Saturday, February 25, 2006

Using the public airwaves; Neglecting the public interest

There are topics that are not discussed on the public airwaves that really should be discussed because they involve issues of public concern.

Why do public television and radio broadcasters, and other news organizations, never report on the question of whether the levels of pollution and rates of taking of natural resources are consistent with the will of the people at large? Do most people feel that government allows more pollution and faster depletion of resources than what should be allowed? Or are regulations too strict? Should we promote economic growth by allowing industries to increase their impacts on the environment? Or are current rates of putting pollution and depleting resources about right?

We should hear these questions when broadcast news organizations report problems of pollution, resource scarcity and climate instability. What news network has ever conducted a survey to discover whether most people feel that carbon dioxide emissions are excessive or, alternatively, whether there is actually too much government restriction of the use of fossil fuels? If a democratic society aims to make policy that reflects the will of the people, then a survey regarding acceptable impacts on the environment must be at least as important as a consumer confidence survey.

Would a rational and just society adopt the most efficient and fair method of pollution control and natural resource management? A fee assessed in proportion to actual environmental impacts caused (or an auction of a limited number of permits) is the most efficient method of control, according to economists. A fee encourages all participants to put equal effort toward reducing environmental impacts. Efforts to reduce pollution and resource depletion will be directed toward areas where they will bring the greatest benefit. Sharing of fee proceeds with the people at large ensures that such a policy would also be fair. Members of society who are the least well-off would not be further disadvantaged by this method of control. In fact, they would be assured of a modest but substantial benefit in the form of a natural wealth stipend.

A truly democratic society would adjust pollution fees and natural resource user-fees so that industries would have the necessary incentives to produce only the level of environmental impacts that a majority of the people feel is about right. A democratic society cannot allow levels of pollution or rates of resource depletion to exceed what most people say is acceptable. We must bring public policy into line with what the largest number of people feel is the most appropriate balance between the competing interests, between freedom and constraint.

The failure of journalists to include any discussion of these kinds of questions in their reporting does not serve the public interest at all. Serious problems are festering, while ideas for bringing a solution are left out of the public discussion.

What is the responsibility of broadcasters? They hold monopoly licenses to use slices of the people's airwaves. They must decide how the airwaves should be used to promote the public interest. How do they decide this? Where are the surveys that ask the people which uses of the broadcast spectrum might best promote the public interest?

We could imagine a survey process that would examine which possible uses of the airwaves would most effectively promote the public interest, in the view of most people. Citizens could be shown brief samples of various broadcasts and commercial messages. These samples of programming content and paid advertisements could be presented in random pairs. Survey respondents could be asked to say which of the two brief selections might make a greater contribution to the public good. Those programs or commercial messages that are consistently rated highly could be broadcast more widely and more often, while those that are consistently rated as promoting private or commercial interests ahead of the public interest could be aired less often or not at all. It is reasonable to charge a fee to broadcasters when they use the public airwaves to promote private or commercial interests. They would then choose to air the poorly-rated programs or messages less often, to avoid the fee. (There could be quite a range of opinion about which messages promote the public interest. Even some commercial messages might be seen as making a contribution to the public good, if they promote healthy foods, for example.) We could imagine a sliding scale for the fees. Public policy could favor ads for products that help make a better society. We might see less domination of the airwaves by car commercials, as well as fewer advertisements for meat, cheese and high-fat, sugary junk food.

Even the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is given over (or rented out) for private use can be allocated in ways that help protect the public interest. Phone service might be offered that automatically reduces the bandwidth used during times of emergency or in the midst of very large gatherings, so that minimal service availability is preserved for all. Phones could be made that transmit a low-bandwidth signal from phone to phone in a way analogous to how a photon's energy travels through a chlorophyll molecule (through the most efficient path), in the event that cell service is interrupted. This provides a public safety function because minimal communications are preserved even in extreme circumstances. Those who pay fees to use the spectrum space for their communications network might enjoy a lower fee if they design their system with resilience built in.

Broadcasters might receive a stipend when they broadcast in the public interest. Funds to support such a stipend could come from the fees collected when broadcasters use the airwaves to promote private or commercial interests. This would change the relative balance between paid advertisements vs. high-quality programming. (Alternatively, the fee proceeds could go to all the people.) When broadcasters pay attention to and make decisions based on reliable feedback from citizens about what best promotes the public interest, the character of broadcast television and radio will change. The public should be more engaged in consciously shaping the character of the broadcast spectrum. Like any public resource, the electromagnetic spectrum must be used wisely.

John Champagne

Natural law requires respect of PUBLIC property rights, too

Biodiversity as a Public Good

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The people of this country aren't listening, John. The half that isn't drowning out Earth's cries with iPods is glued to the TV set watching whatever tripe the corporations offer.

This populations operates in a state of suspended thought, where reality is as foreign as those who bear the brunt of supporting ours.

Nature is going to remind mankind about the costs of unrestrained capitalism, and I don't think that we'll realize that it's happening until it's too late.