Open Letter to Foundations
By Mark Lloyd, Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy
Communications Policy Researchers Need Your Help to Support the Interests of the Powerless in the Digital Age
On November 21, 1997, the Communications Project of the Civil Rights Forum brought together a group of communications scholars and practitioners to construct a communications research agenda. The initial purpose of the meeting was dr iven by two concerns: 1) policy makers need to know more to create intelligent policies that address the needs and interests of minorities and the poor, and 2) questions focused on the needs and interests of the powerless will not be asked by private industry.
As can be seen by examining the attached report of that meeting, we pulled together a wide range of communications scholars, policy activists, lawyers, and professional communicators. The conversation was rich and complex. While consensus was reached on many contentious issues, others (such as the importance of race as compared to income) remain unresolved. Participants did agree however that it is important to engage in an inter-disciplinary study which focuses attention on the needs and interests of minorities and the poor in the digital age.
Participants also agreed that much more support needs to come from mainstream foundations interested in issues of equity and democratic deliberation. A first step in garnering that support is to deliver a coherent but overarching and inclusive vision as to why communications research needs the support of mainstream foundations. To this end, we offer this Open Letter to Foundations: To Protect the Interest of the Powerless in the Digital Age Communications Researchers Need Your Support.
This Open Letter is a challenge to the mainstream foundation community to become effectively engaged in a more fundamental way in communications policy on behalf of the powerless. Attached to this Open Letter is a report on the Forum's meeting, and the research agenda constructed by the participants.
Why Must Mainstream Foundations Become Engaged?
There are three major changes now at work in our society. One: we are quickly becoming a more culturally diverse nation. Two: the resource gap is widening between the rich and the poor. Three: the major driving force in our economy is no longer steel production but information production. What combined impact will these forces have on our society? What will these shifts mean for our democracy and the role of government?
The production and distribution of information is the province of communications policy. And while these three major shifts should dominate our national discussion about communications policy, that discussion has been limited to corporate maneuvers and the latest consumer gadgets. Questions about social impact have been crowded out of the discussion by right wing foundations and private industry who would have us trust our future to the market and the technological wonders they will provide. Only foundations have the financial resources and political independence to counter the well-funded and well-marketed frameworks promoted by conservative forces.
The shift from industry to information is as profound as the shift from field to factory. Mainstream foundations could make a valuable contribution to our nation by linking this shift to their traditional concerns about strong democracy, healthy communities, diversity, and inequality. What is needed is support for a rich body of interdisciplinary research which focuses on communications. Policy makers are now making decisions that will alter the way we communicate for years to come. They cannot make intelligent policies based solely upon the research efforts of conservative thinkers and private industry. The public cannot gauge whether they are being well served by their representatives without more information on how their well-being is linked to the shifts at work in our society.
This is work well suited to the independent sector. Indeed, as Lester Salamon argues, nonprofits (and we would argue foundations in particular) play a vital role in identifying and "mobilizing broader public attention to society problems and needs" unfettered by market forces or political winds.1
Why Fund Communications Policy Work?
Communications is not merely a business, it is a means of binding the nation together. The Communications Act mandates that telephone, cable, and broadcast operators are to serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." While the language, "public interest," is at least as vague as the notions of "unalienable rights" or "the general welfare," it is also as enduring. The principle that binding the nation together (through communication or transportation systems) is a public good is as old as the establishment of the postal system under Benjamin Franklin.2
As the founders realized, a strong communications system and public access to information are essential to democratic deliberation. Despite strong rationales for communications as a public good, this idea is under attack and in decline.
The notion of communications in the public interest is reinforced by the government claim on both the airwaves (also called the spectrum) and, in most cases, the land upon which telephone and cable transmissions travel. Communications companies use public property. Additionally, all communications industries received public dollars before they became established commercial giants, because communications is a public good.
Regulation is not, however, merely a quid for the quo of subsidy. Government regulation is itself a subsidy protecting industry interests. The government both licenses and guards the public spectrum and its use by private citizens and corporations. The government protects the "natural monopoly" of cable and telephone companies by limiting new entrants, and, in many cases guaranteeing profit.
