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Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad Schwartz

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission reached a historic decision with its controversial vote to preserve net neutrality. The response from telecommunications giant Verizon to that vote was also notable—both for its haste and its theatricality. Within minutes of the decision, the company issued a strongly worded press release—dated “February 26, 1934,” and published in both Morse code and typewriter font—that censured the FCC for applying “1930s Rules [to] the Internet.”

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The reference is to the Communications Act of 1934, the legislation that established the FCC and empowered it to regulate electronic communications. By reclassifying the Internet as a “public utility” under Title II of that Act, the FCC mandated that Internet service providers treat all online traffic equally, and not speed up, slow down, or block access to any lawful content. This is fundamental to the idea of the free and open Internet, and defines the online experience as we currently know it.

Verizon chose to backdate their press release and publish it in old-timey font in order to emphasize that the law in question—the FCC’s founding charter—is over eighty years old. According to Verizon, the Communications Act can only hamstring the development of broadband services because it was “written in the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph.” But as Vox pointed out on shortly after the vote, Congress has revised and even overhauled the Communications Act several times in later years, so the new rules are hardly as archaic as Verizon’s press release made them seem.

However, the larger error of Verizon’s statement is its implication that a New Deal-era law couldn’t possibly be relevant to the twenty-first century. In fact, the Communications Act was written in an age of profound media transformation very much like our own. In the 1930s, new technologies like the telephone and the radio changed how people thought about space, time, and even human interaction. It’s important to understand how Americans grappled with those changes eight decades ago, because we face very similar yet much greater changes today.

In the 1920s and 1930s, policymakers and reformers often discussed the rise of radio in terms that could easily apply to today’s Internet. By offering a constant stream of plays, music, news, and talks, radio promised to revitalize American culture. Psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport, in their 1935 book The Psychology of Radio, called it “the greatest single democratizing agent since the invention of printing.” But this technology had a key limitation that threatened to undermine its democratic promise: only a finite number of broadcast frequencies are available. If too many people try to use the same airwaves, their transmissions will interfere with one another and drown each other out. Anyone can listen to the radio, but only a select few can be heard over its loudspeaker.

In order to avoid overcrowding the airwaves, the Communications Act requires that broadcasters operate with a license from the FCC, thereby limiting access to the microphone. But the same Act sought to preserve radio’s democratic promise by opening the door to a diverse array of content. The FCC maintained that the airwaves were public property, and that individuals licensed to use them had a responsibility to respect the public’s access to information—their right to be informed if they so chose. For this reason, the Communications Act specified that the FCC would only grant licenses to radio stations operating in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.”

Congress left this language intentionally vague in order to avoid infringing on the First Amendment or giving the FCC any powers of censorship. There was no requirement to broadcast a certain amount of news or cultural programming each day, nor was the government empowered to decide which points of view the American people should hear. Although the FCC could revoke a station’s license for failing to serve the public interest, they rarely took such extreme action. Instead, the responsibility to act “in the public interest”—and the task of determining what that phrase meant—fell to the broadcasters themselves. According to Cantril and Allport, radio stations in the 1930s typically devoted between 60 and 90 percent of each broadcast day to commercial-free shows that were educational, informational, or culturally rich. Broadcasters willingly aired these shows at a loss, paying all costs of production while sacrificing airtime that could have been sold to a sponsor.

This approach led directly to the best programs of radio’s “golden age.” Unsponsored shows like CBS’s Columbia Workshop pushed the bounds of what radio writers and directors could achieve artistically, while discussion programs like NBC’s America’s Town Meeting of the Air thoughtfully explored important national issues. (Several episodes of ATMOTA, including one asking whether the United States should adopt compulsory health insurance can be heard here.) Orson Welles’s legendary War of the Worlds broadcast, which aired without a sponsor, was just one of many instances in which broadcasters freed from the need to please an advertiser stretched the limits of the medium in inventive ways.

