You see it is hard enough at any age to address so learned a gathering as this. The very thought induces a certain solemnity. Then again, what about the dignity of age? There is, they say, no fool like an old fool.
Well, there is no fool like a middle-aged fool either. Twenty-five years ago I accepted the label ‘pessimist’ thoughtlessly without realising that it was going to be tied to my tail, as it were, in something the way that, to take an example from another art, Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C sharp minor was tied to him. No audience would allow him off the concert platform until he played it. Similarly critics have dug into my books until they could come up with something that looked hopeless. I can’t think why. I don’t feel hopeless myself. Indeed I tried to reverse the process by explaining myself. Under some critical interrogation I named myself a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist. I should have thought that anyone with an ear for language would understand that I was allowing more connotation than denotation to the word ‘cosmic’ though in derivation universal and cosmic mean the same thing. I meant, of course, that when I consider a universe which the scientist constructs by a set of rules which stipulate that this construct must be repeatable and identical, then I am a pessimist and bow down before the great god Entropy. I am optimistic when I consider the spiritual dimension which the scientist’s discipline forces him to ignore. So worldwide is the fame of the Nobel Prize that people have taken to quoting from my works and I do not see why I should not join in this fashionable pastime. Twenty years ago I tried to put the difference between the two kinds of experience in the mind of one of my characters, and made a mess of it. He was in prison.
‘All day long the trains run on rails. Eclipses are predictable. Penicillin cures pneumonia and the atom splits to order. All day long year in year out the daylight explanation drives back the mystery and reveals a reality usable, understandable and detached. The scalpel and the microscope fail. The oscilloscope moves closer to behaviour.
But then, all day long action is weighed in the balance and found not opportune nor fortunate nor ill-advised but good or evil. For this mode which we call the spirit breathes through the universe and does not touch it: touches only the dark things held prisoner, incommunicado, touches, judges, sentences and passes on. Both worlds are real. There is no bridge.’
What amuses me is the thought that of course there is a bridge and that if anything it has been thrust out from the side which least expected it, and thrust out since those words were written. For we know now, that the universe had a beginning. (Indeed, as an aside I might say we always did know. I offer you a simple proof and forbid you to examine it. If there was no beginning then infinite time has already passed and we could never have got to the moment where we are.) We also know or it is at least scientifically respectable to postulate that at the centre of a black hole the laws of nature no longer apply. Since most scientists are just a bit religious and most religious are seldom wholly unscientific we find humanity in a comical position. His scientific intellect believes in the possibility of miracles inside a black hole while his religious intellect believes in them outside it. Both, in fact, now believe in miracles, credimus quia absurdum est. Glory be to God in the highest. You will get no reductive pessimism from me.
A greater danger facing you is that an ancient schoolmaster may be carried away and forget he is not addressing a class of pupils. A man in his seventies may be tempted to think he has seen it all and knows it all. He may think that mere length of years is a guarantee of wisdom and a permit for the issuing of admonition and advice. Poor young Shakespeare and Beethoven, he thinks, dead in their youth at a mere fifty-two or three! What could young fellows such as that know about anything? But at midnight perhaps, when the clock strikes and another year has passed he may occasionally brood on the disadvantages of age rather than the advantages. He may regard more thoughtfully a sentence which has been called the poetry of the fact, a sentence that one of those young fellows stumbled across accidentally, as it were, since he was never old enough to have worked the thing out through living. “Men,” he wrote, “must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.” Such a consideration may modify the essential jollity of an old man’s nature. Is the old man right to be happy? Is there not something unbecoming in his cheerful view of his own end? The words of another English poet seem to rebuke him.
King David and King Solomon
Led merry, merry lives,
With many, many lady friends
And many, many wives;
But when old age crept over them,
With many, many qualms,
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs
And King David wrote the Psalms.
Powerful stuff that, there’s no doubt about it. But there are two views of the matter; and since I have quoted to you some of my prose which are generally regarded as poetic I will not quote to you some of my Goon or McGonagall poetry which may well be regarded as prosaic.
