how the reformers were unmercifully crushed, with their activities and arguments banished from the historical record.Ironies abound in this battle for broadcasting.
For example, though todays industry generally opposes government regulation (though it was quite willing for Congress to regulate cable TV last year), in the mid-1920s it vigorously lobbied for the establishment of the Federal Radio Commision (later to become the FCC).After packing the FRC with its own lobbyists, the industry used the agency to harass and eventually dismantle the non-profit broadcasting sector. One tactic required non-profit broadcasters to defend their licenses every 90 days before the FRC in Washington. The legal fees incurred plus the onset of the Depression were more than enough to slowly strangle most non-profits. The FRC justified its favoritism toward commercial broad-casters by labellingthem general service stations, while non-profit broadcasters were designated propaganda stations because they served special interests such as labor, religion and education.spend the next several years in expensive litigation before the FRC. The labor station lost every round of hearings, leading one station official to lament: Will the public interest be served by granting all the channels of communication to those who do the employing and denying even one cleared channel of communication to the vast group of employees?Similar tactics were used against WLWL, a New York City station founded by the Paulist Fathers with private donations and dedicated to presenting talks on religious, social and literary subjects and discussions of interest of the present day. When WLWL went on the air Sept. 24, 1925, it was one of Americas 20 most powerful stations.
Just one year later, however, the station was forced to share its 1040 frequency with a station operated from an amusement park in the Bronx. WLWLs frequency was changed twice more in the next nine months. It finally was assigned the 810 frequency, which it was to share equally with commercial station WMCA. Then in December, 1927, the FRC reduced WLWLs broadcasting to just two day-time hours because, like WCFL, it was deemed a special interest enterprise.When WMCA was granted the lions share of the hours, its transmitter was only 500 watts, compared to WLWLs 5,000-watt transmitter. The Paulist Fathers were outraged and urged their listeners to protest the move by writing to the FRC, which received 25,000 letters in one week. When no relief was forthcoming from the FRC, the Fathers began organizing to take their case to Congress.When the battle for broadcasting moved from the FRC to Congress in the early 1930s, broadcast reformers mounted strong but uncoordinated lobbying efforts, which coincided with public disgust at the growing trivialization of the airwaves by advertising-sponsored programming. But the grass-roots reformers were no match for the commercial broadcast lobby, led by NBCs Aylesworth and the industry-funded National Association of Broadcasters. At every critical juncture over the next five years, the broadcast lobby was able to keep the policy debate behind closed-door hearings and out of the public eye.Perhaps the most critical turning point occurred in December, 1933, when the Association of News-paper Publishers of America met with Aylesworth and NAB representatives at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City.The U.S. press had become increasingly disturbed by the rise of radio for two reasons: commercial radio was thought to be draining ad revenues from print media; and the CBS network had begun its own news-gathering operation.
Around-the-clock coverage of the Lindberg baby kidnapping and the 1932 presidential election had especially irked Americas newspaper publishers.Had the press supported the broadcast reform movement with coverage, Aylesworth and the NAB could not have kept the policy battle under wraps. In what became known as the Biltmore agreement, however, the press was mollified when the broadcasters agreed to refrain from news-gathering and to limit newscasts to two daily five-minute bulletins.These morning and evening bulletins were provided by Associated Press for a fee, and were restricted to after 9:30 a.m. and after 9 p.m. (after morning and afternoon newspapers were on the street).The only other powerful ally to whom the reformers could turn was newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite the urgent pleas on behalf of non-profit radio by one of his most trusted advisers, North Carolinas Josephus Daniels, Roosevelt remained silent on the issue of broadcast policy.McChesney believes that given the dire economic crisis of the Great Depression, Roosevelt was reluctant to risk alienating the powerful broadcast networks on whom his access to the American public depended.The battle for control of broadcasting ended with passage of the Communications Act of 1934. The broadcast monopoly had succeed-ed in preserving the status quo and having it codified by law.
The only concession to the broadcast reformers was the vague stipulation that holders of broadcast licenses must serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.Media Reform RevisitedTo McChesneys credit, he maintains a scholarly detachment from his subject throughout the 270 pages of this meticulously researched book. Readers who make it to the books concluding chapter, Rethinking U.S. Broadcasting History, will be rewarded with an insightful commentary on how and why the broadcast reformers were banished from the historical record, and why their experience is relevant today. Their banishment is tied to the unquestioned rule of broadcasting historiography for decades . . . by works sponsored by or affiliated with the commercial broadcasting industry, he writes. Moreover, the hundreds of departments and schools of journalism that sprung up in American colleges and universities were frequently established at the behest of commercial media and rely upon maintaining close and cordial relationships with the commercial media.And with the industrys half-century of success at identifying its interests with those of the First Amendment, says McChesney, Even the most hard-hitting critic tends to pull punches when the legitimacy of the corporate media is challenged. The industry also won the hearts and minds of the public by equating capitalism with the free and equal marketplace, the free and equal marketplace with democracy, and democracy with ‘Americanism.
But this argument may be wearing thin now that TVs vast wasteland has expanded to cable, and public concern about media violence and sensationalism is mounting.Todays media reformers, however, are hamstrung by the fact that U.S. political culture does not permit any discussion of fundamental weaknesses in capitalism, warns McChesney. Moreover, corporate media have encouraged the belief that even the consideration of alternatives was tantamount to a call for totalitarianism.These cultural constraints on thought and expression, he says, have produced an American political culture typified by perhaps the narrowest range of legitimate debate of any democratic nation in the world, with an attendant degree of citizen apathy, cynicism and ignorance that, arguably, is unsurpassed.Thats why the industry permits if not encourages noisy lapdogs like Rush Limbaugh, while systematically excluding voices which might challenge its hegemony. Backed by impeccable scholarship, Robert McChesneys voice deserves to be heard. Media activists and conscientious journalists must workto see that it is.
And todays media reformers must work to find kindred spirits among the progeny of 1920s progressive Republicans who saw that monopolistic control of the media is bad for democracy.The Battle for Control of Broadcasting, 1928-1935 explodes the myth that the radio-TV environment which surrounds us today was produced by some natural evolution of the airwaves nurtured by the inherently demo-cratic free market. This realization is especially relevant as Congress and the FCC make policy for constructing the Information Highway. Just as 65 years ago the industry lobby hid behind the rhetoric that only experts were capable of understanding ‘complex policy issues, todays media managers still work to keep the preponderance of the American people ignorant of their right to dictate broadcasting policy.In 1776, Thomas Paine noted that a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it the superficial appearance of being right. Its the duty of the media scholars, educators and conscientious journalists, concludes McChesney, to relentlessly debunk the myths that provide a buttress for the existing media and social structure."
(This article first appeared in slightly different form in the August, 1994 issue of Progressive magazine. "Telecommunica-tions, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935" is available for $15.95 in paperback from Oxford University Press by calling 800-451-7556.)