The “golden age of radio” has much in common with the open Internet. Both depend on large platforms—major radio networks and Internet service providers—that are the product of both commerce and regulation; they would not exist without the free market, and they could not exist without the federal government. Like the public interest ideal of decades past, the policy of net neutrality—protected by the FCC’s recent ruling—preserves a culture of innovation by ensuring that all have access to cyberspace. Without that protection, the Internet could easily be carved up into tiers of service similar to cable TV, where access to certain content would be restricted to those able to pay for it. The Internet’s vibrancy would be sacrificed in a drive to monetize it completely. Much the same thing happened to American radio at the tail end of its “golden age.”

Public support for the FCC waned in the late 1930s as broadcasters promoted the idea of the “American system” of radio: commercial broadcasting unencumbered by government. Many Americans objected to the FCC’s mishandling of a series of controversial broadcasts—including Mae West’s notorious “Garden of Eden” skit in 1937, and War of the Worlds the following year—which seemed to paint them in the role of censor. Unfair comparisons were drawn between the FCC and the state-run broadcasting systems of dictatorships like Nazi Germany. Commercial broadcasters argued that only they, and not the government, could be trusted with protecting “free radio.” But instead of preserving free speech, this attitude imposed a kind of censorship of the market by prizing ratings above the diversity of ideas. By the mid-1940s, the unsponsored shows that defined radio’s “golden age” had largely disappeared.

By reclassifying the Internet as a “public utility”—alongside telephones, electricity, and running water—the FCC affords it greater protection than the radio ever had. This will not alter the websites and services Americans enjoy; the Internet will remain full of all kinds of content, some of it brilliant and some of it inane. But ensuring free and open access to that content will protect the artists and innovators of tomorrow, just as the public interest ideal benefitted broadcasters and listeners in radio’s “golden age.” The fundamental idea that all Americans have a right to listen and be heard is as applicable in “the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph” as it is in an age of driverless cars and smartphones.

A. Brad Schwartz is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. He cowrote an episode of the award-winning PBS series American Experience on the War of the Worlds broadcast, based in part on research from his senior thesis at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

Broadcast Hysteria

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Writing Under Embargo: The Challenges of Controlled Information in Cuba

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Cuba

The United States used to transmit information to Cuban citizens via a red-lettered billboard. Passersby could see the billboard through the windows of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which was the closest thing America had to an embassy. Cuba can be a startlingly disconnected place, thanks in large part to its state-controlled media and limited access to the Internet. The billboard offered messages that ordinary Cubans might not otherwise see, from bits of news to political statements like, “In a free country you don’t need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?” The Cuban government was not amused. Havana tried to obscure the messages by planting dozens of black flags in front of the building. The resulting scene was both menacing and funereal.

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In 2008, a Cuban friend and I were taking a walk. We tried to read the messages that were partially hidden by the flags. I thought I saw something about O. J. Simpson, who was sentenced that year. My Cuban friend, looking confused, asked me, “Who’s O. J. Simpson?”

Florida, only ninety miles from Cuba, felt light years away. I did see other Americans in Havana, despite the embargo. There were groups who came to learn about Cuban art and culture. I met a young woman who was visiting family. Other Americans would violate the embargo to seek beaches or adventure, sneaking back into the U.S. via Canada or Mexico. These American travelers, who provided much-needed revenue for hotels and restaurants, were welcome in Cuba, even given VIP treatment.

As an American writer, however, I felt uneasy in Havana. (I had served in government, but never traveled to Cuba during that time). I kept waiting for the ax to fall. This was largely because I was hanging out with Cubans who were under surveillance. My book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, profiles the Cuban bloggers who took great personal risks to tell stories that didn’t appear in the state-controlled media. A couple of them had spent time in jail. They talked to me because they wanted their stories to be heard by the world, as international visibility gave them some degree of protection.

