Guernica Magazine published an interesting piece, "Public Disinterest" by David Morris, on the history of the United States Postal Service, situating it as a public commons through its role as a public institution and a means of mass communication. Through various Congressional rulings, ranging from postage rate decrees (newspapers paid less for news and more for advertising circulars) to structural changes, its role as a commons has been eliminated. The dissemination of information is no longer prioritized, as evidenced by the favoring of large media corporations over nonprofit periodicals.
From the post office, Morris moves to radio, reminding us that airwaves were once also treated as a commons, responsible to the public instead of big corporations. In 1927, the U.S. government passed the Radio Act, which granted the right to own stations, but not frequencies, providing that the station was operated as if owned by the public; that is, the station had to operate in the public's best interest. In 1930, the government defined the fairness doctrine:
In 1930, the 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 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.”
The fairness doctrine was later dropped in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan. That move changed radio and politics dramatically, most clearly with radio talk shows like Rush Limbaugh's. As Morris concludes:
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.
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