The principle of public good, and the subsidy of public property and public regulation create obligations: to act as a public trustee, in the case of broadcasters; to report and submit to public deliberations with regard to rates and deployment, in the case of cable and telephone companies. Though this model of regulation has existed since the dawn of electronic communications, it has largely failed in recent times. Whatever the cause of that failure (private industry power, the disorganization of public interest advocates, or government incompetence), it has led to a disenchantment, even among liberal regulators, in the public interest or public trustee model itself.3
While the public trustee model loses its luster, conservatives are attempting to lock into place a laissez-faire model of government regulation. So far they have been remarkably successful. Here's a brief list of conservative accomplishments:
The Fairness Doctrine
- Ascertainment Requirements
- Comparative Hearings
- Equal Employment Opportunity Guidelines
- Incentives for Women and Minority
- Many Barriers to Ownership Limits
Longer License Terms
- Limited Holding Times Before Licenses Can Be Transferred
Many of these changes were put in place in the mid-80's by the Reagan FCC. Other changes were put in place by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That Act also eliminated the Modified Final Judgment which kept the former Regional Bell Operating Companies out of the long distance telephone business and kept their parent American Telegraph and Telephone out of the local telephone business, and the Act eliminated cable rate regulation enacted only a few years ago over President Bush's veto.
The arguments for dismantling the public interest model are essentially the old laissez-faire arguments that the market will provide more efficiently the same results hoped for by government regulation. Conservatives argued that the Fairness Doctrine actually prevented the airing of controversial views; that ascertainment and equal employment opportunity requirements were burdensome regulations which produced no result that would not have been produced by a free market; that local owners were not more responsive to the community of license than distant owners; and that short license terms and other restrictions on ownership were a disincentive to investment. These assertions have gone unchallenged for too long.
But who will challenge them? General Electric, American Telegraph and Telephone, and Tele-Communications Inc. can hardly be expected to fund research that might undermine their economic interest in deregulation. And a conservative Congress will not fund research that might contradict either their positions or the views of private industry. Where, then, will the dollars come from to fund alternative views? Even if the conservatives and techno-libertarians are correct, would it not be wise to fund a vigorous test of those ideas with counter notions?
Why Fund Communications Researchers?
There are two distinct but related arguments as to why mainstream foundations should support communications researchers: 1) researchers hold a special place in public policy debates but credible research which challenges the status quo is insufficiently supported; and 2) private industry and right-wing foundations are funding communications researchers to support their agendas.
The intellectual elite, particularly the academic and research community, holds a special place in the creation of our understanding of social issues and, ultimately, in the development of public policy. Herbert Gans calls this elite "legitimators." "Legitimators are the people and institutions cited by label-makers and communicators to justify their terms and ideas as credible, and to supply expert evidence."4
Some of the expert evidence, such as Charles Murray's "evidence" of black intellectual inferiority, or the destructive force of government assistance to the poor, may be highly questionable, but its power to influence public opinion and steer public policy is undeniable. Legitimators, such as Murray, supplied the weight to the exaggerated portrayals of the poor (focusing especially on the black poor) by communicators as diverse as Dinesh D'Sousa and Ronald Reagan.
A new intellectual framework which incorporates the traditional interdisciplinary approach of communications study, and concerns itself with the interests of all Americans is badly needed. This framework must not be driven by mere assertions, but by credible legitimators (we might also call them public intellectuals) relying upon empirical research which takes into account the needs of all Americans including minorities and the poor. Research into the harm new technology may cause to communities will not be funded by corporations which stand to gain from selling this technology. Nor will it come from a government increasingly cautious about upsetting private industry.
The Forum's Research Agenda Meeting brought together those potential legitimators. As stated earlier, our purpose was driven not by a desire to battle the right wing but by a concern that policy is now being made without sufficient information about the uses and impact of communications systems and technologies on the powerless. While the participants hold varying views on the value of the dominant frameworks, most agreed that a much more interdisciplinary approach was needed, and that principles of equity and democratic deliberation needed to be returned to the center of our national discussion over communications policy.
