Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Chapter 6. Visual Education—(II)

"'They should take the business of guidance in this new world as a sacred trust, knowing they have the power to influence an enormous democracy.'”

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 6. Visual Education—(II)

“[T]he goal we seek is an instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society.”1 As the Carnegie commissioners called for it, they echoed, even if accidentally, the ambitions of the Encyclopédie and its authors and founders in chapter 2, in some places almost verbatim. “Americans will know themselves, their communities, and their world in richer ways [through better, diversified television]. They will gain a fuller awareness of the wonder and variety of the arts, sciences, scholarship, and craftsmanship, and of the many roads along which the product of man’s mind and man’s hands can be encountered.”2 Diderot could have written the first Carnegie report.3

So how is it that our televisual Enlightenment has never matured?

The founders and supporters of public broadcasting—from the 1960s and also from these earliest years—deserve to celebrate the achievements of the realm, and these are not inconsiderable: flagship programming initiatives, underwritten by philanthropies and government agencies with hundreds of millions of dollars; hours of history, science, business, public affairs, and arts and culture that have gained a place on every television dial, cable box, satellite dish, and streaming menu available to the American public. But there are reasons why television today looks as it does, and why the portrait of our programming grid in 2020 would look so familiar to the figures who critiqued the screen’s offerings in the 1910s and 1920s—and in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and since. There’s a time line that runs quite steadily through print and film and television and the Internet of media visionaries and reformers speaking and heard, speaking and unheard, speaking and suppressed, not speaking loudly enough—and some, as we have described, reaching the status of prophets and even (as prophets put down by force) martyrs. There is, thus, a time line that runs from Visual Education and The Educational Screen through to these visions, above, of national solutions in the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s; from there through the fights over commercial broadcasting versus public broadcasting as the American model; and from there, with that fight lost, through the Murrows and the Minows; through the Carnegie Commissions, the subsequent reports, the deregulation and weakening of educational and public broadcasting; and now through the gutting of the mechanisms that had been recommended to govern the Internet and help society—global society, now growing more fully connected—to realize its full promise.4

It’s the time line, the through line, of the Monsterverse.

Law professor Monroe Price, an expert on Soviet society and methods of thought control, has written that “for any society that seeks to achieve a substantial degree of democratic participation, the structure of the communications system is integrated with the functioning of the political system. That is why it is particularly vital to have meaningful public debate about any law that alters the relationship among principal elements of communications systems and between government and the private systems of communication, or even the balance of power between the makers and distributors of information.”5 As we unfurl in the arguments that follow, cultural and educational institutions are makers and distributors of information today as well, in the digital age, and thus count today among these “principal elements of communications systems” themselves. In the 1920s, not enough of these institutions, not enough key people in government, and not enough of the public recognized the stakes—economic, social, political—involved, and so the work of the visual education societies evaporated, swallowed up into a larger fight, also lost, for the early control of American broadcasting, which is to say, all these years later, over control of the screens and speakers that today exist in every American home, school, meeting place, desktop, laptop, and phone.

The Carnegie Commission that was to assemble—from its first meeting in New York in December 1965 to its last in Dedham, Massachusetts, in November of the following year6—was the product not only of exasperation. When you explore the prehistory of public broadcasting, there’s a chill that comes over you—a sense of déjà vu all over again, for two reasons. The first is, as this chapter addresses, that then as now, the hope for enlightenment was—it has always been—there, somewhere prominent, in the American debate over media. The second is that forces back then snookered one of the greatest public trusts out of public control and into private hands, and so ultimately under private control. Then as now, it didn’t have to be—it never has to be—that way. Reviewing a masterful history of the early years that followed Visual Education and Educational Screen, as the country saw “visual education” coopted by those who controlled the screen and then sidelined and often ignored, the greatest historian of the television medium, Erik Barnouw, saw the question to address as this one: “How [was] our nation . . . maneuvered, during pre-television years, into a broadcasting system controlled by and for business[?]”

