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Public Disinterest

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December 1, 2010

The U.S. postal service is struggling for survival and broadcast airwaves feed hate. How two key information commons, “owned” by citizens, have dammed the flow of communication and birthed Rush Limbaugh.

csuspect575.jpg Photo via Flickr by csuspect

In the beginning, there was the post office. Before the Internet, before cable, before TV, before radio, mail delivery was our major means of mass communication. The founders of the United States understood its importance and deemed that it must be a public institution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7, of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall have Power to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”

Congress wanted the U.S. Post Office to be a monopoly. In 1792, it prohibited the private transmission of any letter or packet “on any established post-road,” as well as the establishment of any competing postal service by foot, horse, vessel, boat, or “any conveyance whatever, whereby the revenue of the general post-office may be injured.”

The Post Office had a broader mission than simply delivering letters—it was dedicated to spreading information as widely as possible.

But the Post Office still had to deal with private companies that found loopholes in these rules. In 1845, in response to private post companies cherry-picking the most profitable big-city routes, Congress closed loopholes and increased penalties for the private delivery of certain types of mail.

This was justified because the Post Office had a broader mission than simply delivering letters—it was dedicated to spreading information as widely as possible. Indeed, the way the Post Office historically set postage rates exhibited its qualities as a commons.

Information in the Public Interest

From the very first, Congress decided that political news was crucial to an informed electorate and a unified nation. The 1792 postal law allowed newspaper printers to send each other newspapers for free, which was important to the flow of information from national and international sources to rural villages. Throughout the early eighteen hundreds, the content of local newspapers consisted largely of national and foreign news stories clipped from other publications. The 1792 law also provided for the mail delivery of newspapers to subscribers at the relatively low rate of one cent for up to a hundred miles or 1.5 cents for more than a hundred miles. This policy led Alexis de Tocqueville to observe on his eighteen thirties tour of the United States that “nothing is easier than to set up a newspaper, as a small number of subscribers suffices to defray the expenses. In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper.”

This special rule for newspapers slowly grew into the broader discounted rate classification of second-class mail, which expanded to cover other types of materials that the Post Office recognized as having educational and cultural benefits. Eventually, periodical pamphlets, magazines, nonprofit publications, library materials, and books were included.

The Post Office’s goal was not only to inform and unite the nation, but to strengthen local communities. In 1845, Congress granted free delivery for weekly newspapers within thirty miles of the place of publication. In 1852, Congress allowed small newspapers and magazines circulating in the state of publication to be mailed for half the regular rates.

From the very start, the Post Office charged more for advertising mailings. In the early twentieth century, when magazines and newspapers were turning into advertising vehicles, Congress devised a creative solution. Periodicals paid a low postage on their reading content and higher rates on their advertising pages.

Privatizing the Post Office

The Post Office’s role as an information commons was prone to the problems experienced by many public institutions, from schools to mass transit: a deterioration of service over time due to budget reductions, bureaucratic inertia, and fierce attacks from those favoring privatized services. The crisis came in October 1966 when the Chicago Post Office ground to a virtual halt under a mountain of mail. That stimulated congressional hearings and a presidential commission, which concluded that “today the Post Office is a business. Like all economic functions it should be supported by revenues from its users. The market should decide what resources are to be allocated to the postal service.” The report added that the Post Office should not be “allowed to discriminate unduly among its users in the pricing of its services.” The idea that it should be allowed to discriminate at all defied the mission of the Post Office as a commons.

In 1970, Congress transformed the Cabinet-level Post Office Department into the independent United States Postal Service (USPS). Nine of the eleven members of the board of governors (BOG) are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Rates are set by another body, the Postal Rates Commission, with approval from the BOG.

The Post Office’s role as a commons has been slowly eliminated. In 1979, the U.S. Postal Service allowed for the private delivery of “extremely urgent” letters. This helped launch Federal Express and other private courier services. In 1986 private delivery of international mail was permitted. But attempts by Congress to privatize the Postal Service or eliminate its monopoly were thwarted.

Since the 1970 reorganization, the USPS has been expected to be self-supporting. Mail classifications are no longer designed to reflect the value of the mail to its recipient and boost the flow of information. In 2007, the USPS dramatically increased the rates on nonprofit periodicals while giving substantial savings to larger media corporations that could install in-house technology to better prepare their publications for mailing.

From 1913 to 1955, the rate for the first ounce of first-class mail stayed at three cents, even though if the price had kept pace with inflation it would have been eight cents. From 1955 to 2009, the rate has increased to forty-four cents. If it had kept pace with inflation, a first-class postage stamp would now cost twenty-four cents.