Sophocles the eminent Athenian
Gave as his final opinion
That death of love in the breast
Was like escape from a wild beast.
What better word could you get?
He was eighty when he said that.
But Ninon de L’Enclos
When asked the same question said, no
She was uncommonly matey
Evidently age need not wither us nor custom stale our infinite variety. Let us be, for a while, not serious but considerate. I myself face another danger. I do not speak in a small tribal language as it might be one of the six hundred languages of Nigeria. Of course the value of any language is incalculable. Your Laureate of 1979, the Greek poet Elytis, made quite clear that the relative value of works of literature is not to be decided by counting heads. It is, I think, the greatest tribute one can pay your committees that they have consistently sought for value in a work without heeding how many people can or cannot read it. The young John Keats spoke of Greek poets who “died content on pleasant sward, leaving great verse unto a little clan”. Indeed and indeed, small can be beautiful. To quote yet another poet – prose writer though I am you will have begun to realise where my heart is – Ben Jonson said:
“It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be,
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald and sere:
A lily of a day,
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night;
It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see,
And in short measures, life may perfect be.”
My own language, English, I believe to have a store of poets, of writers that need not fear comparison with those of any other language, ancient or modern. But today that language may suffer from too wide a use rather than too narrow a one – may be an oak rather than a lily. It spreads right round the world as the medium of advertisement, navigation, science, negotiation, conference. A hundred political parties have it daily in their mouths. Perhaps a language subjected to such strains as that may become, here and there, just a little thin. In English a man may think he is addressing a small, distinguished audience, or his family or his friends, perhaps; he is brooding aloud or talking in his sleep. Later he finds that without meaning to he has been addressing a large segment of the world. That is a daunting thought. It is true that this year, surrounded and outnumbered as I am by American laureates, I take a quiet pleasure in the consideration that though variants of my mother tongue may be spoken by a greater number of people than are to be found in an island off the West coast of Europe nevertheless they are speaking dialects of what is still centrally English. Personally I cannot tell whether those many dialects are being rendered mutually incomprehensible by distance faster than they are being unified by television and satellites; but at the moment the English writer faces immediate comprehension or partial comprehension by a good part of a billion people. His critics are limited in number only by the number of the people who can read his work. Nor can he escape from knowing the worst. No matter how obscure the publication that has disembowelled him, some kind correspondent – let us call him “X” – will send the article along together with an indignant assurance that he, “X”, does not agree with a word of it. I think apprehensively of the mark I present, once A Moving Target but now, surely a fixed one, before the serried ranks of those who can shoot at me if they choose. Even my most famous and distinguished fellow laureate and fellow countryman, Winston Churchill, did not escape. A critic remarked with acid wit of his getting the award, “Was it for his poetry or his prose?” Indeed it was considerations such as these which have given me, I suppose, more difficulty in conceiving, let alone writing this lecture than any piece of comparable length since those distant days when I wrote set essays on set subjects at school. The only difference I can find is that today I write at a larger desk and the marks I shall get for my performance will be more widely reported.
Now when, you may say, is the man going to say something about the subject which is alleged to be his own? He should be talking about the novel! Well, I will for a while, but only for a while, and as it were, tangentially. The truth is that though each of the subjects for which the prizes are awarded has its own and unique importance, none can exist wholly to itself. Even the novel, if it climbs into an ivory tower, will find no audience except those with ivory towers of their own. I used to think that the outlook for the novel was poor. Let me quote myself again. I speak of boys growing up – not exceptional boy, but average boy.
“Boys do not evaluate a book. They divide books into categories. There are sexy books, war books, westerns, travel books, science fiction. A boy will accept anything from a section he knows rather than risk another sort. He has to have the label on the bottle to know it is the mixture as before. You must put his detective story in a green paperback or he may suffer the hardship of reading a book in which nobody is murdered at all; – I am thinking of the plodders, the amiable majority of us, not particularly intelligent or gifted; well-disposed, but left high and dry among a mass of undigested facts with their scraps of saleable technology. What chance has literature of competing with the defined categories of entertainment which are laid on for them at every hour of the day? I do not see how literature is to be for them anything but simple, repetitive and a stop-gap for when there are no westerns on the telly. They will have a far less brutish life than their Nineteenth-Century ancestors, no doubt. They will believe less and fear less. But just as bad money drives out good, so inferior culture drives out superior. With any capacity to make value judgements vitiated or undeveloped, what mass future is there, then, for poetry, for belles-lettres, for real fearlessness in the theatre, for the novel which tries to look at life anew – in a word, for intransigence?”
