Pledge Drive and Public Radio

February 7, 2017

I wrote this commentary assuming it would be extra incentive to contribute. Instead it is a time for celebration and appreciation. A one-day fund drive – WOW. So let me say a bit about some of the things that your contributions accomplished.

We’ve helped protect WAMC from efforts of Blowhards in Washington to cut the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That would eliminate several hundred thousand dollars for WAMC, like other public radio stations, and which help pay for the subscription costs for the national public radio programming we buy. In other words, the intended hit is against both the local stations and the public radio networks.

The public radio system combines the benefits of local stations and national networks. Local stations provide excellent coverage of regional news, events and opinion. Network economies of scale make possible other excellent programming we have become accustomed to. Efficiencies of scale make possible the specialists in multiple fields, and staffs of reporters throughout the country and the world ready at a moment’s notice to provide information about developments in far flung places. We do both, creating excellent programming at WAMC and buying programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, among others, from national networks.

The architecture of the public radio system has placed support of the national networks on the patronage of the local stations. That way no network or program gets automatic support. The only thing that has been relatively automatic has been support through the local stations, and our job, along with other public radio stations has been to pick the best collectively. When our budget is attacked, that has national implications.

So each station does its part. We support Alan, Joe, Ian, Ray, Brian, David, Jim, Wanda, Sarah and all of the people we love here in Albany and the New York-New England region we serve and broadcast from. And we support the best from all the national networks to which our WAMC/Northeast Public Radio has been subscribing.

There was a time, in the 1920s, when we could have had a truly independent public non-profit system, but Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, distributed broadcast licenses in such a way that it became impossible. When what was then called educational broadcasting was finally allowed a foothold in the broadcasting spectrum alongside the commercial stations, it was as a struggling step-child. But Republicans in Washington have opposed and tried to unravel it ever since.

So I hope our representatives in Washington get the message that their constituents support public broadcasting. But if Washington doesn’t get it, there will be a silver lining as long as we and other public radio listeners support the local stations and through them the national public radio system. Then it won’t tempt anyone in the system to worry about what the Administration might do to the networks or the stations. Public radio will depend on you, the listeners, as we should, not on people with their so-called alternative facts and rampant self-interest and selfishness.

We celebrate our role and our leadership in protecting both WAMC and the public radio system of which it is a part. United we stand for truth, justice and honest news.— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 7, 2017.

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Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


WAMC – An Oasis Of Sanity

June 3, 2014

This station is an oasis of sanity in a suicidal world.

So many people refuse to let the reality of climate change seep into their comfortable thoughts. But sealing their minds against reality will not keep it at bay. Changes are coming, and the more we close our minds and eyes the more serious it will be. We and our children and grandchildren are the hostages to the foolishness of our generation. This has got to stop. Read the rest of this entry »


Global warming demands a BTU tax

January 9, 2013

Last night at the Egg I heard Bill McKibben talk about climate change. I was very proud of Joe and Alan and WAMC for organizing it and proud of the WAMC audience for coming out in droves to hear him. The message he brings is not a happy one but it is a message we have to hear and understand; more, it’s a message we have to act on. Read the rest of this entry »


This is an Emergency

October 16, 2012

During the fund drive I heard Joe Donahue and this station working hard to bring Bill McKibben to this audience and lead us away from the catastrophe of global warming. He and the station did a great service and I am proud to be associated with them.

If your house was on fire you wouldn’t stand like a bystander waiting for it to collapse; you’d call the fire department and get anyone you could reach out of there fast.

If you child or your grandchild were about to drown, you would not turn your back moaning that it was too awful to contemplate; you’d raise hell to get your children out.

If your children disappeared on a camping trip, you wouldn’t sit around moaning; you’d search, call the rangers, find those children.

If your baby was dying of thirst, you’d find water. If your child was dying of hunger you’d find food. I met one six year old girl whose mother released her to others who brought her to America after the young girl’s brother had died of starvation in Liberia. It’s awful to contemplate but as parents we do what we have to in order to protect our children.  Read the rest of this entry »


Public Broadcasting

May 29, 2012

The station is about to conduct a fund drive next week. So it seems an appropriate time to talk a bit about public broadcasting. I used to teach Mass Communications Law, read deeply into the history of broadcasting, and remember many of the changes. When I was growing up, New York City was the only place in the country where you could receive seven television stations and many radio stations on both AM and FM dials. We even had competing classical music stations! The contrast was stunning when one drove outside the New York metropolitan area. Often there was a single accessible station. So I think it’s a good time to stop and take note of what has happened.

In most countries, government stations have been used for pure PR on behalf of whichever politicians controlled it. The BBC, organized by the grandfather of a good friend of ours, was the rare exception. It too was quite political – except that Lord Reith didn’t like the incumbent government and fought it – giving the BBC the reputation for independence it has to this day. Elsewhere, government funded trash.

The American airwaves had been organized for political purposes here as well. University broadcasters who had dominated the airwaves in the 1920s were systematically driven off the air in favor of private broadcasters, first by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, then by the Federal Radio Commission and finally by the FCC or Federal Communications Commission. Many Americans kept pushing for educational broadcasting. Eventually, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio were the response to that pressure.

When national public broadcasting was first proposed I was leery of it. And I was not alone. Public broadcasting was organized, here, however, with a system of checks and balances. Participants had to be not-for-profit organizations, whether or not affiliated with a university. A large share of the control was placed in the local broadcasters through their ability to buy and air what programs they chose. And advertising was severely limited to what we have come to call underwriting so that broadcasting would be relatively free of commercial influence as well. Even so there have been efforts to control the public broadcasting system for political ends rather than maintain its independence.

I have been delightfully surprised at the result – professional, balanced, penetrating, fair and accurate reporting told in ways we can all understand. Of course I could get the news elsewhere. But not while multitasking – driving, eating, or getting dressed. I’d have to stop, look and read. I couldn’t get the news as easily or as pleasantly. I enjoy and admire the people who bring us the news and interviews, both on national programs and those which originate right here in Albany.

I do not have a crystal ball. I do not know how all the new forms of communication will affect public radio and who will come out on top. But I know from working in many cities that we have a jewel in this one, a station that has the admiration of people who run public radio stations in much larger places, and it shows in the programming we have. Indeed it shows in the programming that WAMC has maintained in spite of budget cuts. Public radio in general and WAMC in particular are jewels, well worth supporting and protecting.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2012.


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