A lot of people think the FCC as something of a toothless relic of bygone days - why it ever existed in the first place is mysterious, certainly the past twenty years - it's function is largely symbolic - it's bark often just that.
But that wasn't always the case. When it was established in the 1930's by FDR as a keeper of Public Interest and guardian against corruption and misuse it was a very effective tool in ensuring the public were the ones to benefit most from what were, at the time, the public's airwaves.
We all think the downhill slide came as a result of the Reagan years and the mass de-regulation that took place, not only with media but with most things having to do with the public. From Education to Welfare to Work Safety to the Environment to the Arts. Just about anything having to do with goods, services and quality of life.
True, the media was in there with wholesale de-regulation of the airwaves and ownership and the dismantling of laws preventing media conglomerates owning several radio and television stations in one market, as well as newspapers, billboards, magazines - anything relating to media.
But it all started further back than that. During the first few years of the Nixon Administration in the late 1960's when Nixon appointees to certain key commerce positions were put there, not for their skill, fairness or pledge to uphold the law, but rather as payoffs for political contributions - favors returned.
And gradually, over time the pattern was set - the gutting took place. Barely noticeable until it was too late.
And of course now it's well beyond that.
But in 1974, and while there were still responsible media outlets doing at least moderate jobs, some light was shed on the problem as was evidenced by this episode of the NPR series Options who ran a one hour program on the then-current state of the FCC. On the program they focused on three members of the FCC, Dr. Clay Whitehead, Charlotte Reid and the most outspoken critic, Nicholas Johnson.
Nicholas Johnson: “Well, some people think we’ve heard too much about Watergate in recent days, and you may be among them. They say ‘you know, after all we’ve got the best Administration money can buy’, actually the Networks fall into that category. I always think it’s rather amusing that the Networks are a little slow to pick up on these issues. You know, Dan Ellsberg first delivered his famous Pentagon Papers to the Networks and they refused to touch ‘em til they first appeared in the New York Times, which is their principle typical stance on new news items and on the coverage of the Watergate hearings, they were very interested so long as it involved bugging the Democratic National Committee and things of that sort. But as soon as it gets around to what is really the only important question, in a kind of fundamental sense, in these hearings. Namely, who gave the money and what did they get for it, it’s not as Senator Baker says ‘what did the President know and when did he know it’, it’s who gave the money and what did he get for it? Now that’s what the American people really need to find out. To understand how you buy and sell a government.”
Johnson's days were certainly numbered with the Commission, and Watergate served as a very successful smokescreen in distracting the public from the real issues around the Nixon administration. But it serves as a reminder that the level of corruption in Government these days goes very deep and is solidly entrenched.
No waving of wands can undo it, nor can it be revamped over night or over years.