A glimmer shines from the pool of our tears when we lift our heads from weeping long enough to see that we have one more crack at it with the modern Internet, which has gone far but maybe not too far, which has taken steps and run those steps along the same track as film, as radio, and as television, but maybe not yet past the point of no return.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas speaks about the new ways in which we are able now to directly affect, for the better, the power structure of the public sphere and deliberative politics worldwide through the production and redistribution of media.7 This is precisely, one might posit, one reason—the others being greed and money—why the fights over control of the media are so bare-knuckled and brutal and often so violent. As we have noted above, the only blood shed during the most expansive political upheaval in the world since the Second World War—the collapse of communism—was shed at the foot of the television towers in Bucharest, Vilnius, and Moscow, during violent confrontations over the control of the medium, and more specifically as a result of its seizure—for the first time, as it was a medium developed during the Cold War—from the grip of the totalitarian thought-controllers. This struggle, over television, has found several historians and media commentators as its chroniclers, but it’s supremely relevant. The dust under which it lives should be blown off as we debate the future of the web.

“How was our nation maneuvered? ” The urgency of the need to address an even more dangerous behemoth than we have previously confronted—state news and the power of the private sector, now working together—is brand-new. The Fox News empire, which began as an opposition network of principle-free lies and innuendo, under the presidency of Donald Trump became the network of the executive branch, and for the first time in American history we had—de facto, if not de jure—a state television channel, and thriving capillaries of video, radio, images, and print running in and out of the heart and the arteries of the beast. Fox has enjoyed a run of more than two hundred months as the top-rated news network in the country and, in 2018, its highest ratings ever.8 The attempted evisceration of the idea of a public record, a common and independent source of facts, produced what media critic and historian Jay Rosen calls an “authoritarian news system”—even as in the same breath he indicates that we don’t always have the language we need to talk about it.9 But we do. It’s a dress rehearsal for a totalitarian system of thought control, and it’s the convergence many have dreamt about—only in a dystopian warp. It’s a whiplash twist—not the end of history, as people proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, but the jingle, jangle, tintinnabulation of the beginning of the end of our democracy and our many freedoms. Gone now, thanks to Reagan-era deregulation of our communications systems, and generally to deregulation of every aspect of our economy and culture, are the societal standards and norms that protected us in times of quiet from such hideous encroachment.10 It’s what in professional terms might be called a bummer. It’s what in New Enlightenment terms we call . . .

. . . the Monsterverse.11

“How was our nation maneuvered? ” The book that Barnouw was reviewing was Robert W. McChesney’s masterpiece, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy, which chronicles how we lost control of our own broadcasting.12

“How did advertising-driven broadcasting,” writes another historian, “establish itself as the dominant user of the airwaves in America?”13

While what you are reading is not a television-history book, much of our present media and communications infrastructure dilemma is rooted in this history—and in how our commercial system manufactured its present outcome, and how it may always manufacture that same outcome when left untended, unguarded, and unopposed. Attempts to control the structure of our media have produced results that—if not akin to the way our foreign policy works, with trillions of dollars being misdirected at the invasion of the wrong countries—at least might make us uncomfortable enough to insist that Americans take a larger interest and play a larger role in the development of the policies that govern it. Needless to say, perhaps, when you commercialize a medium through advertising, and make almost every media network and media production dependent upon advertising for revenue, you render almost every conceivable piece of media a commercially valuable piece of property (witness, say, YouTube), and thus begin to pit, ineluctably, private and commercial interests against public ones.

This means that pressures are put against making media public: against shaping media in and for the public interest, and against sharing media in a timely fashion—in ways that copyright law, introduced prior to advertising, was originally designed to facilitate.

Not surprisingly, then, the history of our national media (and not just ours) is one that presents successive, almost nonstop waves of deregulation efforts wherever there was regulation designed to protect the public interest. McChesney’s great contribution to our understanding of this history is his seminal work providing a case study of the cornerstone rollback, and the now ubiquitous commercial interests behind it. His tale is a blow-by-blow account of the lobbying, coopting, filibustering, bribing, and blackmailing by commercial interests of public and educational broadcasting interests in the period immediately following the great calls, discussed above, for film to do better for our citizens, paving the way, as McChesney puts it, “for the emerging dominant paradigm regarding broadcasting in the United States that deemed the control of the ether by commercial broadcasters as inviolable and outside the boundaries of legitimate discussion”—all accompanied by an effort to eliminate from the record the “struggle and debate over the control and structure” of the US broadcasting industry.14

