News For All The People: A Book Review (Part One)
The book under review today is called News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, written by journalists, Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres. The edition I have in my hands is soft cover, published by Verso in 2011; the first paperback version was published by Verso in 2012.
With the introduction the book is 376-pages long, not including the acknowledgments and notes. It is organized into five parts, eighteen chapters.
First, let me get my gushing praise for this excellent book out of the way, before we proceed more methodically, more or less.
This book is both simple and groundbreaking. It is a history of the American system of news media. This is important because we study the history of a thing in order to understand its nature, to understand why it is---whatever way that might be---the way it is today. I will come back to this point later on. There is a blurb on the front cover of this book from legendary news man, Bill Moyers: "We've needed this book for a long time."
For what its worth, I concur. I love everything about this book; and I cannot recommend it strongly enough for all American journalism students. You would do well to learn something about the good, bad, and ugly about your chosen profession.
The subtitle, "The Epic Story of Race and the American Media" is suggestive; and the book does indeed tell that grand narrative. Its a kind of journalism adventure story filled with fascinating characters of all races, ethnicities, religions, and both genders. The story has its villains, heroes, and folks somewhere in between.
Now, as the book pertains to the connection between race and the history of the American news media system---that is the "history" I referred to a moment ago, and to which I will return; now is not quite the time...
The book is so well written, such a great story that I was less than two chapters in before I had the following thought: This book needs to be a documentary film. This book needs to be a Ken Burns educational documentary film on PBS.
Therefore, the rest of this review will be a brief discussion about how I---the person writing this "review"---would make a documentary film out of this material, if I were a documentary filmmaker.
You know, I would start the film with something fun. News For All The People is also a history of the development and use of various communications technologies for disseminating the news to the public. I would start, sort of from the middle. I would start with radio.
I would use a split-screen to tell, simultaneously, the story of the early days of amateur radio broadcasting---which was wide open then---and, the story of the early (and current days) of Internet "broadcasting" (in the form of YouTube and other things). My reason for this is because, from what I gather from between the pages of Gonzalez and Torres' book, there are many parallels between the two histories, particularly as it pertains to racial minorities and young people.
Indeed, from what I gather, early radio was, essentially, the "social media Internet" of its day. That is to say, that it appears that young people and other hobbyists were doing almost the same range of things with radio, then, as people of today's Internet social media age are doing, and can do, in cyberspace.
Part IV of Gonzalez and Torres' book is titled: "The Age of Broadcasting."
In Chapter 11 we read:
"Military and commercial leaders in the US soon confronted a new and unexpected group with ambitious plans for the ether: amateur radio operators. By 1905 an eighteen-year-old immigrant from Luxembourg named Hugo Gernsback had set up a company to sell radio sets to hobbyists. Gernsback's complete system included a bare-bones transmitter and receiver, and its became so popular that thousands of young people, most of them white middle-class males, began taking to the airwaves" (1).
Did you hear that? "thousands of young people,... began taking to the airwaves."
Still quoting from the same page:
"One hundred and fifty amateur stations were operating by the end of 1905, and by 1910 600 radio clubs had been formed, with Electrical World reporting that an astonishing 800 amateur stations were up and running in the Chicago area alone. Hugo Gernsback then began to organize his fellow amateurs into the new Wireless Association of America" (2).
Did you hear that? We can't imagine it now, I suppose; but what we're being told is that five years into the twentieth-century, there were 150 amateur radio stations were up and running; and within the space of an additional five years, another 800 were going in the Chicago area alone! This was happening with the relative ease with the way young people today can make their YouTube videos and create their YouTube channels, for which they solicit for "subscriptions."
This is why I would use the split-screen.
It seems that by 1914, the start of World War One, there were 10,000 amateur radio clubs in the United States. That year, one Hiram Percy Maxim founded the American Radio Relay League, which constituted a "grass-root effort that allowed ham operators to develop their own national network for passing on vital information on natural disasters" (3).
This compares with the "citizen journalism" of today, facilitated by social media by way of various mobile devices, of course. The split-screen would be going, showing the natural disaster reporting done by young people in the early twentieth century on one side, and young people recording all kinds of events, including human natural disasters (instances of police brutality, and so on) with their cell phones.
Anyway, in 1917 the US government issued 13,000 amateur radio licenses (4). So getting on the airwaves, back then, was not quite as easy as making a YouTube video and starting a YouTube channel today----but it was nearly so.
Using the split-screen, I think I would compare the amateur radio clubs of the twentieth-century to the "hackers" computer associations of today. Also, we have a little item concerning African-Americans and the then new frontier of radio.
Gonzalez and Torres write:
"The war itself created a huge need in the army for radio operators. With prominent black editors loudly condemning racial segregation in the military, the government responded by authorizing all-black signal battalions and training their recruits in wireless. Emmett J. Scott, an assistant secretary of the War Department and one of the military's highest-ranking black officials, spearheaded training of the all black 325th Signal Battalion in Richmond, Virginia. In 1917, at the federal government's request, Howard University began to offer courses in radio engineering---the first black college to do so" (5).
What would interest me, here, for the purposes of the split-screen, is the use of radio in war and security. We are told that cyberspace is an area we have to watch out for, as well, in order to protect the security of the United States, these days. And, of course, as radio was vital to the logistics of war-making in the early twentieth century, I understand that computers and the Internet are pretty important to US military logistics today. I'm sure there would be fabulous opportunities for parallel video imagery on this topic for the documentary.