Recent USPS “deficits”—caused in large part by a 2006 congressional requirement that it contribute five billion dollars a year for ten years to fund future retirees’ health benefits, a requirement that had less to do with actuarial necessity than with a political desire to make the national debt appear smaller—have spurred renewed calls to slash its information mission by closing post offices, eliminating one day of mail delivery, eliminating its monopoly on first-class mail and mailboxes, or privatizing its operations altogether. Throughout this debate, the public service nature of the post office has been largely ignored.

The USPS’s information commons function is still important and should be supported, as it traditionally has, by general taxes. The vast majority of Americans still depend on the mail, especially those without the means to purchase home Internet connections or use expensive courier services. And contrary to all the jokes, the USPS is remarkably efficient and has wide-spread support. In 2007, a Gallup survey found that 92 percent of residential customers rated their postal service as excellent, very good, or good.

Airwave America

After newspapers and the mail, radio became the primary means of mass communication. It’s easy to forget that the broadcasting airwaves are, and once were treated as, a commons, owned by citizens, not powerful media companies.

At the dawn of the broadcasting era, the free market prevailed. The government set no rules. The 1912 Radio Act authorized the federal Commerce and Labor Department to issue radio station licenses to U.S. citizens upon request. Which it did, resulting in chaos—564 broadcasting stations were operating by 1922, and their signals were often interfering with one another, which threatened to kill the budding industry in the cradle. Radio station owners asked the government to step in and fix the mess.

The question was how to do it. Several options were on the table. The U.S. Navy might have controlled all broadcasting, as it wanted to do. Frequencies could have been auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Or the United States could have created the equivalent of the British Broadcasting Company.

The original British Broadcasting Company was founded in 1922 by a group of six private telecommunications companies. In late 1926, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation, with exclusive control of the airwaves under the terms of a Royal Charter. The charter outlined the BBC’s public services: sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.

The BBC is required by its charter to be free from both political and commercial influence and to answer only to its viewers and listeners. The Royal Charter also prohibits the BBC from showing commercial advertising on any services in the United Kingdom (television, radio, or Internet). It is funded from a license fee imposed on radio and TV sets sold in Great Britain. In order to justify the license fee, the BBC is expected to maintain a large share of the viewing audience in addition to producing programs that commercial broadcasters would not normally present.

In 1930, the government made clear the meaning of public interest by denying a license renewal to a station used primarily to broadcast sermons that attacked Jews, Roman Catholic church officials, and law enforcement agencies.

The United States chose not to emulate Britain and went instead for commercial broadcasting on privately owned stations, but not privately owned frequencies. The Radio Act of 1927 declared the airwaves a public resource. Broadcasters paid no money for their station licenses, but in return they received no property rights to the frequency. The short-term license’s renewal was supposed to depend on whether the station served the public interest. Broadcasters were deemed “public trustees.” As the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explained, “The station must be operated as if owned by the public… It is as if people of a community should own a station and turn it over to the best man in sight with this injunction: ‘Manage this station in our interest.’” The commission made it clear that there was no room for “propaganda stations” as opposed to “general public-service stations.”

In 1930, the FRC made clear the meaning of public interest by denying a license renewal to a Los Angeles station used primarily to broadcast sermons that attacked Jews, Roman Catholic church officials, and law enforcement agencies. In 1949, the FCC again defined what it meant by the public interest when it introduced what later became known as the fairness doctrine. Broadcasters had to devote “a reasonable percentage of time to coverage of public issues; and [the] coverage of these issues must be fair in the sense that it provides an opportunity for the presentation of contrasting points of view.”

In 1959, Congress reaffirmed that the fairness doctrine had statutory authority by amending the Communications Act of 1934. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the application of that doctrine, noting, “Congress need not stand idly by and permit those with licenses to… exclude from the airwaves anything but their own views of fundamental questions.” In 1974 the FCC called the fairness doctrine “the single most important requirement of operation in the public interest.”

In filing their applications for license renewal, stations had to provide detailed information on their efforts to seek out and address issues of concern to the community. The program listings became the basis for determining whether licenses should be renewed.

Information Commons Dismantled

With the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981, the rules for broadcasting licenses suddenly changed. The FCC eliminated the requirement that licensees provide detailed program information as the basis for license renewal.

In 1984, the FCC eliminated programming guidelines that set minimums for news and public affairs programming and also discontinued enforcing the fairness doctrine. When citizens groups sued to reinstate the doctrine, Appeals Court judges Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, two Reagan appointees, concluded that the fairness doctrine itself, despite its congressional reaffirmation in 1959, was not a law but a guideline. In August 1987 the FCC unanimously decided that the fairness doctrine was contrary to the public interest.

