Why Public Media Matters for Media Studies
If public spaces increase democratic participation through public discourse and visibility, educators posited as early as the 1920s, would a mediated non-profit ‘public forum’ help to promote the ‘promise’ of American democracy? I’d like to argue in this brief space that the fundamental thrust of their question still provides grounds for healthy debate over the purpose of media studies, as well as a coherent logic for media research.
It is a popular conservative position to stand against publicly based institutions and a typical liberal position to halfheartedly support them. The ‘public’, a concept so central to the emergence of democratic spaces during the progressive era, services during the depression, and civil securities during the Great Society, has clearly waned as a rhetorical and conceptual imperative. The logic of privatization has become so strong that every space is seen as a potential extension of accumulation and distribution tactics. It contends not that equity equates to socialism or other absurdities, but that the democratic endeavor is naturally achieved through increased consumer choice and additional pathways of communication. Proponents list an impressive series of recent accomplishments on behalf of private industry: interactive media has increased the capacity for content to reach intended audiences in a way that promotes sustainable consumerist relationships, narrowcasting has provided entire demographics with both lifestyle content and personalized commercials to satiate their habitus, and one may participate freely, safely, and with like-minded users in online spaces. So why would federally funded stations that run low demographic and low-impact programming need to continue if increased consumer capacity and aesthetic complexity have made a ‘public’ media space mandate obsolete? Forty-five years after the 1967 passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, PBS and NPR’s wide hodgepodge of civic, pedagogical, childrens, science, documentary, and how-to programming seem like an anachronism. The ‘promise’ of increased specialization of consumer demand as democratic participation has become a dominant policy position regarding public broadcasting, as well as rationale to privatize and weaken public schools, public housing, settlement houses, public parks, and public universities. Amongst media studies itself, with the deluge of information around private industry, convergence practices, and transnational flows, what significance could a study of our unpopular and endangered non-profit sector offer?
The Free Press has recently presciently pointed to decreased state support and rhetorical attacks upon PBS stations, and the survival of public broadcasting in its current form relies upon these crucial state and federal dollars. But I’d also like to pose a broader historical context. Public broadcasting is not a revolutionary ‘alternative’ to commercial media. It is a specific set of institutional practices, an autonomous self-sustaining extension of the government, and a channel delegated for curricular programming and adult education. In this way it resembles many industrial and aesthetic characteristics so thoroughly studied today. But it is also an enduring concept that served as a basis for an entire generation of media studies. Though the well-documented business-friendly Communications Act of 1934 privatized American media, the concept survived and an entire corpus of communications research emerged to promote media literacy, educational technology, and understand content reception. For over 30 years the consensus regarding the primacy of public media for public spaces inspired researchers to constitute a sustainable academic advocacy culture. This included figures such as Wilbur Schramm (Stanford), who utilized qualitative and quantitative analysis to examine propaganda, UNESCO initiatives, and the effect of communications technology on national development; Dallas Smythe (Illinois), who wrote cutting and trenchant critiques of commercial media practices while heading an influential congressional advocacy campaign that led to the FCC Blue Book and the Sixth Report and Order; and Keith Tyler (Ohio State), who was at the center of many public technology initiatives from closed-caption instructional television to the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (see Allison Perlman’s recent work on the MPATI), while overseeing research on educational radio and television aesthetics later utilized by American Public Broadcasting. During the advocacy period between 1934 and the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, communications research followed an intended purpose.
Hence, at a moment in which public institutions are weathering attacks in virtually every sphere, it’s worth noting that in media and communication studies alone attention to the concept of ‘the public’ has historically engendered wide (and productive) regulatory debate about democratic participation, a media advocacy movement that persisted for over thirty years, and an entire genre of non-commercial programming rubrics. While ‘mapping’ of industry practices and new media innovations will no doubt continue, and it’s a given that commercial media is entertaining, provocative, and occasionally addresses social expediencies, there is no sustainable incentive within logic of accumulation to support a mediated forum for working out social problems with equanimity. Incentive has to be created. Put succinctly, when a research orientation begins with bottom-up evaluation and assessment of how media may promote ‘public’ good in all of its variations, consequent methods can be constituted to examine media not only as proxy of ‘official’ utterances, but toward the realization of debatable social imperatives within a visible field. Such analysis demands strong evidentiary practices, but it also requires that we begin with a rigorous conceptual discussion about implicit assumptions endemic to the object studied and the purpose of analysis itself.