The two authors want us to know that this was a period of tremendously energetic amateur experimentation with radio. For example, one of the early amateur radio stations was 9XM at the University of Wisconsin. Teachers in the physics sections had begun to experiment with "point-to-point" communication, as early as 1909, then with broadcast services (6).
By 1917 Professor Earle M. Levy was sending out weather reports, by Morse code, to hundreds of farmers in Madison. Also that year, he and his students had completed construction of a 'wireless telephone' transmitter (7).
At any rate, I don't know this for sure, but I would imagine that the early years of the Internet brought about a similar wave of amateur experimentation and innovation.
As for African-Americans, again, most of those featured on amateur radio before World War One, were musicians (8). Again, as you well know, YouTube and other social media is the path being taken by many new artists of today, trying to "get their music out there."
Once again, I think it would be interesting to have the split-screen going to capture the efforts of young musical (and African-American) hopefuls on amateur radio in the early twentieth-century; and young musical hopefuls trying to make a name for themselves on the Internet.
In March of 1992 the New York Times noted that: 'In twelve months radio phoning has become the most popular amusement in America. In every neighborhood people are stringing wires to catch the ether wave currents' (6).
Again, compare that to the very earliest days of YouTube.
Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called the radio craze 'one of the most astounding things that [has] come under my observation of American life' (7).
Before radio sets were available in stores for sale, people could buy individual components to build their own radio receivers, which people were doing with great enthusiasm (8). It must have been exciting, building your own radio. I seem to remember that there was something of a build-your-own-computer craze in the late eighties and early nineties.
You know, I think I would use the split-screen to show the evolution from the telegraph (Morse Code) over the lines to voice (radio) in parallel to the evolution of simple typing online to voice transmitting capability online (Skype, and so forth).
The good times could not and did not roll on forever, however. It seems that the electromagnetic spectrum is finite, limited. The quantitatively limited nature of the spectrum, apparently, could not handle an infinite amount of signal traffic. The authors, Gonzalez and Torres, tell us that, therefore, the government had to step in to sort things out; and that the government had decisions to make.
You see, something called "signal interference," was, evidently, a big problem.
Gonzalez and Torres write:
"Following Hoover's defeat in the Zenith case, more than 200 new stations rushed to get on the air; scores of others simply jumped to whatever broadcast frequency they preferred. The resulting free-for-all produced so much signal interference that virtual anarchy reigned for months. Even before that new stampede of stations, radio in the US had mushroomed to include 15,111 amateur stations, 1,902 ship stations, 553 land stations for maritime use, and 536 broadcasting stations. Ordinary Americans were furious at the chaos on the airwaves, though some historians have seen a positive aspect to the upheaval. 'The undisciplined and unregulated voice' of so many amateurs, notes Mark Goodman, 'interfered with corporate goals of delivering programming and advertising on a dependable schedule to a mass audience.'" (9).
Still quoting, next page:
"The mad rush to the airwaves prompted angry public cries for federal intervention, and Congress responded by hurriedly passing the Radio Act of 1927. The new law established the basic rules of the American broadcasting system that are still in operation today. It makes clear for the first time that the federal government had the authority to regulate the nation's airwaves, and it revoked all existing licenses and created a five-member Federal Radio Commission to divide up the spectrum, issue all licenses, assign frequencies, and otherwise supervise broadcasters. Due to the finite number of frequencies available, the law also limited the number of radio license holders, and it required that all radio stations, as a condition of possessing a license, serve the 'public interest, convenience or necessity'" (10).
What were the consequences of all this?
Again, Gonzalez and Torres:
"The FRC's subsequent reallocations of frequencies gave larger radio companies and networks unparalleled control over the fledgling radio industry while reducing the number of independent voices. The agency immediately removed 150 of the 732 broadcast stations then on the air, including many educational stations, and it forced others onto less desirable frequencies. Until then considerable variety had existed on the air, with educational institutions and colleges holding a large share of the licenses, and with few stations in the habit of selling airtime" (11).
Just a few things on this
1. The only "signal interference" the Internet ever really experienced was within the short window of "dial up."
2. Unlike the electromagnetic spectrum, cyberspace is, apparently limitless.
3. For that reason, it is hard to imagine that a dedicated American YouTuber would ever find his YouTube channel removed by the government; and, mind you, not for reasons of political reasons, but because room was needed for corporate advertising and military communications.
4. Authors Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres have told us that "[t]he mad rush to the airwaves prompted angry public cries for federal intervention" and that this resulted in the loss of hundreds of amateur stations.
I wonder if some of the "angry" people who demanded "federal intervention," had amateur radio broadcast stations --- which were taken off the air as a result of the action they were calling for the government to take.
Are you following me?
If that is so, I wonder if these people said to themselves something like: "Oops! Got to be careful what you wish for!"
Did they feel like Charlie Brown, yet again falling for Lucy's lie that she really will hold the football for him this time, so that he can kick it?
If I were making a documentary film out of this material, I would make it a priority to find some of the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of these radio hobbyists who lost their radio stations due to the government shake up and reorganization that happened with the Radio Act of 1927.
What I would want to know is how their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents felt about losing the airwaves. Did it affect them greatly? Or was it "easy come, easy go" for them? Did they feel like the rug was yanked out from under them? How did they feel about the great adventure being so abruptly cancelled by the government?
Okay, I think that will do it for part one. We'll pick this up again in part two.
Thank you for reading!
1. Gonzalez, Juan & Torres, Joseph. News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Verso Books, 2011, 2012 (paperback version). 189
3. ibid, 191
5. ibid, 193
6. ibid, 199
9. ibid, 201
10. ibid, 202
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