Rep. Van Deerlin Seeks Strong Public Voice in Overhaul of Airwaves

Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin, D-Calif., is sitting in his office in the House of Representatives wondering out loud. As chairman of the House Communi­cations Subcommittee, he has pro­posed the most far-reaching changes in the nation’s 44-year-old communi­cations laws and over 90 percent of the American people don’t know about it.

Van Deerlin is not indulging in a legislator’s ego. He simply is con­cerned that the future of how this na­tion communicates words, voices and pictures through the public’s air­waves should not be decided primarily by special interests in the communications industry. He told me that the people — viewers and listeners of TV and radio — should participate in this two-year congres­sional process to the fullest extent possible.

One way for this broad public dis­cussion to occur is obvious. Televi­sion and radio should devote a sig­nificant amount of time to this immensely important subject. In the past few years, television has de­voted much news, feature, documentary and commentary time to the energy situation.

But since Van Deerlin’s bill was introduced last year, there has been very little TV time devoted to the issues involved in communications reform. In fact, none of the networks covered his news conference intro­ducing the legislation.

IT CAN BE ARGUED that the paucity of coverage is because the networks have such a self-interest in this legislative battle that they would be charged with bias no matter how hard they tried to the contrary. Well, they simply will have to take the risk and do their best. It would not be the first time that TV covered matters in which they held a deep self-interest.

It can further be argued that the communications issues in the forth­coming congressional debate are largely technical and of not much in­terest to the folks back home. This contention makes as much sense as saying that the astronauts’ trips were too technical for intimate TV cover­age. All the folks really needed was to be told of the takeoffs and land­ings.

People are not likely to be bored when they learn just how diverse, inexpensive and accessible their air­waves can become if Congress re­spects consumer needs and rights. The future should be described, if it is to be secured.

For example, long distance tele­phone rates coast to coast and world­wide can be cut drastically. Cities, towns, villages, unions, students, art­ists, citizen groups and other inter­ests can have access to their own television channels. Viewers can register their opinions instantly in two-way TV channel programs.

THOSE COMMUNICATIONS satellites high in the sky are not sim­ply objects of wonder; they are the harbingers of a dazzling abundance of instant communications, which could revolutionize the adage that “information is the currency of democracy.”

Instead of being mere recipients of what a few large communications companies beam to them, citizens can become active participants in the communications process.

Large numbers of people with skills, talents and opinions can find outlets for their initiatives. No longer will viewers and listeners be told that if they don’t like the programs, they can turn off the set. The choices will be far more numerous and the differ­ences between programs more genu­ine.

None of this is automatic. New technology can only give us the in­struments. The imperative to use these tools wisely and democratically comes from an aware and involved people shaping national policy. For this understanding to evolve, a major public education effort is required. And, up to now, the media has done very little even to inform people about the new communications tech­nology.

Newspapers and radio can contrib­ute during the upcoming debate to the education of the public on the uses of the public’s own property —the airwaves. But it is television that is clearly the central media here.

Television executives will have to decide soon what priority they are going to give to the major communi­cation reform effort in nearly half a century. How much news, documen­tary, feature and discussion time?

Well, Walter Cronkite, why don’t you start the ball rolling? You did such an extensive job on the space program that satellites, cable and related communications technology should be an easy transition.

(Readers interested in more infor­mation about the proposed communi­cations legislation should write to their U.S. senators or representa­tives.)

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