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.)