What I learned is that there has been a general sense of progress, from a media system that began in Colonial times essentially as intelligence for the elite, and gradually became more and more of a system that at least purports to or attempts to provide news and information to the vast majority. So there is an arc of history from the news for the few to news for all. However, government policy plays a far greater part in that media system than I had expected or understood. Yes, there has been progress; however, that progress can be set back unless the new round of decisions about the Internet and about the digital era respond to the needs of the majority of the people.
You talk about how the government and regulators developed the newspaper industry though legislation like the Postal Act, but also hampered media in the hands of people of color: by stamping out amateur radio properties that could have developed to inform people of color; by giving licenses to known activists in the KKK; and by helping to build monopolies like in the telegraph and cable systems and radio. Have we forgotten those lessons, and are we headed down that same road with the Internet and cable and wireless businesses today?
Every new communications technology subverts the existing order, and then requires the government to step in to fashion new rules for the operation of the new media. Every new technology has started with the same promise: of liberating humanity, of providing new opportunities for diverse news to flow. That was the promise of radio, of cable, and now the Internet. However, after the new technology has been around for ten, fifteen years, then the real decision points happen: How will this new system really operate? That’s when the key issues have to be decided. So while there i¬s great promise in the Internet—there’s no doubt that the Internet has unleashed enormous amounts of citizen journalism, has broken down the gatekeeper functions of the old media companies, the major television stations, the networks, and the newspapers—there’s no assurance that ten years from now that will be the landscape that we confront because now what’s happened is that the gatekeepers are no longer the main producers of content. The gatekeepers are now those who control the pipes. The media powers of today are not really The New York Times and ABC and NBC. They are Comcast and Verizon and Google and Apple and Yahoo.
But you refer to some of that access that people have to the media as the “browning of the Internet,” with Latinos, and blacks and Asians and Native Americans and South Asians and others who have a great presence that they didn’t have before. So despite what is happening with the companies that control the delivery systems, you don’t think they really stand a chance to reach some equalization with other parts of society?
They do but the problem is: What will be the government policies that will allow them to continue to develop? For instance, we mention a lot in the book the future of net neutrality and the ability of small entrepreneurs and small producers of media to have their content transmitted at the same speed as the major companies. That’s one huge issue. The issue of the future of public access on cable is another. Public access programming on cable throughout the seventies and eighties became a major place where racial minorities could put on their own programming, could be heard. Public access programming is, of course, very uneven in its quality, but some of it is very good, and most importantly it’s local. The local cable company has to provide local public access, and therefore you get coverage of local elections and school board issues on public access television that the regular NBC or CBS affiliates don’t cover. So therefore to the degree that public access is preserved, then so will citizen access to cable be preserved. To the degree that public access is increasingly marginalized, and as cable systems expand from sixty to a hundred to five hundred to a thousand channels, what will happen to public access?