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Democratic Communications and Media Diversity: A Civil Rights Book Club Interview with Mark Lloyd

June 2007

In our second Civilrights.org Book Club Interview with Mark Lloyd, we talk about an issue that is not typically one that is considered a civil rights issue—media reform. According to Mark, media reform is rarely talked about in the context of civil rights because it requires a fundamental shift in Americans’ ideas of what role media and communications play in our nation. Mark Lloyd’s book, Prologue to a Farce: Communications and Democracy in America was featured in our April Book Club picks and was the primary vehicle for this interview.

Civilrights.org: What drew you to communications policy as a career?

Mark Lloyd: I grew up in the late 60’s and early 70’s and became a journalist very quickly. And what I came to understand working as a journalist is the importance of the underlying rules that led companies to look for people like me – young men of color – to both report on communities that had previously been ignored and to talk with folks in those communities about what was important to them. So, I understood that there was a policy behind that. This wasn’t just the good intentions of the owners of the companies.

Civilrights.org: For those who may have not read the book, can you talk a little about why you decided to write it and what you tried to accomplish with the book?

Mark Lloyd: What led me to write the book was the lack of a relatively short condensation of the history of communications policy in the U.S. any other place. I was trying to teach this [issue] and what I saw was very truncated and didn’t connect say: the muckrakers to the broadcasters about Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s and 70s and didn’t connect that to cable or to the internet or much of anything else. And so I was very interested in connecting all of those threads to tell a good story about what happened.

Civilrights.org: The most fascinating part of the book is the telephone/telegraph stuff, which I knew very little about. Early in your book you talk about how the trusts like Western Union consolidated their monopoly over the telephone/telegraph industry by adjusting “the founders’ notions of a republic based on liberty, equality, and balancing faction.” Can you explain what this adjustment was and how it relates to our current challenge with media consolidation?

Mark Lloyd: Part of what happened is the Jacksonian Democrats came in and while they took advantage of this incredible mechanism, the most advanced mechanism of communications of its day, which was the post office, and they used it mainly for political patronage, they really didn’t embrace its importance as a tool to socialize non-citizens so they could be effective citizens. They were very concerned about the power that the post would give to aristocrats or others in the country. They lost the understanding that Madison and the other founders gained about what bound us together as a nation, which was the ability of us as sovereign citizens to communicate easily with each other.

As a result of that, they turned over the telegraph, the most technically advanced communications form of its day, to the financial interests, the mercantile of its time, what became the trust, what became what Lincoln called “capital,” what we think of as “corporate America.”

And the ability of that one faction to control the most advanced form of communication had a direct impact on the way newspapers operated; it had an impact on presidential politics. It changed the way public discourse was held in the U.S. and we’ve never recovered from that. That faction continues to dominate public discourse.

The challenge is in seeing Western Union as the first monopoly as an entity that was really quite foreign for the U.S. There was nothing like Western Union, there was no national monopoly – we sort of think of the trains and things like that – there was nothing like Western Union before. They operated differently, they thought differently and they had a direct impact on essentially the trajectory of U.S. discourse from the time they developed to the present.

Civilrights.org: So you would say that was the “point of no return” in terms of our communications policy?

Mark Lloyd: Yeah. It really was “the gilded age”, the age where we really moved away from the possibility of a democratic republic to becoming a consumer industrial society. And our communications mechanism moved away from a mechanism that was there to support democratic communications to a mechanism that was there to support an industrial, consumer society. And that’s pretty much where we are now.

Civilrights.org: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to be a good law. Everyone talks about it as this law that was going to fix some of the problems we have with respect to media consolidation. In your view, what exactly was it designed to do and what went wrong with it?

Mark Lloyd: There some good things about the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The establishment of universal service as a clear requirement of all telecommunications companies to contribute to a fund that would help to support schools and libraries and poor people and folks in rural areas and hospitals and health care centers. The 1996 Act established that; it didn’t really exist in that sort of comprehensive form before.

