Public Media in the Age of the Age of $$

The timing of Bill Moyer's How Do We Stop the Violence? conjures up an unpleasant irony. At the same moment that Moyer's fine documentary focuses on media violence, conservatives in congress are threatening to abolish institutions that offer alternatives to violent media programming. Both PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts are said to be unworthy of government funding. Yet each supports creative cultural programming that tends to be less violent and sensational than commercial media. In answer to the question "How do we stop the violence?", one might reasonably respond, "By cultivating non-violent sensibilities." Violence has proven itself to be valuable in terms of box office receipts and video game sales. PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts have important roles to play in providing programming that is judged to be valuable in principle. It has been suggested that no consensus exists concerning which art and which principles federal taxes should support. Nevertheless, if it can be agreed upon that violence in the media is a problem, it makes little sense to hack off a cultural limb that isn't holding a smoking gun.

Meanwhile, in what may be considered good news, local inititiatives to provide internet access, and to promote the public service potential of new communication technology are underway in Seattle. In an effort to advance communication within the area, this project involving electronic democracy hopes to reassert the interests of the people through the involvement of the non-profit sector. There are a variety of other civic networking projects under development.

Since it is now possible for independents to produce and distribute what people in communications circles call "content," it is not surprising that free speech has come under attack by those who would prefer to make speech a commodity: pay-per-sound-bite, pay-per-view, etc. Senator Exon's recent legislation, passed with glee by our righteous, ill-informed, and cynical house of representatives, attempts to restrict the content passed over the internet. Perhaps in the long run the dictates of the censorship camp will be irrelevant because their attempts to regulate network communication will be overwhelmed by the ease of transmission. Nevertheless, insofar as power in media has never been more centralized, and present media discourse marginalizes unconventional thought, it follows that any transformation of authority in mass media will not come without a fight.