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This is a federal case a weekly show that takes up an issue of. The Federal Communications Commission or the FCC as it's called in Washington may sound like one of those complicated federal agencies you read about once in a while that does something rather vaguely but essentially doesn't matter a whole lot. Well if that's all you know about this particular commission you're right in the sense it is a federal agency only it's responsible to the Congress not the president. It is complicated. It's supposed to do a lot of things in the field of quote communications in this country. And finally most of the things it is done for 35 years now have been pretty big. It's a commission which it would be fair to say has not had much influence over your lives in this half hour we're going to find out what the FCC is
supposed to be doing exactly and we're going to hear two guys talking about a lot more than granting broadcast licenses to radio and TV stations. They don't have a lot in common yet they are both members of this seven man commission and they both decide a lot of matters which could be very important to you. Even if they haven't been in the past. Robert E. Lee used to be an FBI man for a long while he's been on the commission. He's a very pleasant sweet guy you probably didn't like being interviewed much but who tried to be honest and do the best he could. Nicholas Johnson is a fairly young guy who used to be a law professor and was appointed to the commission by Lyndon Johnson. In fact along with some Japanese knickknacks he has a couple of large pictures hanging on his office wall of himself and his family standing with the former president. He gets interviewed a lot because he's supposed to be the most outspoken member of this group. So he's pretty smooth in his answers. But these two men are different in more ways than their
men are and their background. They have contrasting views of the role of radio and television which inevitably affects their decisions on broadcasting matters within the FCC. First listen to Commissioner Lee give a quick rundown of the general duties of this particular commission. We have had delegated authority from Congress to administer all interstate communications by wire or radio. And this was is comprised in the Communications Act of 1934 a very comprehensive piece of legislation that at that time took all of the functions in government with respect to communications and put them under this one agency. And in those 35 odd years the act has remained basically the same there been a number of amendments. We are supposed to do what Congress does not have time to do and a more
specific way. We have some 8000 broadcast stations and we have to license them every three years. In that case we have hundreds of thousands of mobility users truckers taxi cabs and so on. We have to keep everybody on the right frequency and see that they perform in the manner prescribed which is generally phrased in terms of the public interest that public interest phrase has been around as long as the commission has been in existence. And its probably the most confusing and misused term there is. Its become a great tag on programming in the public interest. The question has always been whose public interest if you favor a public interest that means a great deal of freedom for the broadcaster and the networks to do what they want. You're likely to be a pretty quiet you know active member of this commission. If on the other
hand you're for the public interest of the people who watch TV and listen to the radio you've got to be more active. Listen first to Robert Lee and then Nicholas Johnson explaining where they fall on the political spectrum. Probably the. Most conservative member of the commission is myself I've been I've been characterized that way because by and large I believe in the free enterprise system and I don't like government to intrude more than is necessary. I wouldn't construct such a spectrum because I think it's a fruitless kind of futile kind of exercise. This is an era in which ideology is dead and the nation is really divided to the extent that it is between those on the one hand to see that this country has serious ills and want to do something about it. We want to advance we want to
progress and are willing to consider essentially any sensible proposals to that end. And those who don't particularly care are happy with what they have who just want to have more personal money and personal pleasure themselves to be interested in solving problems. Nicholas Johnson may be quibbling a bit there. If you take an active role and want to see a lot of new changes to make a better world you're generally considered a liberal. Likewise Commissioner Johnson is credited with making the whole FCC a more activist organization in the last year. But listen to what firstly and then Johnson say when I asked them about the commission itself changing. The most famous aspect of the Federal Communications Commission until now anyway has been the fact that they grant broadcast licenses to various stations and until very recently the FCC has been considered rather passive.