The idea of 706 in the 1996 Act, which requires the FCC to determine the deployment of advanced telecommunications services, that’s in the 1996 Act. The 1996 Act requires the FCC to look at services to the disabled, requires the FCC to look at what’s happening with the ability of women and minorities to participate effectively in the media marketplace. There’s a telecommunications fund established in the 1996 Act. There’s a lot of good stuff in the 1996 Act. None of that stuff works effectively. The universal service fund comes close, but it’s under constant attack.

We were really sold with the 1996 Act as this thing that was going to increase competition between industries, so the telephone industry was going to be able to compete with the television industry; the television industry was going to be able to compete with the cable industry.

And what we got was greater media consolidation. What we got was a set of rules that was supposed to require innovation on new networks and the innovators were frozen out largely by the telecos. We were sold a bill of good that wasn’t what people said it was going to be. Many of us doubted that the rules that were put in place in the 1996 Act regarding competition were going to work. So there was no big surprise about that.

The 1996 Act is a classic piece of federal compromise about an issue that’s extraordinarily important. And we can say the same thing about the compromises regarding funding colleges and schools. We can say the same thing about our health care system. So the 1996 Act is a clear demonstration of the flaws of our current Congress and scheme.

But one of the biggest challenges is that the 1996 Telecommunications Act relies on the telecommunications and media industry to report on it. And as my friend, Charles Lewis, says, it would sort of be like Willie Sutton, the bank robber, telling the cops that he was about to rob a bank. So there were those of us who were saying, “There’s a bank robbery going on here”, but the media reporting on that stuff is of course trying to focus our attention on the clowns on the other side of the city. This is a big problem with our media. How do they report on themselves?

Civilrights.org: So the FCC is supposed to be, to some degree, helping with these kinds of things. There was an interesting Nation article I think maybe two months ago – or maybe it was the LA Times – that talks about whether or not the FCC is completely obsolete as an entity. Do you think that we would be best served by having some kind of entity that is comparable to the Department of Justice?

Mark Lloyd: Well, that is supposed to be the FCC. You know, you can arrange the chairs on the deck, but the Titanic is still heading toward the rocks.

The FCC was part of this trend that developed during the progressive period where we were fighting the trusts, where you’ve got these strange administrative agencies that combine executive, judicial, and legislative branches in one expert agency that is not elected. This is pretty strange, right? But that’s the system we’ve got. Congress no longer wants to be held responsible for these decisions. Congress used to be responsible for this stuff.

We need a federal agency that is going to make sure that the public good is actually served. And part of that public good, I think, ought to be a clear determination about whether or not all citizens, including people of color, have access to opportunities to speak and also to hear information that has a direct impact on their lives, and their children’s lives, and their parents’ lives. The FCC doesn’t do that right now but that’s because of Congress. It’s because we haven’t created a mechanism to do that kind of work.

The FCC is a creature of the industries, in a couple of ways.

One, the FCC was formed at the behest of the industry. The industry wanted something to keep all these people who were interfering in the airwaves off. The telephone industry wanted someone who was going to make sure that the standards that the dominant company, the Bell Company, wanted to have in place were the standards that everyone – the independents that were sending telegraphs through barbed wire – used. The industry wanted those agencies, so in that sense the agencies are a creature of those industries.

Two, the industries hear from the experts, they get data from the experts at universities that they pay. And that data and information are relied upon by the FCC. And so, largely the FCC is making public policy decisions supposedly to help the public, but relying on information provided by the industry. So there’s a clear conflict there.

If we’re really going to rely on expert agencies like the FCC, they have to be entirely independent of these industries. They have to collect their own data. And we citizens have to be much more engaged in determining what our own environments are.

Civilrights.org: So it should work similar to the way the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights used to work, or should work?

Mark Lloyd: Yea.