And because of this systematic campaign, any meaningful government attempt to regulate the emerging status quo was to be seen as holding “the potential [for our young broadcasting establishment] to degenerate into a heinous state-censored system with the most ignominious implications for democratic rule.” “Merely granting the government the right to regulate broadcasting,” it was argued by 1936 and 1937, was akin “to ‘the erection of a guillotine,’ which, were a ‘state of national hysteria’ to emerge, would almost certainly develop into a situation similar to what had transpired with broadcasting in Nazi Germany.”15 No matter. Reform quashed, the history of efforts at reform excised from the ascendant narrative, we end up with “a dominant ‘consensus’ vision”—as though it always had to be so. By 1938, Radio Corporation of America head David Sarnoff would deliver to a national audience over his RCA-owned NBC network a triumphalist vision of commercial American broadcasting, ignoring the struggle of the previous fifteen years, asserting that:

Our American system of broadcasting is what it is because it operates in the American democracy. It is a free system because this is a free country. It is privately owned because private ownership is one of our national doctrines. It is privately supported, through commercial sponsorship of a portion of the program hours, and at no cost to the listener, because ours is a free economic system. No special laws had to be passed to bring these things about. They were already implicit in the American system, ready and waiting for broadcasting when it came.16

For fifteen or twenty years, American progressives and educators went to war in pitched battles against interests that by their nature—by the nature of the generational longevity of capital, and by the human resources that successive generations of capital could and would muster—were built to outlive and outlast them; they engaged in hot battles that were as important to our sense of self as a country as any from the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. As we stare at ourselves in the mirror of our screens today, how farcical these false threats from the 1930s seem now! How farcical the threat of fascism from regulating the media, when the unregulated media we have inherited today broadcasts a live rally led by the most powerful man in the world, with supporters chanting against other races and nations, and does so on the number-one-rated television network, and this broadcast is subsequently redistributed on commercial, largely unregulated social-media platforms! How farcical now, in the light of this history, to have considered the fascist threat to be coming from a regulated media environment, when it is so clearly here, now, having arrived as a result of an unregulated one.

Brett Samuels, “Trump Rally Crowd Chants ‘Send Her Back’ About Ilhan Omar,” The Hill, July 17, 2019,

The struggle was waged not only outside of the television business. Hopes shone within as well. In the 1950s, NBC executives—led by Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver, father of actress Sigourney Weaver—carried on full-force efforts within the industry to show, in essence and as they called it, “enlightenment television”: art, music, science, things to build the mind and spirit, and in prime time. Weaver wrote long memoranda—there were forty bound volumes of memoranda and manifestos of his in his office at the time he left his job17—almost all with invocations like this one: “Let us dare to think and let us think with daring.”18

For Weaver, the potential of television as a transport of the mind, as one of his biographers put it, was staggering, and he saw it as his mission to extend the vision, experience, and imagination of every viewer in the goal of “upgrading humanity.” He wrote, of the viewers he wanted his network to reach:

Every man will walk the craters of the moon, look into the churning lava of Vesuvius, sit in the ruins of Magna Lepta, be present at tribal dances, and range down the corridors of antland. . . .

A new age of enlightenment is upon us. . . . The articulation of a new positive humanist philosophy is coming in the next five or ten years. The new understanding of the cosmos—the new cosmology—has tremendous implications for all of us. . . . I want to get the writers and producers to shed their cynical hucksterism and think.19

The memos come down to us today in extraordinary detail. Davidson Taylor, the head of public affairs at NBC, helped address the network from within about Weaver’s plans. As one of the television historians of the period writes, Taylor and Weaver’s September 1951 manifesto on “enlightenment via television” involved “implementing an enlightenment philosophy at three levels”:

The first level involved programs conventionally accepted as public service, which would be overtly informational, educational or cultural. This would include news, documentaries, special events, educational programming, discussions, talks, actuality and religious programming. . . .

The second level of enlightenment programming would involve the inclusion of elements “which are not only entertaining but instructive as well” in regularly scheduled shows primarily devoted to entertainment: This plan requires that producers . . . bear in mind . . . the fact that the real world is fascinating in itself. Examples of such programming would be the Philco Playhouse’s presentations of documentary dramas, the incorporation of educational or “cultural” segments in such series as Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, and the human interest interview series We the People.

