At a Nov. 30 event at Columbia University, “Big Media: Pro and Con,” Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann analogized media policy to a football field: Just as the size and shape of the field dictates the way the game is played, so too does media policy dictate the development of American telecommunications. And on the heels of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s announcement last week of a new net neutrality proposal, we see more clearly than ever that government legislation and regulation are crucial to this field. In that vein, Columbia Journalism School Prof. Richard R. John’s book Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications, published in May, makes the case that policy intervention has been commonplace throughout American history with a sweeping survey of the history of electrical communications from the early Republic to the modern day.
This afternoon, the New America Foundation, the Center for Social Media at American University, and Media Access Project are hosting an event to build on John’s work: "Network Nation: How Business, Technology, and Government Shape American Telecommunications." John will be here at New America to talk about these very issues.
At the Nov. 30 event, co-sponsored by Columbia Law School and Columbia Journalism School, a discussion between John, Columbia Law School Prof. Tim Wu, and moderator Lemann explored the influence of policy issues on the future of media in this country. (The webcast of “Big Media: Pro and Con” can be found here.) The most essential idea, according to John, is that “structure shaped strategy;” for example, New York newspaper editors feared that the telegraph would put them out of business, so they called for legislation to create anti-monopoly “rules of the game.”
Telegraph carrier monopoly-holder Western Union got into an “explicit quid pro quo” relationship, as John put it, with the Associated Press in order to stop the AP from writing any critical content, and the reason for this was that Western Union was “terrified” of government intervention. In this way, governmental net neutrality regulation could stop or support the same thing happening now—telecom providers striking unfair deals with certain journalistic providers, profitable for them but depriving certain citizens of equal access to information. Worrying, at the very least.
From John’s historical examples, we see the writing on the wall that—historically, at the very least—governmental policies have always existed to address the growth of the telecommunications industry and have formed some sort of bedrock for innovation in telecom networks of our day. It is not the “miracle of the marketplace” that led to the American journalistic tradition; it was helped along by the regulation coming out of Washington, D.C.
But what comes next? How does this knowledge of historical tradition affect the actions of policymakers and individuals as they try to adjust broadband and net neutrality policies to work for the 21st century? After John’s presentation this afternoon, a panel discussion with Patricia Aufderheide from the Center for Social Media at American University, Andrew Schwartzman from Media Access Project, and Sascha Meinrath from the Open Technology Initiative here at the New America Foundation will address these questions.
This piece is cross-posted with the Open Technology Initiative.