On the 61st Anniversary Of His ‘Vast Wasteland’ Speech, Honor Newton Minow With A Public Option For Social Media.

President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Newt Minow, lawyer, John F. … [+] Kennedys Chairman of the FCC, father of the modern presidential debates, and who Obama credits to introducing he and Michelle Obama. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

A little over half a century ago, as public opinion began to polarize over the Vietnam War and as prominent public officials like FCC Chairman Newton Minow warned (61 years ago today) of commercial television’s becoming a ‘vast wasteland,’ members of Congress came up with a very good idea. Culminating in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the idea was to provide what we would nowadays call a ‘public option’ in broadcasting – something that wouldn’t replace the wasteland of commercial television, but would at least provide an alternative to those seeking real objectivity in reporting and real quality in programming.

In effect, the PBA signaled Congress’s recognition that in the new era of broadcast media, the ‘public square’ could no longer be simply a geographic space out front of City Hall, but must also embrace spectrum space on the national airwaves. Hence Congress did all that it could to assure the same kind of neutrality over the publicly-occupied slice of the airwaves that court jurisprudence did over publicly-occupied slices of real estate near Town Halls. This they did by the time-honored means of incentive structures and Madisonian (‘checks and balances’) governance…

Network establishment and content selection were entrusted to a publicly funded, private non-profit corporation with an evenly bipartisan nine-member board, the members of which would be nominated by the President with the advice and Consent of the Senate. This of course was and remains the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which still funds, in whole or in part, your local public television and public radio affiliates. The PBA also provided for the establishment of two additional nonprofits to develop television and radio programing for CPB outlets – what became the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS

PBS
) and National Public Radio (NPR) in 1970.

History has vindicated the judgments of Congress and Presidents Johnson and Nixon, who aided in and oversaw the establishment of American public media in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Content has routinely won praises and awards from all quarters for both its high quality and its political neutrality. Apart from a brief controversy in 2005, when the G.W. Bush Administration showed itself to be as contemptuous of domestic as of international law and was duly rebuffed for it, the CPB, PBS, and NPR have carried on quite as well as predicted at their founding, and continue to do so today.

There is a gap now, however, in public broadcasting that sorely needs filling. Much as ‘mass media’ carried the public square into the electro-magnetic spectrum over the course of the mid-20th century, so have ‘social media’ now carried that square to the web. Reports have been legion for very long now that most Americans get most of their news on such sites as Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram – a photo-sharing site. Yet even those old reports are now rapidly being superseded by a yet more surprising development: the fact that now more Americans seem to be getting their news from a video-sharing app – a government-owned one, in fact, with the government in question being that of the People’s Republic of China.

I refer of course to TikTok, which the NY Times’ Ezra Klein reports now has ‘more active users than Twitter, more U.S. watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, [and] more site visits than Google

GOOG
.’ This is of course potentially alarming enough in its own right to call for action like that pushed by the Trump administration in its final months – viz., to ban TikTok unless it changes ownership. After all, China itself bans TikTok at home – along with Google and Facebook and Twitter – evidently more comfortable with Americans’ exposure to disinformation and data-harvest than with its own citizens’.

But TikTok alone isn’t the sole problem where personal data extraction and disinformation are concerned, of course. Facebook and Twitter have long since been sites of abuse of this sort, the most notorious thus far having been those by and for the fellow who postured as our protector against TikTok – Donald Trump. And now, of course, all eyes are on Twitter again as folk wonder aloud whether a large tract of our public square will become yet another oligarch’s vanity project.

Why must the public square and the public mind formed there, crucial as they are to our re-public’s functioning, be ever subject to the whims and pathologies of domestic plutocrats and foreign autocrats? Is some law of nature that mandates it? Obviously not. There is only the absence of any enacted law that prohibits or counteracts it. Why not, then, supplement the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 as we did in 1970, this time adding not only public television and public radio, but also public sharing media?

Supplement PBS and NPR with a PSM – Public Sharing Media – that provides a freely accessible, reasonably governed, bipartisanly overseen nonprofit platform on which all people may share news, announcements, and other content in good faith, without fear of having their opinions algorithmically manipulated or their personal information reaped and harvested. Take the ‘social’ in ‘social media’ seriously, not quite by ‘socializing’ it, but by providing a public option for it just as we do with radio and television.

Are you skeptical that we can do this? Maybe some self-styled ‘Republicans’ who incessantly undermine the ‘public’ part of our republic have left you so, but you shouldn’t be. The unalloyed successes of PBS and NPR, not to mention the UK’s BBC and Canada’s CBC, should be enough to convince anyone. But if they are not, then take a gander at China’s WeChat, which is far better at seamlessly integrating on one platform all that Facebook, Google, Instagram and Twitter do on separate platforms and more – including the widely used WeChatPay, a PayPal

PYPL
-like payment app – than are those firms are at doing what they do in siloed fashion.

Yes, WeChat itself enables China’s government – and others! – to monitor activity and harvest data. (For that reason I left it after using it for two or three years.) But a government that is constitutionally required as ours is to abjure such activities, and that cannot profit by doing such things in any case, will not do that. Only the for-profit oligarch-owned networks – our current private sector incumbents Facebook et. al – do and will keep doing that. And Congress can even require encryption of the new platform’s user data – as China, Facebook and company do not – to make sure.

WeChat’s sole significance here, then, is its proof that a highly useable, widely popular state-of-the-art social sharing platform is just as providable in the guise of a public option as are radio and television. Why don’t we do this, then, Congress? And why don’t we do it right now? The time seems quite ripe after Cambridge Analytica, Trump, and Musk; and today (Monday, May 9th) is the 61st anniversary of Newton Minow’s celebrated ‘vast wasteland’ address referenced above. It feels almost like Providence.

And you now what else? Newton Minow’s still with us. Why not name the enactment, then, the Newton Minnow Public Sharing Media Act of 2022?