Windows on a Vast Wasteland
(Excerpts from Chapter 9, Revolutions in Communication)

As the central source of information and entertainment since the 1950s, television has reflected and shaped the hopes and fears of the age.  From its crude beginnings in the 1920s, television electronics rapidly improved with color, high definition, cable and satellite delivery systems in the late 20th century. Through this electronic cornucopia came stories of conflict and reconciliation, reports of war and peace, parades of comically low-brow stuff, and, occasionally, works of genius…

The popular myth is that television of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected a golden age of a prosperous and contented time in American life.  Yet the same complaints once vented about radio were heard once again, with more force, about television, including the lack of quality, over-commercialization of the public airwaves, under-representation of minorities and the unwillingness of the networks to sacrifice any profits to the public interest in return for their use of a public resource….  And yet, television also provided a platform for some of the most brilliant moments in democracy in the 20th century.

Confrontation on Television: Murrow and McCarthy

The most important global political development of the 1940s and 50s was the start of the “cold war” between the former allies who fought fascism in Europe and the Pacific. One the one hand, Russia and China had embraced a totalitarian ideology that suppressed dissent, freedom of speech and free elections. On the other hand, western democracies, including the US, France, Britain and the Commonwealth nations, were determined to preserve individual human rights and free market economies.

Communism was not popular in the US, but the reaction to the external Soviet military threat grew into a media-fueled national witch hunt in the postwar years. One of the first of episodes was the 1947 investigation of communist influence in Hollywood movies by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as we have seen in Ch. 5. While no actual communist conspiracy was found, the political atmosphere had become highly partisan.

Amid growing tension, a relatively unknown US Senator named Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) catapulted to national fame in February 1950 when he claimed to have a list of Communist spies operating in the US State Department. The reckless accusations were widely repeated in the media, but a Senate investigation led by democrats that year labeled McCarthy’s charges a “fraud and a hoax.” The committee said that McCarthy’s charges did nothing but “confuse and divide the American people […] to a degree far beyond the hopes of the Communists themselves.” Republicans backed McCarthy and responded to the committee report with accusations of treason.

Radio and print media exposure fueled McCarthy’s continued accusations during the early 1950s. Specific accusations were usually made from the safety of the Senate floor. But two major instances of television exposure dramatically changed public opinion about the corpulent, beetle-browed senator, in part because few had ever seen McCarthy up close or heard his arguments for more than a few minutes at time.

McCarthy’s first major television exposure involved 32 days of Senate hearings concerning charges that McCarthy had used his influence to obtain favors for friends in the Army. During April 1954, ABC television carried the hearings live from the US Senate, and many previous charged by McCarthy about spies in the Pentagon were exposed as fabrications that damaged innocent individuals. The high point of the hearings was the moment when the legal counsel for the US Army responded to a McCarthy charge by saying: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The second instance of extended television exposure was a classic confrontation between a journalist and a politician. CBS news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, famed for his radio reports from London during World War II, had made the transition to television with a program called “See it Now.” In one episode of “See it Now,” Murrow told the story of a young Air Force officer named Milo Radulovich who had been classified as a security risk simply because his sister and father read a Serbian-language newspaper. In another, Murrow focused on McCarthy himself and the lack of substance behind most of his allegations.

Murrow concluded:   “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men….”

McCarthy demanded equal time, and Murrow was happy to oblige, turning over the entire half hour program. McCarthy directly attacked Murrow for friendships with left-of-center figures and supposed ties to communist groups. With no evidence and astonishing bluster, McCarthy exposed himself as a political bully. Conservatives with genuine concerns about communism began to see him as a liability, and in December, 1954, the US Senate passed a motion to censure Sen. McCarthy. He died in 1957, abandoned by his party and his supporters.

Murrow, hailed as a champion of free speech, also came to be regarded as a liability by CBS network executives. News stories about cigarettes and lung cancer, about segregation and schools, about apartheid in South Africa were controversial. Some entertainment-oriented higher-ups thought Murrow was trying to “save the world every week.” (Friendly, 1967).

