Eric Barnouw’s reminder that the commercial market has outrun public interest policy

We know that many in the media reform community believe that they will be able to convince policymakers to create a more democratic electronic media system. But a more pragmatic approach is also required, one based on proactively responding to the array of mergers, acquisitions and venture investment shaping our new media reality. In another words, developing our own new media realities within the framework which has been largely set by all that investment and the development of the basic business model (primarily online advertising). We have always been struck by this analysis from the preeminent historian of U.S. broadcasting, the late Erik Barnouw. In “The Golden Web” (vol. 2 of his three volume history of broadcasting), Barnouw wrote that:

The Communications Act of 1934, re-enacting a 1927 law with only minor changes, was based on a premise that had been obsolete in 1927 and by 1934 was totally invalid: that American broadcasting was a local responsibility exercised by individual station licensees.
The myth held attractions. It dovetailed with the cherished idea of local autonomy in such matters as education. But while the law went on pretending that the autonomy existed in broadcasting, control had been ceded to others—executives at networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors, many of whom had no idea what was in a station license and did not think they had any reason to care.”

In other words, market forces had already shaped broadcasting’s future–even before the ink was dry on the 1934 Act. Something to reflect upon as we engage in work to craft a democratic digital medium.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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