Most of these reform efforts ultimately were defeated or fell short, largely at the hands of red-baiting. Reformers were charged with “BBC-izing” American radio, an argument made plausible by the convenient fact that the Blue Book’s primary author was Charles Siepmann, one of the BBC’s early programming directors. Conservatives and commercial broadcasters accused the FCC of having socialist sympathies, and incessantly attacked Durr and Siepmann. By the end of the decade the Red Scare had taken its toll; few reformers remained in positions of influence, and many were now blacklisted and scattered across the country. If anti-communist hysteria hadn’t shifted the political landscape we may have a very different media system today. At the very least, the libertarian assumption that government had little legitimacy in shielding a media system from undue commercial pressures might not have triumphed. Beyond revisiting roads not taken, a number of contemporary parallels can be drawn from this history.
Today, millions of Americans are engaging with technical policy issues like net neutrality, whose loss could fundamentally change the nature of the Internet by creating fast and slow lanes.
Beyond threats to an open Internet, America’s broadband speeds and prices are atrocious when compared to many other democratic nations. The “digital divide,” which sounds like a throwback to the 1990s, is still a major problem in the United States. In a series of “FDR moments,” President Obama has confronted some of these challenges, making two dramatic YouTube interventions in recent months and pledging to promote a free, open, and fast Internet in his State of the Union address. But if history is any lesson, reforming our media system will require continued public pressure from below, and not just from political elites. And it will require removing the intellectual and ideological constraints that prevent our government from taking on media monopolies. Policy battles from the 1940s suggest that media corporations cannot simply be shamed into being good.
With old problems affecting new media, Americans sit at a crossroads. Like in the 1940s, again there is concern over whether a revolutionary medium will fulfill its democratic promise or instead be dominated by commercial interests. Again we are facing the insurmountable market power of enormous monopolies over our media infrastructure. And again we are looking to the FCC to defend the “public interest.” Can this quaint-sounding principle survive into the digital age?
Unlike in the 1940s, we are not in the throes of a Red Scare, but market fundamentalism still prevails in Washington. The question remains: Can we rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture? The former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has called the net neutrality decision expected next month “The Biggest FCC Vote Ever.” How this debate plays out may determine whether we follow the path of broadcasting or begin to create a media system worthy of its democratic promise.