Educators and the Fight for Public Media

By Stan Karp

“The nature of the U.S. media system,” Robert McChesney writes in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, “is the result of a series of political decisions, not natural law or holy mandate.”

By Stan Karp

One key decision was to privatize the airwaves with minimal regulation, a policy consolidated by passage of the Communications Act of 1934. According to McChesney, “The single most important opponent to commercial broadcasting in the 1930s came from the ranks of education. Educators formed the vanguard of a broadcast reform movement that attempted to establish a U.S. broadcasting system where the dominant sector would be nonprofit and noncommercial … This episode points to a rich and overlooked U.S. tradition of anti-market media criticism provided by educators with a striking commitment to democracy and universal public education.”

The nation’s leading educational philosopher at the time, John Dewey, wrote that “radio is the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen. It can be used to distort facts and to mislead the public mind. In my opinion, the question as to whether it is to be employed for this end or for the social public interest is one of the most crucial problems of the present.” Dewey was strongly opposed to “concentrated capitalist control.” Similarly, in 1931 the National Congress of Parents and Teachers called for the nationalization and decommercialization of radio.

Two groups of education advocates were organized in the years leading up to the passage of the 1934 law to influence the debate about how the emerging broadcast industry should be structured and regulated: the National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER) and the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (NACRE).

The more radical National Committee was supported by the Payne Fund, a small foundation financed by a wealthy, progressive Republican heir to the Standard Oil fortune. It was led by a journalist, Armstrong Perry, who coalesced a group of educators concerned about the impact of commercialization on the new medium. The Committee brought together the National Education Association, the American Council on Education, the National Association of State Universities, and six other national education groups. A former editor of the NEA’s journal, Joy Elmer Morgan, chaired the group.

PRIVATIZATION OF RADIO

For five years, the National Committee campaigned against turning the airwaves over to private control. Morgan declared, “There has never been in the entire history of the United States an example of mismanagement and lack of vision so colossal and far-reaching in its consequences as our turning the radio channels almost exclusively into commercial hands.” The Committee had no faith in the ability of broadcasters to make good on their public service promises. It sought “the complete overthrow of the present system.”

At the same time, the Carnegie Corporation formed the more mainstream National Advisory Council. Its aim was to work with broadcasters to help develop educational and public service programs without challenging private ownership or commercialization. The Council included university presidents and prominent civic officials like Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. While the National Committee attacked broadcast interests for their greed, relations between Advisory Council and the broadcasters were mutually supportive and outwardly cordial. Privately, Council officials complained about the “inane advertising” and poor quality of programming, but they insisted that “the American system is a commercial one” and there could be no serious talk of an alternative.

Interestingly, both groups failed for different reasons. The National Commit-tee proved unable to organize effectively in coalition with other potential allies such as labor unions or religious groups opposed to the status quo. Its lobbying strategies and reform proposals were also vacillating and confused. Rivalry with the Advisory Council played a role in weakening the prospects for a unified campaign for a strong public role in broadcasting along the lines of the powerful BBC in Britain.

The Advisory Council, despite its conciliatory approach, was repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to get broadcasters to make good on their public service promises. Within months after passage of the Communications Act of 1934, the industry started to distance itself from the Council and urged the Carnegie Corporation to pull the plug, which it did in 1937. As McChesney writes, “Al-though the NACRE failed as miserably as the NCER at accomplishing its goal, it did leave a legacy of doing yeoman’s service for the commercial broadcasters when the industry needed such an agency for publication relations purposes.”

Today, this episode resonates across the decades for teachers, who still find themselves struggling with public versus private interests in key areas of education policy, rival organizational agendas, and powerful corporate strategies aimed at penetrating previously noncommercial areas.