In 1956, “See it Now” lost its sole sponsor (Alcoa Aluminum) and was transformed into an irregularly scheduled documentary series. By 1958 the program had been taken off the air. Simple controversy was one problem, another factor was the profitability of easily produced quiz and game shows on other networks in adjacent time slots. “It was as though an highly successful amusement park had gone up across the street from a school, said CBS producer Fred Friendly. “Suddenly the property values had changed.” (Friendly, p. 77)

Murrow went on to work in the Kennedy Administration as head of the US Information Agency. When he died in 1965 of lung cancer, a colleague said “We shall live in his afterglow a very long time… we shall not see his like again.” (Emery, p. 369)

The Vast Wasteland

The idea of television as a “vast wasteland” came up in a speech by a newly appointed FCC commissioner Newton Minnow as he addressed an audience of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. The phrase became a cliché for television critics who advocated more public interest programming. Minnow said:

  • “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day… until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
  • “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

TV executives worried about the speech, saying that while there was always room for improvement, having the chair of the FCC as their chief critic was uncomfortably close to government censorship. “At what point does criticism become coercion?” asked NBC president Robert Sarnoff in 1961. “Where does freedom leave off and interference begin?” (Dec 8, 1961  NYT  NBC Fears Coercion p 1) Despite the protests, broadcast journalism as a public service expanded greatly by 1962, with over 400 documentaries produced that year by the three networks. (Hilmes, p. 194).  By 1963, the 15-minute evening news programs had expanded to half an hour.

Minnow was happy but not entirely satisfied with the scope of the improvements in public service programming. However, the only tools the FCC had were license revocations (extremely rare) and the ability to encouraging competition. One way to boost competition was to expand the available channels to UHF, and under Minnow, the FCC passed a regulation that new television sets would have to be capable of picking up the higher-frequency channels. Many of these independent television stations would, by the 1970s, be linked together in satellite and cable television systems that Minnow also championed.

Another form of competition was the introduction of a public education channel.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was first authorized in 1967, and PBS went on the air in 1970…

Civil Rights and television 

Television was the medium that the Civil Rights movement needed to get its message to the American people.  As we have seen in Ch. 4, gruesome photographs of Southern brutality (such as the body of  Emmett Till) had been widely circulated in the 1950s and earlier. Yet nothing caught the conscience of the world like the televised images of   snarling police dogs turned on demonstrating children in Birmingham, AL, or the cruel clubbing of civil rights demonstrators amid clouds of tear gas at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Montgomery, AL on March 7, 1965…

At a time when American soldiers were fighting Communism in Vietnam, the images of domestic suppression flashing around the world were deeply embarrassing for administration of President Lyndon Johnson. A renewed commitment to Civil Rights, and national legislation stiffening laws against voter intimidation, were among the direct results of the new awareness brought about by television.

“The ascendancy of television as the new arbiter of public opinion became increasingly apparent at this time to civil rights leaders and television news directors alike,” according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Ironically, the television audiences in the South were being kept in the dark, even though they were not far from where events were taking place. Many southern TV stations routinely cut network feeds of civil rights coverage, often pretending that they were having technical difficulties.  This was not unusual for the press. Newspapers were neutral or quite often hostile to Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and usually omitted wire service coverage of Civil Rights issues unless there was a white “backlash” angle.  (Important exceptions included the Atlanta Constitution or the Greenville, MS, Delta Democrat-Times).

While newspaper publishers were free to do as they pleased under the First Amendment, broadcasters had an obligation to fairness under Fairness Doctrine, and their station licenses were controlled by the federal government. Broadcasting offered more opportunity to force change than the print media.

The WLBT – United Church of Christ case

Beginning in 1954, a group of Civil Rights activists began studying the pattern of racially biased news and public affairs programming.  The Jackson, Miss. Chapter of the NAACP filed repeated complaints with the FCC about one particularly racist television station, WLBT in Jackson. Requests for a public hearing when the station license came up over the years were consistently turned down by the FCC.

In May, 1963, the pressure led WLBT to make one small concession – they allowed a charismatic Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, on the air to speak about the need to end segregation. Three weeks later he was assassinated at his home in Jackson.

Around this same time, the United Church of Christ, a liberal national church from the Congregational tradition, met with Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and others to work on methods for challenging the southern broadcast media. Dr. Everett Parker, a professor at Yale Divinity School, became involved because he had developed a method of content analysis that would hold up under the FCC review process.

“I really looked at stations throughout the (region), from New Orleans to the East Coast, and found that it was a very bad situation,” he said in a 2008 interview. “When Thurgood Marshall won the Brown v. Board of Education and was on NBC, [WLBT] put up a sign — ‘Sorry, cable trouble’ — and blamed it on the telephone company. But anyway, I hit on WLBT, simply because of the terrible things that it was doing.” (Goodman, 2008).  WLBT also blacked out an award-winning three-hour NBC documentary on Civil Rights, “The American Revolution 1963.”

When WLBT applied for what it thought would be a routine renewal of its broadcasting license in 1964, the church and a coalition of civil rights leaders formally challenged the license. They charged that the station blacked out nationally-produced civil rights news about nearby events; had promoted race-hating points of view without balance or regard for the Fairness Doctrine; and refused to feature African American speakers in any context, even on Sunday morning church service broadcasts.