This put the ball in Congress’s court. The House, by an overwhelming three-to-one margin, and the Senate by a margin of almost two to one, passed a bill clearly reiterating that the fairness doctrine was indeed the law. Among those voting in favor of the fairness doctrine were leading conservatives such as Representative Newt Gingrich and Senator Jesse Helms. But Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, and there were insufficient votes in the Senate to override the veto.

The failure of that effort transformed radio (and then television) into a potent and one-sided political voice. Until then, call-in talk radio had complied with FCC community service requirements by focusing on public-interest issues and presenting all viewpoints.

When the Republicans stunningly captured the House of Representatives that year, for the first time in almost forty years, Newt Gingrich called it “the first talk radio election.”

A few months after the FCC dropped the fairness doctrine, Rush Limbaugh’s program, with its in-your-face attitude and one-sided perspective, was syndicated. Limbaugh marketed his show in unprecedented fashion, offering it free of charge to stations across the nation. Within weeks, fifty-six stations had picked up the show; within four years, over six hundred stations were carrying it—the fastest spread of any talk show in history. Others imitated Limbaugh’s format. The number of radio talk stations more than doubled from 1987 to 1993.

In 1993, the nation discovered the political power of this new entity. The Democratic Congress and newly elected Democratic White House revived the effort to make the fairness doctrine law. Rush mobilized his listeners. The bill never came up for a vote. According to National Public Radio, “privately, top aides in both the House and Senate admit that efforts to reimpose the doctrine have been put on hold in large part due to the talk show hosts.”

In 1994, talk radio made itself felt in national elections. When the Republicans stunningly captured the House of Representatives that year, for the first time in almost forty years, Newt Gingrich called it “the first talk radio election.” In early 1995, the Republican Party held a special ceremony for Limbaugh, naming him an honorary member of Congress. They dubbed him the majority maker.

The new conservative majority approved waves of giveaways to powerful media corporations, the outright sale of frequencies, and the reversal of the foundational rules of the airwaves, nearly wiping out any acknowledgment that the airwaves belong to the people and should be managed as a public trust.

Fifteen years later, talk radio has changed the nature of political discourse. Some persuasively argue it has changed our very culture. Media Scholar Henry Giroux describes a “culture of cruelty” increasingly marked by racism, hostility, and disdain for others, coupled with a simmering threat toward any political figure who comes into the crosshairs of what many now call hate radio.

Seventy-five years after the Federal Radio Commission declared there was no room on the public airwaves for “propaganda stations” and denied a license renewal to a station that attacked Jews and law enforcement agencies, the airwaves are filled with both propaganda and venom. Today the airwaves, stripped of commons rules, feed hatred.

G

David Morris is the vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and founder of the New Rules Project and writes, speaks, and consults widely about community, energy, and environmental issues. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Japan Times, and he is the author of The New City States and co-author of Neighborhood Power.

Copyright © 2010 by David Morris. This excerpt originally appeared in All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else that Belongs to All of Us Copyright © 2010 by Jay Walljasper, published by The New Press, Inc. and reprinted here with permission.

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2 comments for Public Disinterest

  1. Comment by madarchitect on December 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

    That’s an interesting capsule history of a process of media platforms shifting from the commons to the commercial domain. Bearing the histories of postal service and radio in mind ought to help understand the shifts currently driving change on the internet, which is, with the emergence of new platforms and new economic incentives, gradually but insistently moving away from its already shaky status as a commons.

    Yet one crucial difference is that the internet did not start out with the legal mandate to serve the public interest. Its status as a commons has always been ambiguous, and it has yet to attain the same sort of saturation that the post office and radio achieved through the governmental insistence that they be available to everyone. Net neutrality laws may be on the horizon, but it’s unclear whether or not they will (or even could) arrive in time to guarantee the sort of neutrality the post office game Americans in the 18th and 19th century, or radio in the 20th. Market forces and emerging technologies are already driving the internet into more a rigorously commercial domain, and by the time net neutrality makes it into law, the internet may be too thoroughly branded to achieve any sort of purity as a commons.

  2. Comment by Jack Huttner on May 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    The fairness doctrine also had a significant impact on local organizing and political action. In the late 1970s, the fairness doctrine was a critical tactical element in the development of citizen opposition to the Shoreham Nuclear Plant on LI in NYS. It was crritical to opponents ability to counter the utilities paid advertising with a countervailing point of view. Its demise, I mean the fairness doctrine, has undermined citizens activism that is only partially offset by new media.

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