But in the last year your image as a commission has changed a little bit. I know you happy about that. No I'm not I'm not particularly happy about it until very recently the FCC is being been called rather passive organization yet last year it's provoke some controversy its image is changed a little bit. Why. Oh gee I don't know. Its image has changed or that if it hasn't there's any easily observable reason I think that the the FCC tends to respond to pressure and what people have discovered is that it will respond to good pressure as well as evil pressure. Now I go on to elaborate about the role of the FCC as they see it and demonstrate their positions better than I could describe them to you. Here is Commissioner Lee. We have been re knowing the license broadcasters stations
over the years when we make a finding that they have done a good job. They have programs in the public interest and from time to time that hasn't been very many we have taken licenses away. We have a new trend that you're alluding to. Local groups are putting applications together at renewal time and actually contesting the existing operation. And we have a bill in Congress that Senate Senator passed story is sponsoring that he hopes will discourage this practice he maintains that if we are doing our job here at the FCC and this station is not performing in the public interest we have all the authority we need to take the station away from them and then open it up to all groups and anyone who want to he feels and I rather agree with him that it's not fair for a new group to suddenly show up and contest your license and make promises
of the things they will do that make the existing operator look less than the best man to have the license but it's easy to promise and it's quite another thing to do. To build that tower and buy all that equipment these broadcast stations are not all that profitable. Television in the very large markets of course does as very well and some of them phenomenally. But there's a big investment in it and there are a lot of stockholders and I just don't think it's fair to without very good reason. Take the station away from that existing operation and give it to somebody who has not been tested and the experience the critics would say that set up all stories Bill would essentially free use the present owners of television stations present holders at the life. Yeah well it certainly would be a big step toward toward more stability. I think that we would
have under that bill. Very few contests so you see me meant what he said about favoring private enterprise. He wants to let the stations alone. He doesn't see television as that enormously powerful and not even particularly profitable for the most part. But Nicholas Johnson is at a different place. He sees citizen groups as a good development anythings television is immensely powerful and not responsible enough. I don't think the FCC has changed very much. I think it still blows with the wind and the wind is just coming from a little different direction. Citizens groups all across the country are beginning to realize that it is they after all who own the airwaves not the broadcasters the broadcasters like an elected public official in this day and reelection every three years he runs on his record as the United States Court of Appeals has said. The public has not only the right but in a sense the obligation to participate in the license renewal
process. All the licenses come up for Reno at the same time in every community in this country. That is to say within each community that they come up at the same time. And I think people are becoming more and more mindful of the tremendous impact that television and radio especially television have upon our society largely sets our national agenda. What issues we think are important and the conceptual set we bring to those issues is largely determined by the mass media. What information we get about them what opinions we have largely determined by the mass media and by this I mean everything on television the commercials the entertainment programs have if anything an even greater impact on our understanding of the world about us than the in the so-called documentaries and news programs. Television helps to give us our our sense of relationship to members of our own family.
The relationship between men and women. Our moral values are aesthetic séance our feelings about material possessions the values in our own lives. All these things are affected very heavily by television whether or not we watch because we don't watch our friends and neighbors and others do. At least this is a nation which is most of the things that people do in this country and watch television. Aside from working and sleeping the thing that takes up most of the time is watching television. That's what America does it watches television and it becomes largely what is on the television screen. And as Mason Williams says that television does to people's minds what the business does to the land. A lot of people already think like New York City looks. And I think as people
become more mindful of this tremendous power and responsibility that television has they tend to become more sensitive to the extent to which it's failing to meet their responsibility as that which is really to use that constructive way as they discover that they have rights in this regard of their power and they have a way of influencing the role of television you're tending to want to exercise that. Now you hear me ask first Commissioner Lee and then Commissioner Johnson. How much responsibility they think the FCC should take in questions of programming. They both will mention something called the Red Line case that was a Supreme Court decision handed down in June of this year. It was prompted by a suit that was brought by the Red Lion Broadcasting Company. The decision said that the broadcaster should not only allow time for the typical controversial issue of public importance but that the broadcaster has a wide range of program obligations social
political as Thetic and moral. I know you don't get into questions of programming in this commission except to say that broadcast stations should probably have a public interest. But there's been a lot of talk about the public interest not really being served by giving that works of stations total freedom really. How do you feel about that. Well I think again I don't like government to get into the programming area but there are some things happening that may get us into it a little more than we have in the past. The wars were two decisions in the Supreme Court. One called the Red Line Broadcasting System and the other was the Radio Television News Directors and the opinions of the Supreme Court would tend to give us as I read them more authority in the programming area than I thought I had. And if we find
