"We now have a colossal irony. Politicians sell access to something we own: our government. Broadcasters sell access to something we own: our public airwaves."

Minow's statement with the Gore Commission report
We take baby steps when giant strides are called for

Chicago attorney Newton Minow, a former chairman of the FCC, PBS and WTTW, wrote this separate statement as a member of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. It was printed in the committee's report Dec. 18, 1998, and reprinted in Current, Dec. 21, 1998

By Newton N. Minow

Howard Stern's new television show featured Stern shaving a young woman's pubic area. Have our broadcast standards descended to a level where public interest is confused with pubic interest?

Our assignment was to search for the meaning of the public interest in digital broadcasting. Will digital television only bring us clearer, brighter pictures of Howard Stern? Is it to bring us better, sharper sounds of Jerry Springer's bleeps and punches? Or can the public interest amount to more?

When digital channels became available, police wanted to use them for public safety. Firefighters wanted to use them to save lives. Schools and libraries wanted to use them for education. Hospitals wanted them for better health. Then, broadcasters decided they wanted them for digital television: to make more money.

Our government said no to the police. No to the firefighters. No to the schools and libraries. No to the hospitals. And yes to the broadcasters. A gift--exclusive use of precious public property worth an estimated value up to $70 billion.

One wise public official, Sen. Robert Dole--then Senate majority leader--objected. Sen. Dole said, "We don't give away trees to newspaper publishers. Why should we give away more airwaves to broadcasters?" Sen. Dole wanted broadcasters to pay for spectrum, just like everybody else. He asked why should we give away a national resource that could be worth as much as $70 billion? Think of giving Yosemite to the Coca Cola Corp. Nobody listened. Congress did add a tardy reminder that those receiving such a generous gift from the public have a responsibility, in exchange for this gift, to serve the public interest. Our Advisory Committee was then created to try to figure out whether this means anything in the digital age.

Years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) developed an excellent Code of Standards for television. Some in government foolishly objected to the Code, attacked it in court as a violation of antitrust law and stopped this worthwhile effort. The Code does not exist today. Members of our Committee asked the NAB if it would revive the Code, provided Congress exempted it from the antitrust law. No, things are just fine without the Code, was the answer. The marketplace is the solution.

If the marketplace is the solution, broadcasters should want the digital channels to be auctioned. The NAB said a different kind of auction is the solution to dangerous problems in our electoral process. This is an auction where candidates for public office buy back the public airwaves from broadcasters. We finished the most expensive off-year political campaign in American history, with the lowest voter turnout in 50 years. Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on television advertising. Yet the NAB argues that television's unique capacity to use the public airwaves to inform and enlighten us should be left only to a marketplace auction. A senator must raise $25,000 a week in fundraising throughout his term to participate in the broadcaster auction for campaign commercials. This puts us in the company of only two other countries in the world which do not require public service television time in political campaigns, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Other countries do better. British broadcasting in political campaigns serves the public interest, The British system grants political parties, by law, public service time on radio and television in the three- or four-week period before the election. The parties have complete freedom to make their cases; smaller parties receive time on an equitable basis. There is no sale or purchase of broadcast time, no money is involved. The campaign is mercifully short, and the voters are well informed. Indeed, because the campaign programs are simulcast on all channels, there is ample political discussion for the voters.

Digital broadcast licenses should not be awarded without a broadcaster's explicit commitment to provide public service time in campaigns and not to sell time. We now have a colossal irony. Politicians sell access to something we own: our government. Broadcasters sell access to something we own: our public airwaves. Both do so, they tell us, in our name. By creating this system of selling and buying access, we have a campaign system that makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things, a system that we do not want, that corrupts and trivializes public discourse, and that we have the power and the duty to change.

Objectors to this idea claim it would violate the First Amendment. Can Congress constitutionally require broadcasters to provide time? Sen. John McCain is a courageous man who suffered four years of torture as a war prisoner in Vietnam, four years to reflect on democracy and freedom. Sen. McCain said: "Let me go back to the First Amendment thing. What the broadcasters fail to see, in my view, is that they agree to act in the public interest when they use an asset that is owned by the American public. ... I have never been one who believes in government intervention, but I also believe that when you agree to act in the public interest--and no one forced them to do that--you are then obligated to carry out some of those obligations. ... If I want to start a television station, I've got to get a broadcasting license. And that broadcasting license entails my use of something that's owned by the American public. So I reject the thesis that the broadcasters have no obligation. And if they believe that there is no obligation, then they shouldn't sign the statement that says they agree to act in the public interest. Don't sign it, OK?"

Senator McCain is right.

Our valiant co-chairmen, Norman Ornstein and Leslie Moonves, tried to bring our diverse group to consensus. But the price paid for this laudable effort to accommodate conflicting views left us with a low common denominator at a time when we need a broader vision equal to the promise of new digital channels. Today we take only timid, baby steps when we should take giant strides to match the giant leaps offered by this most promising technology. Our grandchildren will one day regret our failure to meet one of the great communications opportunities in the history of democracy.

Those broadcasters who do not want to serve the public interest in this way have an easy alternative. If they are unwilling to accept the privilege of exclusive use of valuable public property in exchange for public service, they can turn back the digital channels. They can be auctioned off for many billions of dollars, and the money can be earmarked for education. This is what our nation did in the last century in the Morrill Act, when we sold public lands and used some of the money to build our great land-grant universities. Or they can be reassigned. The police, firefighters, schools and libraries, and hospitals are still standing in line.

Since the dawn of civilization, each generation has believed that from those to whom much has been given, much is required in return. Future generations who look back at the dawn of digital television will decide that our generation believed that from those to whom much has been given, nothing much is required in return.


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Related story: White House DTV advisory panel issues its report, December 1998.


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