The work of the legitimators who dominate the current discussion over communications policy is for the most part funded by global communications giants, such as AT&T and Microsoft, and right-wing foundations, such as the Scaife and Koch family foundations.5
Again, that funding supports an economic libertarian view of communications policy, with little or no concern for the powerless. What funding exists from government and mainstream foundations rarely challenges the dominant framework of these two groups.
As Ellen Messer-Davidow argues in her essay Dollars for Scholars: The Real Politics of Humanities Scholarship and Programs,
"The misguided view that intellectual activity is somehow insulated from the scuffles of partisan politics is a logic that fails to describe the real world. In the real world conservatives attack cultural, social and economic programs; employ wedge strategies to fracture traditional categories of privileged/oppressed; and they use institutions every which way -- establishing, maintaining, reforming, and transforming them to achieve their political ends."6
In the real world, conservatives fund legitimators in order to shape public understanding and public policy that affirms their ideology. In the real world, private industry funds legitimators in order to advance their position in the market economy. In the real world, the needs and interests of minorities and the poor will have few if any legitimators if those legitimators are not funded by mainstream foundations.
The Dominant Paradigms
Two distinct but related strains of thought now dominate our national discussion. Both strains minimize the social impact of communications policy and focus instead on the market and technology. One paradigm is the Chicago School of laissez-faire economics, and the other is a supposed "atheoretical" technological futurism.
As documented extensively in the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's report on "Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations,"7 the scholarship of the Chicago School of economics, is well-funded by conservative foundations. Much like the "law and economics" scholars, communications scholars from this school argue that communications policy should support the most economically efficient outcomes. They argue that the proper role of government communications policy should not be to promote the First Amendment goals of diversity of expression or equality of access to communications services. Government regulation in the communications arena, they argue, should be a minor, if necessary, mechanism for perfecting market efficiencies. This view was strongly advanced by the conservative Reagan/Fowler FCC policy branch in the mid-1980's. It was furthered by the conservative Heritage Foundation, especially in its influential 1995 publication of "talking points" focusing on deregulating the communications industry.8
Those talking points served as a guidebook to the policy arguments of Republican leaders, and its influence can be clearly seen in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The other dominant strain of intellectual activity in the communications policy arena is funded largely by private industry and represented best by "futurist" legitimators such as Esther Dyson and George Gilder. The futurists focus on the wonders, real and potential, of communications technology, and suggest that technology development is as natural and uncontrollable as biological mutation. Aside from the obligatory mention of access for "information have-nots, " little attention is paid to the ethical introduction of technology to communities and the potential harm technologies can create. This influence is seen in most media coverage of telecommunications issues, most especially in Wired magazine.9
but also in the seemingly innocuous report of the President's Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure. The slow dribble of "information technology" to ordinary citizens is seen as beyond the control of either government or corporation, as if tax depreciations and the marketing strategy of planned obsolescence were forces of nature. This strain of techno-libertarianism is closely related to, and provides support for, the arguments of the free-marketeers, while appearing all the while to be non-ideological. University of Colorado Dean Willard Rowland, calls this "atheoretical futurism."10
There is, perhaps, no more important work in communications policy than countering these two dominant frameworks. We need to make room for other frameworks, frameworks that elevate the importance of community and the rights of citizens. We need a new national conversation about communications policy, but that conversation will not likely happen without the effective engagement of mainstream foundations.
An Alternative Approach
Putting aside the impulse to go into battle with conservatives, there is a more fundamental reason for foundations to become engaged. There is still much to learn about the social impact of communications activity. And, despite the seeming newness of communications technology, there is a deep (if underfunded) field of communications research to help us. This field is tied to a rich academic tradition that embraces a more critical policy discourse than the current emphasis on technology services and market economy. It is a thoroughly interdisciplinary tradition which understands "telecommunications" to be socially and culturally problematic. That is, it applies not only the understanding of the computer engineer and the economist, but it is also cognizant of relevant theories of law, behavioral sciences, the business of media, film criticism, history, ethics and other fields of study. Drawing from this tradition we might actually learn how to introduce technology in communities, or how to provide meaningful access to information and voice for the poor and marginalized. It is this tradition which holds the most promise for informing policy makers concerned with communications and civil society.