more and more abuses I suppose it's possible that we might get into some programming control and I don't buy that I don't mean I don't think we'll ever get into a specific program unless it's it's pornographic indecent. I was seen but barring that I don't think we would ever look at a particular program. We might set standards some day that you have to carry 5 percent NOS or 10 percent. So much public service and just set up the arithmetical figures as I read these two decisions I think the authority is probably there or whether or not we exercise it. It will depend I suppose on how well the industry does themselves. But you know it's both again impressions and programming. The commission ranks have to say that the station should program in the public interest. But there's really no talk that the public interest isn't being served by giving
stations and networks a lot of freedom. Right. How do you know that. Well no I think that they ought to have freedom but I think that with freedom and with power goes great responsibility. There are many ways of getting involved in programming the big broadcasting establishment would like to have the people believe that whatever the chairman comes down here and opens the door in the morning that that somehow is a violation of the First Amendment that obviously is nonsense. There is no one who has ever been at the FCC certainly no one who was here an hour was widely to be appointed in the future who has the slightest desire to say monitor programs before they are put out over the air. That would clearly be censorship. I think this commission has bent over backwards to avoid getting involved in journalistic judgments for example. We're quite sensitive to the tremendous. The Hortons are staying out of their programming judgment in that sense
but the fairness doctrine the requirement that if you put on one side of a controversial issue you have an obligation but on another side that by no stretch of the imagination can that be viewed as a violation of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court so held the readline case of course it's not or the requirement that the source of advertising has to be identified over the years by the requirement you can't have lotteries over the most latest ones down to the requirement level service. I see no problem whatsoever with the first amendment prohibiting say that a station that is going to function locally has to serve the whole community. And this establishing percentages of its programming that have to be local in origin or local and in purpose. Another kind of percentage approach we could use that I've proposed recently is that we require all network affiliates which is another way of saying all that work. We
require all networks to program in such a way that at any given hour in the evening during prime time. The viewer has a choice between one channel that has on non sponsored programming you want to characterize it by care class you could call it educational cultural public affairs and basically be anything that we're going to put on just beyond sponsor the other two channels would have available that present the lowest common denominator commercially Laden fare. Mason Williams says television esthetically starts at the bottom and spreads out well two channels that really ought to be enough. I'm seeing a proposal before have you gotten any any response from the network. This is why there hasn't been any great enthusiasm from the institutional broadcaster. Now a question about Walter Cronkite reads each of them off into a discussion of how they
see broadcast news and whether it's good or bad. Robert Lee says once again he hopes government stays out of this. He wouldn't change anything. The responsibility is with the broadcasters. Even on the TV violence issue. Walter Cronkite said recently that he's not influenced at all by politicians or advertisers or his network staff over anything that he says or he does not if you shout you think he's right. Yes I'd be very much surprised if a man of Cronkite's character took orders from somebody as to what he should broadcast I think we all have certain biases in us and maybe we might feel stronger about one thing or another and I suppose it's possible to emphasize the point you would like more than the others but we here in looking at Lewis we've had we've had cases come before us where they alleged bias in
the reporting of the nose and generally speaking we give a great deal of latitude to the station and the broadcaster because we we feel even if there was some occasional bias the price you pay to squelch this freedom of speech would be too much you. I see programs news programs. But I feel from my point of view maybe I have a shade of bias and that maybe the fellow smiling bigger and something bad knows that I might disagree with but certainly there's no pattern and I hope the government stays out. If a man broadcast the wrong story with some intent or malice we'd expect him to be fired. We all think the government should serve the people written books like Robert MacNeil to be friendly. I would not have suggested that the economic interests of their network chiefs have kept them from putting on a lot of news programs and that the Fred Friendly sides the classic example of running I Love Lucy during the Fulbright hearings
to what extent do you think this goes I don't think it's it's very much somebody has to make a judgment on some of those things when the licensee is the proper person or people like friendly they would be in a position on I would give considerable credence to what what he said. I didn't read the book but you know I think you'll notice as you as you travel around in this area that everybody is an expert of sorts with respect to television programming you know it's so abstract that you look at a program and say this is a good program this is a bad program. This is your judgement somebody else has to decide what's going to please the greatest number of people so they can sell the advertising. We're hearing a lot about crime and violence I'm no I'm no psychologist and I saw a recent report from this violence committee that said that there was a connection between seeing violence and going out and committing crimes not
