President Lyndon B. Johnson’s letter to Dr. James R. Killian, written on November 8, 1965, is a formulaic piece of presidential correspondence. It is a “thank you” note, commending Dr. Killian as head of the Carnegie Commission, a task force on educational television formed by the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation. (The resulting report would be immensely influential in the shaping of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.) This 1965 note from Johnson not only situates the commission’s initiatives within his own larger domestic ambitions, but also includes some fascinating exploration of what television is—and what it can be.
In evaluating Johnson’s Great Society programs, one must not forget that he was an educator before he became a politician. He studied at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University in San Marcos). For a time, he taught in a segregated school, where many of his students were Mexican American, in Cotulla, halfway between San Antonio and Laredo. After graduation, he taught public speaking at a high school in Houston. Johnson, perhaps more than any other modern president, was keenly aware of the value of education in both preparing the next generation and reinforcing the American virtues of equity and opportunity. In its combination of the images and sounds, television provided an engaging medium for regularly reaching the American population. As his letter reveals, he viewed the possibilities television afforded for educating children and training adults. Johnson understood it as a tool of education and “enlightenment,” and he saw its potential as cross-generational, “widening the horizons of millions of adults.” To that end, television was not only a cultural apparatus, but a social one as well.
The inspiration behind educational television was not wholly American. As other documents in the LBJ papers reveal, Italy and Japan had promising programs in place and a US government visit to the territory of American Samoa years earlier had also revealed to the administration what the mainland United States could be doing with educational programming. Indeed, despite the international efforts at work, educational television was very much a national—and nationalist—project from the very beginning. Johnson observes that there are already over 100 educational broadcasting stations at work. (Where they were and what they were showing is unclear, but a national public service would centralize it while also making its reach nationwide.) Clearly, he understood television as an extension of his larger social ambitions to raise up the poor and working classes through a “War on Poverty.”
Furthermore, as Johnson notes, it is important to acknowledge the role of the Carnegie Commission in the early development of this endeavor. As a private organization, the commission represents the need for public television to proceed not as a wholly governmental institution, but as a strategic partnership between both public and private interests. Johnson supported this suggestion, earning bipartisan support. Even the funding of public media today is wrapped up in a complex assemblage of federal allocations, private sponsorships, and donations from the public—the now familiar “viewers like you.”
In 1961, FCC commissioner Newton Minow famously disparaged television as a “vast wasteland.” The insult lingered, and the Johnson administration realized that the great power available with television—that is, to enter homes throughout the day, offering images and sounds for free (after buying a TV set, of course)—was being squandered. The Carnegie Commission’s study clearly acknowledged television’s untapped potential, but they also saw how to turn it around. Noticeably, Johnson refers to this study as one of “noncommercial educational television in our society.” The taint of television, for Johnson and for many stakeholders, rested in its fundamentally capitalist nature. As political economists have long argued, the product television delivers is not the advertised items, but the audiences themselves. While educational television sounds promising in nature, few broadcasters could escape the temptation of product placement or blatant shilling within such programs. To truly be educational, it would seem, educational television would have to divorce itself from advertisers, who made television free in the first place.
The break with advertisers also protected public broadcasting from charges of bias or corruption. In fact, many would argue for years to come that it was a hotbed of middle-class snobbery and liberal propaganda. To some degree, with its commitment to equal access, elevating the masses, and ensuring a fair chance, it was progressive in theory and execution. In our current political climate, where the threat of defunding public broadcasting is leveraged as a bargaining chip by the ruling party and accusations of “fake news” are lobbed at conservative and liberal media outlets alike, documents such as this one remind us of the reason behind such media in the first place. One can only hope we can somehow return to such utopian ideals for the benefit of not just the public today but for years to come.