About the Author
Charles M. Firestone is the Executive Vice President of The Aspen Institute for Policy Programs. He has been with the Institute since December 1989 and also serves as Executive Director of the Communications and Society Program. As Executive Vice President, Mr. Firestone oversees seventeen Institute policy programs and is responsible for the Institute's International Partnerships in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The policy programs are nonpartisan convenors of diverse leaders who address significant issues of the day through values-based dialogue and research.
Donald R. Browne is Professor and Chair of the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota. He served with the U.S. Information Agency in Tunisia and Guinea, where he also was overseas correspondent for the Voice of America. He was a Fulbright visiting professor at the American University of Beirut and a visiting professor at Lund University (Sweden). Dr. Browne has conducted research on electronic media activities and systems for more than 40 years, in three dozen nations, and has written over 50 books, monographs, and articles on that subject.
Craig L. LaMay is a journalist and communications researcher. Currently he holds appointments as Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and as an adjunct professor at the Northwestern University Law School, where he teaches media and First Amendment history. Mr. LaMay is the former editor of Columbia University's Media Studies Journal and has worked as a newspaper reporter and communications consultant. He is a former fellow of the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tributne, Time magazine, and various books and journals. Mr. LaMay is the author or editor of eight books on the press and public affairs, including Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment (with former FCC Chairman Newton Minow).
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Structuring Autonomous and Responsible Media
More so than in any other political system, individuals within a democracy shape the structure of government. Citizens choose political leaders, and politicians depend on popular support for the successful implementation of policies. Thus, individuals within a democratic society must have information that will allow them to make knowledgeable choices about candidates, policies and issue priorities. Television can contribute to the development and maintenance of democracy by supplying much needed information, but ONLY if the public perceives the broadcasting system and the information it disseminates to be credible. Credibility is thus tied inextricably to a free and responsible broadcasting system.
A broadcasting system controlled by the government or other political forces may lead the public to discount television messages, particularly when individuals have experiences that contradict those messages. Likewise, concentrated, private broadcasting ownership may cause individuals to suspect that they are getting only that information which conforms to commercial interests. Finally, the public may ignore or discredit information if broadcasters are perceived as minimizing important social values, or if they comport themselves in ways perceived by the public as irresponsible.
The first section of this book analyzes issues related to the autonomy of television from both political and commercial control. Freedom from political control aises important question which include: What are the options for the structure of the broadcasting system? What are the pros and cons of public broadcasting, independent broadcasting and commercial broadcasting? In what ways can the broadcast spectrum be allocated? What kinds of organizations or groups can serve to balance interests or values within the broadcasting system?
While questions about political autonomy for broadcasters are important in a democracy, so too are those questions surrounding broadcaster independence from commercial power. Three issues are particularly important here. The first concerns the popular notion that democracy is served when there are numerous and varied sources of information. If this is so, who or what maintains a variety of competing broadcasters, prevents concentration of ownership and assures access to a broad range of groups within the society? Second, if democracy is served by journalists who present information truthfully and responsibly, what happens if the truth hurts the commercial interests of owners or advertisers? Finally, in some democratic countries there is concern about particular types of broadcasting content. One example is television violence. Who determines if and when depictions of violence are to be aired? Another type of controversial content is false or deceptive advertising. What can be done when people differ on what constitutes falsity or deception? Some democratic countries attempt to answer the questions presented above through the support of public service broadcasting. Public service broadcasting may focus, for example, on public affairs and educational programming. This type of programming is not necessarily commercially optimal. Still, if a country decides to establish or develop public service programming, more questions are raised, among the most important of which are: How can it be financed? What are the pros and cons of both advertiser and tax-based support? Are there other options available?
The challenges of democracy involve balancing the various interests found within political, economic and social realms. Controversial issues are debated, people disagree, and the answers are often not easily found. Yet, television presents information which can determine how well citizens perform their democratic duties. So, one must carefully address questions of structure, regulation, and finance of television broadcasting. Below, we present a variety of options for the structure and maintenance of autonomous and responsible media. Concrete examples from all over the world provide policy makers and television professionals with a range of possible alternatives. The selection of the options presented in subsequent chapters will no doubt vary by the context of individual countries. Still, the options may provide guides for navigating the potentially treacherous waters of democracy.