The third level of programming represented “the plan formerly referred to by Pat Weaver as Operation Frontal Lobes.” (After this point, the entire range of “enlightenment program planning” was referred to as Operation Frontal Lobes.) Anticipated as being the most controversial among advertisers, the plan for this level proposed that every commercial program in prime time should “once during the months of Fall and Spring present a whole show devoted to enlightenment.” NBC proposed that these special shows should be paid for by the regular clients, since “they will see how important their participation . . . is to their own public relations, and to the duty they owe their audience.”

In an article the following year, Taylor would stress that Weaver and his colleagues at NBC believed “that commercial television should and must be used for the enlightenment of viewers of the United States . . . that American commercial television, with all its skill to command the attention and to absorb the viewer, must serve the needs of our people to know more about the world in which they live.”

We are convinced that the idea of enlightenment, the idea of expansion of horizons, the idea of responsibility, the idea of information and culture must have a part in every program we do . . . . There is no program which cannot from time to time contribute to the enlargement of the minds of those who view television. . . . [Our plan is] based on the conviction that the American appetite for information is immense, that the materials of reality are fascinating, and that the materials of reality are inexhaustible. It is our task to apply the devices of showmanship to the richness of the materials of reality, including not only current affairs, but also history, the sciences, humanities.

As David Sarnoff put it (in a speech that Weaver likely wrote for him before he coopted these ideas, buried them, and drove Weaver out):

Television can become the greatest force for the enlightenment of a great nation that has ever been known. Our people have an insatiable appetite for self-betterment, for self-improvement. We are not feeding it sufficiently.

The application of the devices of showmanship to the world of fact, of history, of the arts, of the sciences, of the humanities, is the first creative challenge. The network that concentrates first on this task is the network of the future.20

Weaver never realized his vision—he and his colleagues in Operation Frontal Lobes were encouraged to leave NBC. That was another watershed moment for the Monsterverse—much as Edward R. Murrow’s farewell speech a few years later, in 1958, would point out in ways that were decidedly painful for media industry leaders, many of whom were present in the audience, to hear. Murrow—you can hear him deliver the speech; audio of it still exists today—spoke of his “abiding fear” of what television and radio were “doing to our society, our culture, and our heritage.” He spoke of “the evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation” everywhere—and the fact that in prime-time viewing hours there was “only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger.” Murrow could speak like Lincoln:

We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information, we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.

Let us have a little competition not only in selling soap, cigarettes, and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive, but receptive public. Why should not each of the twenty or thirty big corporations—and they dominate radio and television—decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks, and say in effect: “This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren’t going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas.” The networks should, and I think they would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders rise up and object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the right conclusion—if that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations and the rest of us are done for.

Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East.21

And, of course, a few years later would come Newton Minow’s speech on the “vast wasteland” of what there was on television for Americans to see, or not.22

Weaver, like the generations of Lowells, would have a chance to inform Killian’s Carnegie Commission himself. He was invited to speak to the commission’s hearing in Boston on March 18, 1966. He set right in. “In our revolutionary times,” he said, addressing the commission members, “communications are too important to be handled by response to the status quo vested interests.”

Each person can now, technically, be present at all the events, ceremonies, festivals, attractions, museums, universities, lectures, concerts, etc., of the world; may find the audio-visual material to learn from in subjects he wished to pursue; may extend his interest in and knowledge of a vast array of subjects now covered only by books, records, magazines, newspapers in new audio-visual forms; may attend things never to be available on commercial television because the cost is too high (new plays and movies), the box office effect too great (home games of sports, other box office attractions in the same market), the attraction not suitable to commercial television time and interruption and audience size needs (festivals, cultural coverage shows, educational material, real world coverage in depth, news and information programs in depth), nor affordable by a donation-financed educational system.

