Communications and Community

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The essence of community—indeed, its sine qua non—is communications. In terms of constitutionalism, the question arises as to the role of government intervention in the structure of broadcasting and other forms of communication to foster or reshape communities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States has, for example, encouraged minority ownership of broadcast channels or, more directly, minority-related programming, as a means (in part) of strengthening certain notions of community. In Europe, the Television Without Frontiers Directive imposed European quotas on national broadcasters to help frame a European information space. In some highly restricted societies that consider control of imagery essential to a notion of community—such as Iran and Iraq—government intervention to affect the pictures and words that swirl into the minds of its citizens is an important art form.

"Community" has informed much of American broadcast policy. It is reflected in the original allocation patterns of radio frequencies. In 1927, and then again in 1934, Congress determined that each local community should have a radio station—that allocations should be designed not to favor a regional or national market, but one that has local roots. This pattern of allocation of licenses based on cities and towns, rather than vast regions, was the chief characteristic of the 1954 Table of Allocations for television frequencies, and it is that pattern that is the imprint of broadcasting in the United States today. In a famous FCC publication, the 1947 Blue Book, the Commission stressed the importance of the broadcaster as a "mouth-piece" for the community, and local management and ownership were big advantages in contested applications for licenses.

One haunting question, always, was whether this emphasis on community was a sham—merely a way for congressional representatives to deliver wealth to individuals within their districts—with the inevitable rise of national impersonal networks and the transfer of licenses to impersonal chains or groups. Artifacts of community included, for example, a requirement that station management go through a formal ascertainment process, asking local leaders what issues were important to the community, with the assumption that this survey would yield coverage in news. But ascertainment was mechanical, and, often, there was no enforcement mechanism to ensure that community needs were met.

A combination of cynicism about the values and practice of localism, recognition of vast changes in ownership, and constitutional doubts about federal requirements (or even pressure) toward localism led in the 1980s to the abandonment of most of the regulatory architecture underlying the allocation of stations to communities. There is no more ascertainment requirement, no more integration of ownership and management, and even no requirement of local news and public affairs. In turner broadcasting system v. fcc (1994), the Supreme Court implied that requiring local coverage (or, in this case, preferring over-the-air channels for mandatory coverage on cable), might not be "content neutral" and, therefore, might mean that legislation would have to surmount the very high strict scrutiny hurdle to be constitutional.

The Court's growing hostility to affirmative action programs imposed by government also led to the withering away of the minority preference program, with its implications for the use of broadcasting to enhance the place of African Americans, Hispanics, and others within the United States community. In metro broadcasting, inc. v. fcc (1990), the Court narrowly affirmed a minority preference in contested license applications, but the reasoning was wan, and the constitutional support for intervention to assist in community-building of this sort was moving in the wrong direction. Metro Broadcasting was undermined in adarand construction, inc. v. peÑa (1995).

Cable television, too, saw a playing, at the edges, with the use of communications to build community. Tied to the idea that cities had control of the streets and the physical space for wires, cable television became franchised, almost universally, at the local level. As a result, applicants for valuable licenses boasted how adoption of their systems would mean more community-building in the franchise area. Operators guaranteed local studios, channel space for local government and local schools, and public access channels. These became known as PEG (Public Access, Educational and Governmental) commitments. Congress, in the 1984 Cable Act, while precluding much local control over program content, continued to permit franchises to contain these PEG requirements. The constitutionality of these requirements has never been fully tested.

These three outcroppings—the architecture of the original allocation of radio and television licenses, an extensive effort to expand minority broadcasting, and the existence of PEG channels—are examples of a fundamental understanding that the nature of community is a function of the organization of communications. But these three outcroppings also indicate the complexity of government ordering of broadcasting and the press to achieve what are deemed to be positive results.

Monroe E. Price

(see also: Communications and Democracy; First Amendment; Freedom of Speech; Freedom of the Press; "Must Carry" Laws.)

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Communications and Community

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Communications and Community