I was an American journalist and researcher, and as such, my visits to Cuba were not prohibited by U.S. law. The worst that could have happened, in theory, would have been Cuban authorities telling me to leave and never come back. This fate had befallen Ted Henken, an academic who went to Havana to interview bloggers and entrepreneurs. Yet the embargo—and the five decades of mutual suspicion that surrounded it—added an additional layer of uncertainty. The larger danger was that Havana would mistake my book research for a far more subversive activity. Internet dissent and the spread of communication more generally were highly sensitive topics—a direct result of Cuban paranoia combined with actual U.S. attempts to penetrate Havana’s control over information. Exhibit A: The battle between the billboard and the flags. Exhibit B: the imprisonment of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who was jailed for distributing communications equipment. And Exhibit C (which emerged later): the social network known as Zunzuneo, an ill-fated, U.S.-funded attempt to spread information in Cuba.

Now that U.S. and Cuba are re-establishing diplomatic relations, decades of mistrust will not evaporate overnight. Nor will this development necessarily lead to the free flow of information in Havana. The Internet is expensive and largely unavailable to many of Cubans. Up to now it has been easy for Cuban authorities to blame U.S. restrictions for its low Internet connectivity, but the Cuban government appears wary of the Internet’s potential to spread ideas not sanctioned by the state. The Web is also a powerful platform for ordinary citizens to voice their complaints and build networks around the world.

Hopefully the new diplomatic thaw will bring a more open Cuba whose leaders have less reason to worry about foreign attempts to challenge their control over information. Only then will Havana become a friendlier place for American writers.

Emily Parker is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, which explores how citizens are using the Internet and social media to challenge authority in China, Cuba and Russia. Parker is the digital diplomacy advisor and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She was previously a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning staff at the State Department, and is also a former editor at The New York Times and a writer at The Wall Street Journal.

Cholera's Child

The contagion that hit New York City the summer of 1832 was as frightening, deadly, and as poorly understood as Ebola is today: cholera.

The disease, which originated in South Asia and had recently exploded in Paris, London, and Montreal, had never been seen in the United States. But New Yorkers had heard the news: Cholera ruthlessly killed about half of its victims, draining their bodies of fluids in a matter of hours through massive expulsions of vomit and diarrhea. Nobody knew how it spread or how to cure it.

Today we know that cholera spreads when human waste contaminates drinking water or is passed from person to person on unwashed hands. Like the crowded, impoverished, chaotic cities in West Africa where Ebola abounds today, New York City in 1832 was ripe for an epidemic. Bellevue Hospital was an almshouse with non-functional latrines, and the progenitor of JPMorgan Chase, the Manhattan Company, distributed filthy groundwater from a shallow well under a slum to the city’s residents. In the tenements of Five Points, the remnants of which lie in Chinatown, Irish and German immigrants and African Americans crowded in unplumbed apartments, the contents of their backyard outhouses seeping into the ground and spilling out into the streets. The little freshwater they drank came from easily contaminated public wells on the street corners.

Worse, as cholera loomed, city leaders refused to take steps to protect the public’s health. The governor refused to quarantine the newly opened Erie Canal or the Hudson River, despite the fact that state investigators had noted cholera’s spread along those waterways. They instead blamed the disease on the immoral habits of drunks, the poor, and immigrants. When a ship carrying cholera-infected passengers arrived in the city’s port, officials secretly quarantined the passengers, destroying hospital records to cover it up. After cholera broke out in the city anyway, the mayor and the board of health flatly refused to acknowledge it. They valued “dollars and cents above the lives of the community,” local doctors charged.

Fourth of July festivities were cancelled, stores shuttered, and the usually bustling city went silent and still save for the sound of carts ferrying corpses to the cemeteries and the drifting smoke from burning piles of clothes and bedding stripped from the dead. More than 70,000 of the city’s 220,000 residents fled. Those who remained, believing that cholera was an “atmosphere disease,” as one physician put it at the time, “carried on the wings of the wind,” tried to save themselves by burning barrels of tar and stringing up large pieces of meat on poles to soak up the “cholera vapor.” At the height of the epidemic, cholera killed over a hundred people every day. By the end of the summer, nearly 3,000 New Yorkers had perished.

Cholera epidemics continued to ravage New York City until the underlying drivers—poor sanitation, rampant poverty, and the failures of political leadership—were substantially resolved. Forced by repeated outbreaks of disease, the city built an uncontaminated drinking water supply in 1842, a city-wide sanitation system in the 1850s, and an independent board of health in 1867.