What we need to insure, he said, is that

each citizen has access to the total Treasury of Man, the total knowledge of man. The further aim should be that any adult may continue his learning until his deathbed. The use of this material in schools should be accepted, and certainly all children should have attended the presentation of their cultural heritage as part of the basic curriculum; that is, the plays, operas, ballets, concerts, etc., should be recorded by the great artists in the great bastions of culture, and presented through televisions to schools, as well as to adults.23

The Carnegie Commission assembled the best and the brightest. Killian and his colleagues tapped James B. Conant, former president of Harvard; Lee A. DuBridge, president of the California Institute of Technology; author Ralph Ellison; John S. Hayes, US ambassador to Switzerland; David D. Henry, president of the University of Illinois; Oveta Culp Hobby, chairman of the board of the Houston Post Company; J. C. Kellam, president of the Texas Broadcasting Corporation; Edwin H. Land, the inventor and president of Polaroid; Joseph H. McConnell, president of the Reynolds Metals Company; Franklin Patterson, president of Hampshire College; Terry Sanford, former governor of North Carolina; producer Robert Saudek; pianist Rudolf Serkin; and Leonard Woodcock, vice president of the United Automobile Workers of America.

The commission made twelve recommendations to “extend and strengthen” educational television:

  1. Concerted efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to improve the facilities and to provide for adequate support of the individual educational television stations and to increase their number.

  2. Congress to act promptly to authorize and to establish a federally chartered, nonprofit, nongovernmental corporation empowered to receive and disburse governmental and private funds in order to extend and improve Public Television programming.

  3. Have the above entity “support at least two national
    production centers,” and that it be free to contract with independent producers to prepare Public Television
    programs for educational television stations.

  4. Have the above entity support the production of Production Television programs by local stations for more-than-local use.

  5. Support local programming by local stations.

  6. Provide the educational television system as expeditiously as possible with facilities for live interconnection.

  7. Encourage and support research and development leading to the improvement of programming and program production.

  8. Facilitate technical experimentation designed to improve present television technology.

  9. Provide the means by which technical, artistic, and specialized personnel may be recruited and trained.

  10. Have Congress provide federal funds required by the Corporation through a manufacturers excise tax on televisions sets.

  11. Have the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare provide adequate facilities for stations now in existence and grow the system.

  12. Conduct extensive studies intended to develop better insights into the use of television in formal and informal education.

Again, its final report stated:

If we were to sum up our proposal with all the brevity at our command, we would say that what we recommend is freedom. We seek freedom from the constraints, however necessary in its context, of commercial television. We seek for educational television freedom from the pressures of inadequate funds. We seek for the artist, the technician, the journalist, the scholar, and the public servant freedom to create, freedom to innovate, freedom to be heard in this most far-reaching medium. We seek for the citizen freedom to view, to see programs that the present system, by its incompleteness, denies him.

Because this freedom is its principal burden, we submit our Report with confidence: to rally the American people in the name of freedom is to ask no more of them than they have always been willing to provide.”24

Other reports would come and go—funded by Carnegie, Sloan, the Twentieth Century Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and more.25 But the thing that James Killian and Lyndon Johnson did not say, which may have been obvious to everyone, was that it was all supposed to be free, free as a walk in the very park to which public broadcasting had been compared.26

A new Carnegie Commission cannot, on its own, defeat the Monsterverse and put us back on the right path. Many things will need to happen in many different arenas for there to be real, positive change. However, a new Carnegie Commission–like initiative could go a long way toward identifying more of what needs to be done in different areas and putting the most egregious offenders on notice.

Carnegie Commission (1967) brochure—MIT Library Archives

Vachel Lindsay wanted museums to embrace moving pictures—and art critics and art historians to write those movies. They should get their “ideas and refreshment in such places as the Ryerson Art Library of the Chicago Art Institute. They should begin with such books as Richard Muther’s History of Modern Painting, John C. Van Dyke’s Art for Art’s Sake, Marquand and Frothingham’s History of Sculpture, A. D. F. Hamlin’s History of Architecture. They should take the business of guidance in this new world as a sacred trust, knowing they have the power to influence an enormous democracy.” Lindsay believed moving images were meant to be wielded for good. “It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes,” he wrote, in 1915—when films were becoming so popular that “the whole world seems to turn on a reel.” He wanted science, too, to turn into movies—anyone and anything involved in the business of spreading knowledge.

Transubstantiation must begin. Our young magicians must derive strange new pulse-beats from the veins of the earth, from the sap of the trees, from the lightning of the sky, as well as the alchemical acids, metals, and flames. Then they will kindle the beginning mysteries for our cause. They will build up a priesthood that is free, yet authorized to freedom. It will be established and disestablished according to the intrinsic authority of the light revealed.27

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?