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The Ford Record

In the preceding seven decades, media reform had occasionally appeared on the major foundations’ agendas, very often linked to communication research initiatives. Consider the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. During the so-called Radio Wars—the years of policy debate between the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communication Act of 1934—educational broadcasters and other civic groups battled the commercial networks over the shape of public interest regulation. The commercial broadcasters prevailed, of course.104 In the aftermath of the 1934 Act, the Rockefeller Foundation organized meetings and funded efforts to reconcile embittered education advocates and the victorious networks. The Rockefeller-supported Princeton Radio Research Project, as William Buxton has shown, was created to convince ratings-conscious commercial broadcasters that arts and educational programming would in fact draw in large audiences.105 Rockefeller’s cautious, market-driven approach—involving as it did Frank Stanton, then rising through the CBS ranks—failed to change broadcasters’ programming choices. But Rockefeller’s radio initiatives, at Princeton and elsewhere, soon took on an altogether different function. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Rockefeller repurposed its radio research projects into a private propaganda and intelligence network, before it was politically acceptable for the Roosevelt administration.106 Rockefeller’s tepid 1930s reform effort had, in short, issued in war-related propaganda research—and formed the nucleus of the government’s sprawling, social science—driven persuasion bureaucracy after Pearl Harbor.

Propaganda was also the major postwar theme of foundation-s ponsored communication research. After the war, the Ford Foundation replaced Rockefeller as the principal patron of communication research. A newly flush Ford, relaunched in 1949 as a leading national foundation, established a Behavioral Sciences Program (BSP) in 1951, headed by communication scholar Bernard Berelson. The BSP dispensed millions of dollars to communication-ielated research, including funds for MIT’s CIA-linked Center for International Communications. Most of the Ford spending on communication scholarship in the 1950s, before the BSP was shuttered in 1957, supported often secret, Cold War-related “psychological warfare” research—the unblushing label applied to the many persuasion studies of the period.107

Ford would not invest significant sums in university-based communication research again until the recent wave of media democracy funding. Instead, Ford dollars supported the emerging public broadcasting community. Beginning with its 1951 grant to create the Radio-Television Workshop, Ford would go on to play the major role in financing public television and radio—with grants for stations, programming, and infrastructure. By 1977, when Ford scaled back its support, the foundation had spent $289 million.108

Public broadcasting and propaganda isn’t the whole story of Ford and the media in the postwar era. The foundation also backed key organizations in the nascent broadcast reform movement, which had emerged after the landmark 1966 United Church of Christ decision that established “standing” for citizens’ groups in the FCC policy-making process.109 Ford awarded the UCC $160,000 in 1968 and followed up with over $800,000 more through 1977.110 The

UCC decision spawned a number of media policy groups, many of which— the Citizens Communications Center and Action for Children’s Television, for example—received substantial Ford funding in the 1970s.111

The 1970s broadcast reform groups gained a seat at the communication policy-making table and won some limited concessions from broadcasters and the FCC.112 Still, the movement’s goals were modest, diluted by the industry and reticent regulators. In part because the Washington, DC-based groups lacked a popular constituency, their reform efforts were effectively contained.113 One index of their relative impotence was that the FCC’s policy orientation shifted markedly, beginning in the late 1970s, toward deregulation and market- based analysis.114

Despite Ford’s financial support for the 1970s reform movement, the foundation arguably shares the blame for the regulatory setbacks of the 1980s and after. For one thing, Ford dramatically scaled back its media-related grant making in the late 1970s, in keeping with its decision to phase out funding for public broadcasting. As a result, many broadcast reform groups folded, and the few survivors were chronically underfunded.115 Ford’s departure from the media policy field also elevated the influence of the more market-oriented Markle Foundation, which remained an active player throughout the 1980s.116 Even before its departure, Ford’s cautious funding choices had the effect of narrowing the incipient media reform movement. Albert H. Kramer, founder of the Ford- funded Citizens Communications Center, detailed Ford and other foundations’ timidity in the broadcast policy realm in a well-supported 1977 report. Kramer criticized Ford’s unwillingness to challenge industry interests, as well as its preference for moderate groups with establishment credentials.117

Ford, moreover, partially offset its own broadcast reform funding by underwriting, in the early to mid-1970s, much of the research that would, a few years later, inform the FCC’s embrace of the marketplace. As Katharina Kopp has documented, the Markle Foundation seeded many of the economist-led, market- oriented research efforts at the RAND Corporation, the Aspen Institute, and the Brookings Institution in the early 1970s. Kopp shows that Ford, though more ecumenical in its grant making, nevertheless joined Markle in funding the RAND, Aspen, and Brookings research.118 The Brookings-sponsored Economic Aspects of Television Regulation—the highly influential 1973 deregulatory treatise—was funded by Ford, for example.119 The foundation, perhaps unwittingly, had undermined its own media reform grant making—before abandoning the field just as the marketplace paradigm was in ascendance.

 
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