However, as Rowland warns, academic programs may be especially drawn to developing programs with a supposed "atheoretical" emphasis because such programs "command relatively rich sources of support from the principal relevant industries (e.g., telephone and computer) and from those state and federal government agencies concerned about fostering improved conditions for a post-industrial, information-based economy."11
What We Need to Know Today
Attached is the research agenda constructed by an inter-disciplinary group of scholars and academics. Many of the questions presented here are basic and necessary to establishing appropriate communications policy in a civil and open society. However, there is a compelling argument that the immediate challenges and opportunity for policy making require research of a less fundamental and more strategic nature.
As suggested earlier, the essential character of the conversation about communications policy is being undermined by the ideas of technology futurists and the Chicago School laissez-faire policy prescriptions. These ideas are the underpinning of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and its implementation by the Clinton Administration, and they threaten to undermine the long-standing, if badly enforced, central concept of communications policy -- that the communications industry should operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
We think it is vital, therefore, that the foundation community act now to fund research into the following:
How well is telecommunications infrastructure being maintained in poor communities as compared to wealthy communities? Are the cable and telephone and wireless service companies deploying advanced communications technology in low-income areas? Are infrastructure maintenance and deployment decisions distorted by racial or ethic prejudices?
Are there discriminatory market barriers that prevent minorities and women from more active participation in the communications industry? Is there a lack of access to financial capital based upon discrimination similar to the discrimination minorities and women face in the mortgage lending markets?
What has been the impact of the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine on the airing of diverse viewpoints over broadcast stations? Has the airing of controversial issues of importance to the community of license increased or decreased? Has useful political information, including debate over the public airwaves increased or decreased?
What has been the impact of the elimination of the ascertainment reporting requirement on the airing of issues of interest to all segments of the community served by the local broadcast station? Has local programming created to address local concerns increased or decreased? Has the involvement of community leaders in the work of the broadcast operation increased or decreased? Do station managers and programmers feel more pressure from distant owners and stockholders than from community leaders?
As the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory bodies at the federal and state level begin making communications policy decisions it is imperative that the above questions be answered first. There is now some indication that the market theories of the Reagan era are threatening the interests of low-income consumers, small business, women, and minority entrepreneurs, and persons with disabilities.
Cable rates are rising.
Pay phone charges are rising.
Low-skill, high-pay union employees in the telephone industry are being fired.
The FCC has failed to implement legislation bringing the communications industry in full compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Recent spectrum auctions have rewarded established players not new entrants.
Research efforts to address these issues need immediate support. We recognize that a new way of organizing and coordinating this work is also needed.
A Process for Research Funding
Communications researchers interested in the needs of the powerless struggle with the same headaches as the powerless: they have too big a job and too few resources. Too often this leads to an inability to coordinate or disseminate work, sometimes it leads to a limited vision and even to a lack of generosity of spirit about the contributions of others. When there is little to share, protecting one's turf can become destructively important. The answer to the fractious nature of research work is not only more money, but more coordination, better communications, and an interdisciplinary approach to communications research in keeping with the tradition of the field.
We propose that foundations fund research teams, preferably from a variety of research and academic institutions. Though unwilling to go on record, many of the researchers we talked with expressed concern about both institutional bias and that one research institute or academy may not be sufficient to generate the interdisciplinary work needed. A team approach, perhaps conducted outside of traditional institutions, that keeps healthy discipline rivalry in place, promotes constructive criticism, and de-emphasizes institution building is badly needed.
