As I discussed in my last blog, President Lyndon B. Johnson was not only a progressive leader, but an innovative theorist of television, too. In reading his letters and speeches regarding the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, one sees evidence of how he channeled his experience as a teacher into his thoughtful consideration of what television was and what it could be. While his letter to Dr. Killian laid out some of his earliest ideas about television, he—along with his speechwriters and administration—solidified his understanding of television and educational broadcasting in general through his “Remarks Upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.” Reading this document over fifty years later, Johnson’s comments remind us that television is not only a technology or an entertainment medium, but a privilege that comes with substantial social responsibility.
In framing his remarks, Johnson turns to Samuel Morse’s 1844 response to the sending of the first telegram: “What hath God wrought?” Even today, Morse’s comment reminds us of the awesome power and potential that comes with new media technologies—and the need to proceed thoughtfully, ethically, and cautiously. But Johnson wants to add excitement, even joy, to that—what he calls “awe and wonderment.” For Johnson, the unrealized potential in television is nothing short of breathtaking. He calls on Americans to harness that power to “enrich man’s spirit.” Johnson and his administration worked to move television beyond its status as a so-called “vast wasteland.” In so doing, public broadcasting modeled Johnson’s vision for the Great Society committed to education, community, and equity.
To best understand Johnson’s intentions, we need to examine how public broadcasting was conceived as a national institution. Johnson makes it very clear that it should be free, independent, and publicly held. To be truly enlightening, broadcasting would have to be freed from the constraints of advertisers, special interests, and demographics. It would need to serve everyone’s interests as viewers, Americans, and human beings. The final decision was to fund it as a public-private partnership between corporations and private donors. To this day, funding for public broadcasting comes from federal allocations, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and viewer donations.
Johnson’s ideas for public broadcasting echo the ideas of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who saw the European salon as a space for the open exchange of ideas. Like Habermas, Johnson imagined television to be a venue for the arts, sciences, and humanities that would be readily available and accessible to the general public. It no longer mattered if one was far away from national parks, museums, or monuments. Documentaries could take Americans to those places and even back in time. Panel shows could model what Johnson calls “the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.” Through discussion, even debates, Americans could be exposed to a range of ideas and decide for themselves. In our current era of siloing and echo chambers, the ideals of the forum seem a thing of the past. If only we could’ve maintained such optimism and commitment to democratic values, perhaps the current, tense social climate could be alleviated.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 inspires Johnson to think ahead, conceiving of a “great network of knowledge—not just a broadcast system, but a medium that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can rise.” As a result, Johnson seemed to predict the internet, broadly speaking, as an easily accessed and readily available tool for information and communication. Though it was developed in large part by the government, the internet was ceded to private corporations in the public’s interest. One wonders—yet again—what could’ve been if we had maintained it in the public’s trust.
Reading Johnson today, he seems remarkably prescient and optimistic about the possible of media for enriching the daily lives of citizens and of the democracy. While he understood that media was not impervious to corruption or manipulation, he saw that, in the right hands, it could be a tool for reinforcing democratic ideals and bettering society. As we make sense of fake news, privacy violations on social media, and outsider influence on elections, we might re-imagine how to return to a notion of media-as-forum and an institution for the public trust—not just for our current political moment, but for generations to come.