I wrote that some twenty years ago I believe and the process as far as the novel is concerned has developed but not improved. The categories are more and more defined. Competition from other media is fiercer still. Well, after all the novel has no build – it claims on immortality.
“Story” of course is a different matter. We like to hear of succession of events and as an inspection of our press will demonstrate have only a marginal interest in whether the succession of events is minutely true or not. Like the late Mr. Sam Goldwyn who wanted a story which began with an earthquake and worked up to a climax, we like a good lead in but have most pleasure in a succession of events with a satisfactory end-point. Most simply and directly – when children holler and yell because of some infant tragedy or tedium, at once when we take them on our knee and begin shouting if necessary – “once upon a time” they fall silent and attentive. Story will always be with us. But story in a physical book, in a sentence what the West means by “a novel” – what of that? Certainly, if the form fails let it go. We have enough complications in life, in art, in literature without preserving dead forms fossilised, without cluttering ourselves with Byzantine sterilities. Yes, in that case, let the novel go. But what goes with it? Surely something of profound importance to the human spirit! A novel ensures that we can look before and after, take action at whatever pace we choose, read again and again, skip and go back. The story in a book is humble and serviceable, available, friendly, is not switched on and off but taken up and put down, lasts a lifetime.
Put simply the novel stands between us and the hardening concept of statistical man. There is no other medium in which we can live for so long and so intimately with a character. That is the service a novel renders. It performs no less an act than the rescue and the preservation of the individuality and dignity of the single being, be it man, woman or child. No other art, I claim, can so thread in and out of a single mind and body, so live another life. It does ensure that at the very least a human being shall be seen to be more than just one billionth of one billion.
I spoke of the ivory tower and the unique importance of each of our studies. Now I must add, having said my bit about the novel – that those studies converge, literature with the rest. Put bluntly, we face two problems – either we blow ourselves off the face of the earth or we degrade the fertility of the earth bit by bit until we have ruined it. Does it take a writer of fiction to bring you the cold comfort of pointing out that the problems are mutually exclusive? The one problem, the instant catastrophe, is not to be dealt with here. It would be irresponsible of me to turn this platform into a stage for acting out some antiatomic harangue and equally irresponsible at this juncture in history for me to ignore our perils. You know them as well as I do. As so often, when the unspeakable is to be spoken, the unthinkable thought, it is Shakespeare we must turn to; and I can only quote Hamlet with the skull:
“Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.”
I am being rather unfair to the lady, perhaps, for there will be skulls of all shapes and sizes and sexes. I speak tangentially. No other quotation gives the dirt of it all, another kind of poetry of the fact. I must say something of this danger and I have said it for I could do no less. Now as far as this matter is concerned, I have done.