The WLBT response was typical for stations whose licenses were challenged: It ginned up a list of all its public service activities from its log books, including service to the African American community.  Usually complaints would stop at this point, and in effect be buried in red tape. But the coalition had an ace up its sleeve– it responded that the station’s log books were highly inaccurate, and presented evidence from Parker’s content analysis, which had been kept secret up until that point.

(The back story behind the content analysis group is that white faculty members at nearby Millsaps College kept detailed logs and recordings of WLBT’s programs, meeting in secret, and keeping their names confidential so that Parker could not reveal their identities in case he was captured by the white power structure of Mississippi. “Don’t forget, this was almost immediately after the murder of Medgar Evers,” Parker told an interviewer.)

In a formal hearing, the FCC denied the United Church of Christ “standing” in the case, meaning that they had no right to argue in front of the FCC.  Without remarking on the facts of the case, the FCC renewed the WLBT license for one year. Usually, the bureaucratic procedure at this point is for the station to show evidence that it was mending its ways, but the WLBT management had a deep ideological commitment to segregation and remained defiant.  (Horowitz, 1997).

The church appealed the decision to a federal court, but the attorneys did not really expect to win both the case and the much larger battle over FCC’s regulatory procedure. Yet in 1966, the appeals court ruled that the FCC would conduct public hearings on the license and that the citizens would have standing before the FCC. The court decision, written by Judge Warren Burger (who would later become the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) eloquently restated the longstanding tradition of broadcast regulation:

“A broadcaster is not a public utility … but neither is it a purely private enterprise like a newspaper or an automobile agency. A broadcaster has much in common with a newspaper publisher, but he is not in the same category in terms of public obligations imposed by law. A broadcaster seeks and is granted the free and exclusive use of a limited and valuable part of the public domain; when he accepts that franchise it is burdened by enforceable public obligations. A newspaper can be operated at the whim or caprice of its owners; a broadcast station cannot. After nearly five decades of operation the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty… Under our system, the interests of the public are dominant. The commercial needs of licensed broadcasters and advertisers must be integrated into those of the public. Hence, individual citizens and the communities they compose owe a duty to themselves and their peers to take an active interest in the scope and quality of the television service which stations and networks provide and which, undoubtedly, has a vast impact on their lives and the lives of their children… The 1964 renewal application (for WLBT) might well have been routinely granted except for the determined and sustained efforts of Appellants  (the church coalition) at no small expense to themselves. Such beneficial contribution as these Appellants, or some of them, can make must not be left to the grace of the (Federal Communications) Commission.”  (United Church of Christ v FCC, 1966).

The public hearing ordered by the court took place in May, 1967, in a small room in the Post Office because state officials refused access to other public buildings. The room was overflowing with WLBT supporters waving Confederate flags, and the FCC hearing examiner treated the church coalition with obvious contempt.

In the face of this prejudice, Charles Evers told the FCC that he blamed WLBT for the death of his brother Medgar four years beforehand. (Horwitz, 1997). After considering the evidence from the hearing, the FCC commissioners renewed WLBT’s license in a bitterly split 1968 decision. The Court of Appeals was furious, and in a 1969 decision said the FCC’s conduct was “beyond repair.”

In an unprecedented move, the court ordered the FCC to vacate WLBT’s license and hold hearings to consider new applicants.  The coalition organized an integrated group, Communications Improvement Inc., and proposed a unique arrangement in that station profits would go half to public broadcasting in Mississippi and half to Tougaloo College in order to teach African American students communications.  The group was awarded the license, although the continuing legal battles would not be resolved until 1983.

The success of this one case in which a license was revoked for public interest reasons did not lead to long-lived reform, said communications scholar Robert B. Horowitz. “The really sobering thought is that the old broadcast reform coalition has clearly collapsed, and a new … conservative movement … seeks to limit standing, curtail the ability of citizens to bring legal actions and diminish public intervention in general.”  It has become increasingly difficult to approach reform with a non-market theory of public interest, he said. (Horwitz, 1997).

Although television’s powerful images of the Civil Rights struggle helped Americans understand its human dimensions, TV coverage of rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and of other riots in Watts, Detroit and Washington, D.C. in the 1960s “provoked a reaction by the end of the decade, marked by the presidential campaign slogans calling for law and order,” said the museum of broadcast Communications. “Consequently, many of the very images that supported the movement simultaneously helped to fuel the national backlash against it.”  (MBC, 2010).

New realities in the global village

As satellite communications began stitching the world together in the 1980s, television and telecommunications had an enormous impact. Two major events were the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the suppression of dissent in China.