Civilrights.org: At the end of your book you say, “If media reform creates a subsidy for poor people to partake of minimal communications services in a market controlled by powerful corporations, it does not go far enough. If media reform merely allows a few more people, perhaps more women and minorities, to enter the game, it does not go far enough. If media reform creates an electronic village or a cable public access operation or even a municipally run advanced telecommunications system, but fails to put the promotion of civic engagement at the center of these creations, it does not go far enough.” How far should reform go? What would the nation look like?

Mark Lloyd: I think that the purpose of reform should be to make sure that our communications is actually democratic. That there is real engagement among people about the rules of communication and that we have real information about the policy discussions that need to be had in order to create intelligent rules.

We don’t have that now. It is done to the extent to which CBS can afford it or decides they are going to afford it or the extent to which a company can do it and also make a profit. The importance of making sure that we as citizens have information to make decisions in a democracy is not first and foremost. And so I go back to the core ideas of really the Post Office Act of 1792, which is that it ought to be service first. It should not be put into the hands of industry and we need to figure out what actually going to be the best for all of us.

I think public access, more access for women and minorities, I think all these things are important, but I don’t think they are enough. I don’t think they can be protected if we don’t protect the ability of citizens to actually engage in the rule-making process.

Civilrights.org: One of the things that concern me is that sometimes advocates don’t make the connection between who owns media and what we see. And so sometimes we end up talking a lot about “democracy” or we talk about diversity in terms of numbers; how many black people we see, how many women we see. But we don’t necessarily talk about how what we see influences us politically. So if I say I don’t want to watch BET anymore because they only show one aspect of blackness, that’s a political choice. But people don’t think of it that way. How do we make that relevant for people and get to that next step that you are talking about, which is understanding how communications is supposed to foster this robust republic?

Mark Lloyd: Well, first of all, it’s very hard. We are like fish swimming in increasingly dirty water and we don’t even know we’re in water; we think we’re flying. We have no idea. And so we operate in this media environment, not conscious of the fact that there are structures that create the content, that there are structures that determine who owns. It’s very hard for us to think outside of [this concept where] you say “Why should the person with the most amount of money be allowed to own?” Like people go, “what kind of system are you in? What world do you live in where people who don’t have the most amount of money control?”

And people get excited about new technology. So folks see the internet and they go “the internet’s going to solve it because, you know, it’s easy. New technology is really easy. It answers everything.” Without thinking that those with the most amount of money usually have more and better access to the technology. And the technology as it’s shaped tends to serve those people with the most amount of money. So, why would social justice be created in that context, if this is still a money system?

But I think if people accept core civil rights notions, social justice notions … that there are certain things that should be available to all Americans regardless of cost. [For instance,] we should all be able to breathe air, we should all have access to clean water, we should all no matter how much money we have be able to vote. There are certain things that should not be determined by how much money you have. I think one of those things is communications in our society. And I know I’m strange that way but I do think that communications is so fundamental. Just because you are a billionaire should not allow you to dominate democratic discourse in the U.S., but that’s where we are.

And until we get at a point where we accept that communications is fundamental, if we’re ever going to achieve social justice, we must be able to move away or substantially challenge the idea that “well, if you pay for it, you should be able to dominate it” we are not going to solve that problem.

But that’s going to take a mind-shift. It’s one of the hardest things for the students to get, for public policy advocates who work in this field to get. The problem is not the technology and the solution is not the technology. The problem is that those with the most amount of money in this society are able to dominate our discourse and that will not change until we have the ability to equally communicate, until we are able to create checks and balances in this important area, and until we understand that this is not about games, or wrestling … this is about health care or making decisions about the environment or making decisions about everything that we think is important. Until we get at a point where we understand that you got to have an equal ability to communicate, we’re not going to solve those other problems.

So it’s going to be hard work. The first thing is: understanding what you’re fighting for, which is not a free internet. It’s not that we need more black people on TV. There is something else you are fighting for, which is the equal ability of citizens to be able to participate in the democracy. And if you’ve got unequal communications, then you’ve eliminated the equal ability to participate in democracy.

Civilrights.org: Well, I think that’s a great way to end. Thanks, Mark for the interview.

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