As a result, cholera disappeared from New York City by the twentieth century and today the city has little to fear from the Ebola virus burning in Dr. Craig Spencer’s body, now in isolation at Bellevue Hospital. The trouble is that none of the infrastructure that saved the city from cholera has been built in Monrovia or Freetown, or in other impoverished societies around the world. They remain as vulnerable to epidemics of Ebola, cholera, and other pathogens as New York City was in 1832.

Sonia Shah’s new book, Cholera’s Child: Tracking the Next Pandemic, is forthcoming from Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015. She’ll be speaking about “Mapping Cholera,” an interactive map of the 1832 cholera epidemic in New York City she created with Dan McCarey and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting at the New York Academy of Medicine on November 4.

In October 1969, six months before the first Earth Day, columnist James Kilpatrick challenged fellow conservatives to help solve the nation’s environmental problems. He feared that the Right would make little headway unless it overcame its image as “the negative party,” and he argued that the issues of pollution and sprawl and DDT poisoning of the environment provided perfect opportunities to “translate broad conservative principles” into “affirmative actions.” The degradation of the environment, he concluded, was essentially “a problem of conservation — of conserving some of the greatest values of America; and conservatives, of all people, ought to be in the vanguard of the fight.” Read more…

The first Earth Day was the idea of a U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and that still amazes me. My amazement is not just that an establishment figure sparked the greatest demonstration in American history.  Earth Day 1970 succeeded because Nelson had a rare understanding of political leadership. Read more…

Doctored

Hoping for the stability he needs to start a family, Sandeep Jauhar accepts a position at a massive teaching hospital on the outskirts of Queens. With a decade’s worth of elite medical training behind him, he is eager to settle down and reap the rewards of countless sleepless nights. Instead, he is confronted with sobering truths. Doctors’ morale is low and getting lower, and when doctors are unhappy, their patients are apt to be unhappy as well. Blatant cronyism determines patient referrals, corporate ties distort medical decisions, and unnecessary tests are routinely performed in order to generate income. Meanwhile, a single patient in Jauhar’s hospital might see fifteen specialists in one stay and still fail to receive a full picture of his actual condition. Read more…

Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn
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As chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren is most often remembered for landmark rulings in favor of desegregation and the rights of the accused. But Warren himself identified a lesser known group of cases—Baker v. Carr, Reynolds v. Sims, and their companions—as his most important work. J. Douglas Smith’s On Democracy’s Doorstep masterfully recounts the tumultuous and often overlooked events that established the principle of “one person, one vote” in the United States. Read more…

Good Hunting by Jack Devine

Jack Devine ran Charlie Wilson’s War in Afghanistan. It was the largest covert action of the Cold War, and it was Devine who put the brand-new Stinger missile into the hands of the mujahideen during their war with the Soviets, paving the way to a decisive victory against the Russians. He also pushed the CIA’s effort to run down the narcotics trafficker Pablo Escobar in Colombia. He tried to warn the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, that there was a bullet coming from Iraq with his name on it. He was in Chile when Allende fell, and he had too much to do with Iran-Contra for his own taste, though he tried to stop it. And he tangled with Rick Ames, the KGB spy inside the CIA, and hunted Robert Hanssen, the mole in the FBI. Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story is the spellbinding memoir of Devine’s time in the Central Intelligence Agency, where he served for more than thirty years. Read more…

Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn

In Do Fathers Matter? the award-winning journalist and father of five Paul Raeburn overturns the many myths and stereotypes of fatherhood as he examines the latest scientific findings on the parent we’ve often overlooked. Drawing on research from neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, geneticists, and developmental psychologists, among others, Raeburn takes us through the various stages of fatherhood, revealing the profound physiological connections between children and fathers, from conception through adolescence and into adulthood—and the importance of the relationship between mothers and fathers. In the process, he challenges the legacy of Freud and mainstream views of parental attachment, and also explains how we can become better parents ourselves. Read more…