In addition, a new cadre of researchers interested in new communications technology and its impact on a changing society need to be encouraged and supported. Without funding and recognition, young researchers will likely end up either supporting the interests of private industry, or frustrated by an inability to attract academic or foundation support for their research interests. We propose therefore funding a panel of established researchers and scholars, affiliated with a variety of institutions, such as those present during the meeting. This group should act as a panel to review and award research proposals. The panel could act as a prompter of particular topics, submitting a request for proposals to the larger field of communications scholars. The research would always be focused on understanding the communications interests and needs of the powerless.
In addition to awarding resources for research, the panel might also submit an award for the best communications research or policy analysis which focuses on the needs and interests of the powerless. The research might be published in an annual scholarly publication and on the Internet, and assistance could be provided to draft editorials or articles for popular dissemination.
The Forum's research agenda meeting was a first step in addressing an age-old paradox: social systems tend to support those who least need support. As our society becomes a more ethnically diverse nation and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, it is important that foundations help minorities and the poor enter the digital age. The direction of communications policy will alter not only our economy, but our laws, our democracy, our schools, our communities, and our families. We believe the first step in helping the disadvantaged is to examine critically the effect of conservative policies on the poor, and to find out more about the present conditions and real needs of the poor to develop intelligent policies in the future.
Ideally, communications policy should result from informed debate not money politics. We need to know if the loss of the Fairness Doctrine resulted in less airing of controversial political speech. We need to know if the National Information Infrastructure is being deployed in a way that avoids the poor. We need to know how media affects the social behavior of individuals. We need to know whether professional standards are being altered by the merging of global media companies. We need to know whether information technologies create negative consequences. We need to know how to introduce and manage communications technology in a way that reflects our best values, not our base instincts.
As we shift from the industrial age to the information age, we need to create intelligent policies that preserve our ideals of strong democracy and equal opportunity. Research must be the bedrock of those intelligent policies. To protect the interests of the powerless, indeed of all Americans in the digital age, communications researchers need your support.
Patricia Aufderheide, Ph.D.
Susan Nall Bales
The Benton Foundation
The Benton Foundation
Nolan Bowie, Esq.
Franklin Gilliam, Jr., Ph.D.
University of California at Los Angeles
Allen Hammond, Esq.
University of Santa Clara School of Law
Mary Gardiner Jones, Esq.
Consumer Interest Research Institute
Mark Lloyd, Esq.
The Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy
Ceasar McDowell, Ed.D.
Katherine Montgomery, Ph.D.
Center for Media Education
Willard D. Rowland, Jr., Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Jorge Schement, Ph.D.
Pennsylvania State University
- Salamon, Lester M., Holding the Center: America's Nonprofit Sector at a Crossroads (New York, Nathan Cummings Foundation, 1997): p. 8.
- As Theda Skocpol writes in "The Tocqueville Problem," Social Science History (Winter 1997), "the postal system was the biggest enterprise of any kind in the pre-industrial United States." Skocpol argues that the postal system was vital to commerce, but even more important for civil society and democratic politics. See also, Richard John's "Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse" (1995).
- Former FCC General Counsel Henry Geller has argued this point persuasively in a number of articles, see H. Geller, Fiber Optics: An Opportunity for a New Policy?, The Annenberg Washington Program, 1991, p. 15.
- Gans, Herbert J., The War Against The Poor (New York, Basic Books, 1995): p. 47.
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Moving a Public Policy Agenda; see also Stefancic, Jean and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda (Philadelphia, Temple University Press 1996).
- Messer-Davidow, Ellen, "Dollars for Scholars: The Real Politics of Humanities Scholarship and Programs,"in G. Levine and E. A. Kaplan, The Politics of Research (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, forthcoming).
- Covington, Sally, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1997): p. 8.
- Thierer, Adam, "A Policy Maker's Guide to Deregulating Telecommunications," Heritage Talking Points (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 1995).
- See the insightful, if slightly hyperbolic, critique of Wired by Jedediah Purdy in The American Prospect, "The God of the Digerati," (March-April 1998) p. 86.
- Rowland Jr., Willard D., "The Traditions of Communications Research and Their Implications for Telecommunications Study," Reflections on the Future of the Field edited by Mark Levy and Michael Gurevitch (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994): p. 216.
Ibid., p. 215-216.