just the eminent doctors have found this to be a fact. I am disturbed. I never really thought it was and I think my opinion on looking at violence on television for example is that most good stories have some violence in them and if they're properly labeled I don't think it would affect anyone but a sick mind I guess. In this report I notice that the studies are based on. Oh 1967 and a program as I recall and they made clear in the report that the networks at least are taking steps to play this down and that it is better now than it was and maybe it's not good enough. I looked at some of the kid's cartoons they're supposed to be terribly violent and well they are but they're a little hard for me to say I don't know if they'll tell you that your little child watching somebody hit somebody else over the head is going to hit her daughter with this and that. I just was not that
far. Nicholas Johnson is not as relaxed or as optimistic or is willing to leave everything up to the broadcaster. He has a beat he says and he would change some things. I heard Walter Cronkite say recently that as far as he's concerned his daily new show is totally free in the sense that there he doesn't get influenced by his big network executives and he doesn't get influenced by his advertisers or politicians or anything else. But he's right. Well this is a very complex question and it's very easy to be misinterpreted in terms of the concerns that I've expressed. The principal thing that I find objectionable in terms of the television networks refusal to serve their responsibilities is the very smaller amount of programming that they put on in prime time which is after all in most of the people who are watching who are watching
the small proportion that is relevant to life in modern society that deals with the real Islam in any way whatsoever that pretends to any kind of aesthetic standards that is involved with the standards of taste your behavior and values that we would view to be desirable. Makes any contribution to the lives of the people who are watching television leaves about 100 million Americans dead in the water every night. Walk me you know something's gone and a life in this country or what's gone out of it is what television is has come in to replace. That's my principal objection to the sort of television set that's a form of censorship. I mean if if if you're playing recorded video music while your own room is burning that's a form of censorship. You're not telling people what's going on you're not telling them what's relevant to their lives. You know
in war crime kind of funny but he's not in primetime himself. And you look at that hundred hours of prime time every week the three networks put out and how much of it it was really of any help to anybody. Most of it's designed to sell people products they don't need but they don't want that are going to that are you know going to break or or some other way not be useful to them once they get them. And it going to cost them or they don't have to pay for it and are promising people that they're going to somehow live a fuller and richer life as a result of purchasing the product and it's not going to happen once they get it and they're going to be even more discouraged and depressed and they are now it's just that it's not reform unity in any useful national purpose so Brenner that comes up because there is a conspiracy of man you need in say you know what can we plug up prime time with so that none of the factual information will get out or not. It's kind of beside the point. The fact is that ours is
principle a government of the people by the corporations for the rich and that whether the decision was deliberately made to keep the people ignorant with the programming in prime time is kind of aside the point the consequence of the programming that is being put out tends to support the economic engines of big business. Maybe it was an accident. I'm willing to concede that's possible but that's the result and nobody can deny it. Now that constitutes 90 percent of my complaint about television. Now for the 10 percent that relates to what the network news is and what it might be I think I should say that in the first place the guys I know with the network news departments are very professional or very competent they're dedicated they're intelligent they work hard and they're trying to do good job. My complaint is not within. My complaint is with their bosses the guys are not given him any
time. Not given the resources they want watercraft you quoted more crap. He said We have not even yet dipped our toe into investigative reporting. That's him that's not Nick Johnson or Fred Friendly was formerly head of CBS News. His book you know certainly it's beyond our control. Talks about the pressures that limit what the news departments that's might be. Now there are a great many issues these men could have gotten into that their commission is currently dealing with like pay TV and cigarette advertising and satellites and cable television. We didn't have time. But essentially the difference between the views of these two commissioners suggest the tension within the FCC itself. It suggests why you may not have heard much about this commission in the past and why you were beginning to hear more now. Both men would say they are interested in freedom in radio and television but it comes down to whose freedom you're
fighting for. Lee wants to allow the industry freedom and Johnson wants the public to have free access to information. Lee's position used to be the dominant one of the FCC for the moment. It isn't so much. But the president has just named a new conservative FCC Chairman Dean Birch who used to be head of the Republican National Committee and Nicholas Johnson has been challenged recently by a number of broadcasting groups for serving the public interest. A little too vigorously. It may well be that this commission which has been trying hard in the last year to help the people in the country become more informed may once again sort of sink into oblivion in the near future. This has been a federal case. Your correspondent this program was distributed by the national educational radio network.
A Federal Case
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National Educational Radio Network
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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"A Federal Case" is a weekly program produced by the National Educational Radio Network which examines current political topics in the United States and Washington, D.C. Each episode features interviews with experts, members of the public, and lawmakers concerning a specific issue of government.
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Politics and Government
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Producing Organization: National Educational Radio Network
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University of Maryland
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Duration: 00:29:30
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