Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Did George Stoney Invent YouTube?

July 18, 2012, 10:25 a.m.

A great man has died. His contributions deserve to be recognized.

If you think it an exaggeration to compare George Stoney's contributions to American democracy with those of Jefferson and Madison, just read on.

[Photo credit: NYU.] First, some prosaic basics -- from his obituary in the New York Times:
"George Cashel Stoney was born on July 1, 1916, in Winston-Salem, N.C., and worked his way through the University of North Carolina, earning degrees in English and history. He studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and received certification in film education at the University of London. He worked as a field research assistant in the South for civil rights groups in the 1940s, was a photo intelligence officer during World War II and afterward worked as a newspaper reporter. He made films for state government agencies before beginning his own film company."
So he was a documentary filmmaker, you say. So what?

The obituary's lead sentence offers a clue: "George C. Stoney, a dean of American documentary film and a leader of the citizens movement that gave every American the right to a public-access television show of his or her own, died on Thursday [July 12, 2012] at his home in Manhattan."

It continues, "Mr. Stoney devoted himself to training community activists in the use of film as a tool for voiceless people. His role in the creation of public-access television was rooted in a hope that it would become an outlet for that kind of community-building documentary film. * * * Mr. Stoney . . . helped found the [New York University's] Alternate Media Center, a university project for training students and community members how to use video cameras, a technology that was new at the time. That project led to his interest in another newly emerging medium — cable television — and the opportunity its vastly expanded spectrum presented for grass-roots filmmaking. . . . [He, and Red Burns] helped create the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which began lobbying industry and government regulatory agencies. If cable companies were going to put their cables beneath or above public streets, they argued, they should be required to give citizens a share of the new cable broadcast spectrum — public access. That requirement was added to federal communications law in 1984."

So what's the big deal about "public access" channels on cable? (The cable television franchise for Iowa City's cable system has six channels set aside for the people and institutions of Iowa City: City of Iowa City, Public Library, Kirkwood Community College, University of Iowa, and Iowa City Community School District.) The sixth channel is Iowa City's "Public Access TV" channel 18 -- literally available for essentially uncensored cablecasting by any citizen or organization in the community.

The "big deal" is the radical and innovative nature of this concept.

From the time the first Alpha Male came down out of the trees, through the kings and other rulers of the Middle Ages, to the owners of today's media conglomerate corporations, the concept of "free speech and press" has pretty much been limited to those who owned one.

For a long time in England even the ownership of printing presses was limited to those the King chose to license.

There has been some progress since those days, when any criticism of the government was punished as "sedition," and questioning of the church was "blasphemy." But there are still governments, and religions, today that severely punish such criticism.

Nor is the United States free of these restraints. There is not a lot of encouragement of children to "question authority," or otherwise speak up. ("Children should be seen and not heard.") And notwithstanding the lack of civility in some political discourse, many adults are as reluctant as children to speak up. ("It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." Or, from the song "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "if you can't say anything real nice/It's better not to talk at all is my advice.") Even among elected public officials, as Speaker Sam Rayburn used to advise the new members of the U.S. House of Representatives, "To get along, go along."

The recent Penn State scandle illustrates the lengths to which institutional leaders will go to avoid criticism of an institution -- whether a university, school district, corporation, presidential candidate, hospital, military or other governmental unit -- and the extent to which employees are intimidated into silence, sometimes involving very serious violations of law or safety of which they are aware.

Thus, it is not surprising that the mass media have the power that they do. As has been said, whoever controls a nation's mass media controls that nation. And in the U.S. the mass media is not only controlled by big business (in the sense of the national corporations providing the media's advertising revenue), with today's large conglomerate control of media, the mass media is big business.

In a very real sense, it is only those media owners who have free speech rights. Of course, many ordinary citizens may have a letter to the editor published in the local paper, call into a talk radio show, or appear as a guest on TV. The point is, they are not there "as a matter of legal right." They are there "as a matter of grace," granted by the media owner.

Without going through all the legal citations and analysis, the bottom line is that the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that not only do you not have a right to have your letter to the editor published in the paper (Tornillo), you do not even have a right to buy advertising space if the paper would rather not distribute your message. You don't have a right to buy radio or television time (CBS and BEM), or put a commercial (let alone a program) onto the regular cable or satellite channels (Midwest).

"Public access" on cable was not the result of George Stoney's efforts alone. It was the combination of technology (the early "porta-pack" video cameras), the cable industry (that mostly hated public access, but found it a useful bargaining chip in competing with rivals for lucrative municipal franchises), the "revolutionary" 1960s (the anti-war, pro-African American, and women's movements), the growing awareness of activists of the role of media (and corporate censorship) in bringing about (or preventing) change.

But he had laid the foundation for the radical idea of citizen creation of video before even the five- and twelve-channel cable systems ("Community Antenna Television," or CATV). As soon a video cameras and recorders became small enough to haul around in a truck, he and Red Burns were experimenting and demonstrating the power of video communication in building communities, and empowering citizens to address their common challenges.

With regard to the charge that Al Gore "claimed that he 'invented' the Internet," Snopes says it's "False." ("Despite the derisive references . . .Al Gore did not . . . say anything that could reasonably be interpreted that way.") What he did say was that he had taken "the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives . . .."

Similarly, as an FCC commissioner I grasped George Stoney's vision, and "took the initiative to move forward" -- and embed in FCC regulation, in exchange for my vote -- the requirement that public access channels be provided by cable systems. (The Supreme Court subsequently held that this provision exceeded our Congressionally granted authority to regulate those things "reasonably ancillary" to our regulation of broadcasting; whereupon the Congress responded by enacting the requirement.)

We think of American democracy's evolution as involving the extension of the right to vote, from the original requirement that voters had to be white, males, who owned land, and were over the age of 21, to African-Americans, non-landowners, and ultimately women, and all over 18. (And this year some express concern that the legislative efforts to require "photo ID" may be a way of walking back some of that progress.)

Some 200 years ago, the political dialogue took place on the village green after church, in town meetings, and with single-page posters on store windows. During the first half of the 20th Century it took place in the pages of newspapers and on the local radio stations.

There was no real forum for the ordinary citizen whose message would be censored by the media owners.

Today we still have dominant media. The 90% of the TV audience that was "owned" by ABC, CBS and NBC is now split up among hundreds of cable and satellite channels. Newspapers still have functional local monopolies -- among hard copy print. But they are also available online, where they compete with billions of Web sites, Facebook pages, and other sites.

And among those sites is YouTube, today's version of public access cable channels.

Did George Stoney invent YouTube? No; no more than Al Gore invented the Internet, or I invented public access channels.

What he did invent was a radical and powerful contribution to the concept of democracy: given the power of the media, and the extent it is channeled into rivers of newspaper chain ownership and multi-media conglomerates, if "self-governing" is to remain a goal of the First Amendment, there simply must be a way for citizens to participant in the mass media process.

His was a life well spent. A good friend who will be missed.

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