In a 2002 interview with Wired Magazine, Lech Walesa said:
“…Rapid development of satellite television and cell phones … helped end communism by bringing in information from the outside. It was possible to get news from independent sources; stations like the BBC (British Broadcasting System) and VOA (Voice of America) were beyond government control. During ’50s and ’60s, the Communist government put people accused of listening to these stations in prison… It’s hard to believe that things like that actually happened from today’s perspective.” (Sheers, 2002).

The possibilities had dawned on many others. Technologies to organize intelligence and communication could be liberating as well as tyrannical. Ithiel de Sola Pool noted this trend in the converging telecommunications industry in Technologies of Freedom, and Ray Kurzweil predicted in 1987 that that the Soviet Union “would be swept away by this growth of decentralized communication.

The technological improvements in communication have not always been welcome, nor have they been without controversy. Perhaps the biggest international controversy over communication involved a 1980 report Many Voices, One World, by a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) chaired by Nobel Laureate Sean MacBride.

The commission said that the communications revolution had created  dangers as well as opportunities. The unequal flow of communication was making developing nations dependent on the cultural products of the industrial west. Centuries-old customs, time-honored cultural practices and simple life styles were being threatened, even as new insights into political freedoms were opening, as would be evident in Tienanmen Square, Beijing, China in 1989.

The one-way flow of information from industrial nations to developing nations was also a problem, the report said. News about the developing world in North American and Europe was dominated by spot reports on disasters and military coups, but the underlying realities and developments were ignored.  One recommendation was for more professional international training for journalists on both sides of the divide between industrial and developing nations. Another recommendation involved protection of journalists and freedom of the press.

Another set of recommendation were that small nations should foster internal media development, have more control over the cultural processes of modernization and find ways to reduce the commercialization of communication. These recommendations amounted to an international theory of social responsibility for the media – a Hutchins Commission report on a larger scale.

But the recommendations, and subsequent proposals for a New World Information and Communication Order were seen as opening the door to increased media regulation by non-democratic nations, and the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers (FIEJ), among others, issued strong denunciations of the NWICO. The US and Britain withdrew from UNESCO in protest in 1984 and 1985 (although they later rejoined in 2003 and 1997, respectively).

The MacBride report’s authors “had the foresight to hope for a kind of “globalization” that, rather than signify divisions among citizens of the world, acknowledged our common humanity,” said Andrew Calabrese in a 25th anniversary article on the report.  “With all of its flaws, for which progressive communication activists understandably have distanced themselves over the past twenty-five years, the MacBride Report projects a spirit of hopefulness about how a better world is possible, (and) about the continued importance of public institutions as means to ensure global justice.” (Calabrese, 2005).

Islamic – Western tensions in the 21st century  

As satellite communications brings cultures together, tensions are inevitable. One of the areas most prone to divisiveness is the representation of Islam in  Western societies with a tradition of free speech and criticism of religion.

Salmon Rushdie, a British-Indian novelist and essayist, was sentenced to death in absentia for his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, which contained a story line that many Muslims believed was blasphemous. As the world moved ever closer, even small incidents provoked violent controversy. In September of 2005, for instance, violent reactions followed news that a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had printed editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in an unfavorable light.  And riots were threatened in 2010 when a Florida minister announced that he planned to burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

New voices from Islamic nations, now available through satellite, may eventually lead to more international understanding, although there has been considerable controversy.  One new satellite news network, Al Jazeera, was founded in Quatar in 1996 and presents news from an Islamic viewpoint.  The network is frequently at odds with conservative US policies, and objections to “incitements to violence” have been made at many levels by US officials. However, Al Jazeera presents  legitimate journalism and is just as controversial in Arab nations.  Moreover, the network has vehemently denied allegations that it showed gruesome videos glorifying terrorist violence.

Another controversy emerged around the joint Chinese-American development the Phoenix satellite system.  The US-based News Corp., headed by publisher Rupert Murdoch, sent the satellite up in 1996. Access was shut down by the Chinese government in 1999, but a Phoenix InfoNews Channel was established in 2001 as a joint venture   with state-owned China Central Television (CCTV). Critics accused Murdoch of bowing to censorship, but his partner in the venture, Chinese businessman Liu Changle, believes that taking a cautious and deliberate approach is best.  “China is opening up step by step,” Liu said. “Opening up news and media should be slower than the overall economy. It will probably be the last to open. We and the Western media should be prepared for this and not expect too much.” (McDonald, 2005).

As Marshall McLuhan observed,  the global village “doesn’t necessarily mean harmony and peace and quiet, but it does mean huge involvement in everybody else’s affairs.”