The other danger is more difficult to combat. To quote another laureate, our race may end not with a bang but a whimper. It must be nearer seventy years ago than sixty that I first discovered and engaged myself to a magic place. This was on the west coast of our country. It was on the seashore among rocks. I early became acquainted with the wonderful interplay of earth and moon and sun, enjoying them at the same time as I was assured that scientifically you could not have action influenced at a distance. There was a particular phase of the moon at which the tide sank more than usually far down and revealed to me a small recess which I remember as a cavern. There was plenty of life of one sort or another round all the rocks and in the pools among them. But this pool, farthest down and revealed, it seemed, by an influence from the sky only once or twice during the times when I had the holiday privilege of living near it – this last recess before the even more mysterious deep sea had strange inhabitants which I had found nowhere else. I can now remember and even feel but alas not describe the peculiar engagement, excitement and, no, not sympathy or empathy, but passionate recognition of a living thing in all its secrecy and strangeness. It was or rather they were real as I was. It was as if the centre of our universe was there for my eyes to reach at like hands, to seize on by sight. Only a hand’s breadth away in the last few inches of still water they flowered, grey, green and purple, palpably alive, a discovery, a meeting, more than an interest or pleasure. They were life, we together were delight itself; until the first ripples of returning water blurred and hid them. When the summer holidays were over and I went back again about as far from the sea as you can get in England I carried with me like a private treasure the memory of that cave – no, in some strange way I took the cave with me and its creatures that flowered so strangely. In nights of sleeplessness and fear of the supernatural I would work out the phase of the moon, returning in thought to the slither and clamber among the weeds of the rocks. There were times when, though I was far away, I found myself before the cavern watching the moon-dazzle as the water sank and was comforted somehow by the magical beauty of our common world.
I have been back, since. The recess – for now it seems no more than that – is still there, and at low water springs if you can bend down far enough you can still look inside. Nothing lives there any more. It is all very clean now, ironically so, clean sand, clean water, clean rock. Where the living creatures once clung they have worn two holes like the orbits of eyes, so that you might well sentimentalize yourself into the fancy that you are looking at a skull. No life.
Was it a natural process? Was it fuel oil? Was it sewage or chemicals more deadly that killed my childhood’s bit of magic and mystery? I cannot tell and it does not matter. What matters is that this is only one tiny example among millions of how we are impoverishing the only planet we have to live on.
Well now, what has literature to say to that? We have computers and satellites, we have ingenuities of craft that can land a complex machine on a distant planet and get reports back. And so on. You know it all as well and better than I. Literature has words only, surely a tool as primitive as the flint axe or even the soft copper chisel with which man first carved his own likeness in stone. That tool makes a poor showing one would think among the products of the silicon chip. But remember Churchill. For despite the cynical critic, he got the Nobel Prize neither for poetry nor prose. He got it for about a single page of simple sentences which are neither poetry nor prose but for what, I repeat, has been called finely the poetry of the fact. He got it for those passionate utterances which were the very stuff of human courage and defiance. Those of us who lived through those times know that Churchill’s poetry of the fact changed history.
Perhaps then the soft copper chisel is not so poor a tool after all. Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion, and the luck of writers prove to be the most powerful thing in the world. They may move men to speak to each other because some of those words somewhere express not just what the writer is thinking but what a huge segment of the world is thinking. They may allow man to speak to man, the man in the street to speak to his fellow until a ripple becomes a tide running through every nation – of commonsense, of simple healthy caution, a tide that rulers and negotiators cannot ignore so that nation does truly speak unto nation. Then there is hope that we may learn to be temperate, provident, taking no more from nature’s treasury than is our due. It may be by books, stories, poetry, lectures we who have the ear of mankind can move man a little nearer the perilous safety of a warless and provident world. It cannot be done by the mechanical constructs of overt propaganda. I cannot do it myself, cannot now create stories which would help to make man aware of what he is doing; but there are others who can, many others. There always have been. We need more humanity, more care, more love. There are those who expect a political system to produce that; and others who expect the love to produce the system. My own faith is that the truth of the future lies between the two and we shall behave humanly and a bit humanely, stumbling along, haphazardly generous and gallant, foolishly and meanly wise until the rape of our planet is seen to be the preposterous folly that it is.
For we are a marvel of creation. I think in particular of one of the most extraordinary women, dead now these five hundred years, Juliana of Norwich. She was caught up in the spirit and shown a thing that might lie in the palm of her hand and in the bigness of a nut. She was told it was the world. She was told of the strange and wonderful and awful things that would happen there. At the last, a voice told her that all things should be well and all manner of things should be well and all things should be very well.
Now we, if not in the spirit, have been caught up to see our earth, our mother, Gaia Mater, set like a jewel in space. We have no excuse now for supposing her riches inexhaustible nor the area we have to live on limitless because unbounded. We are the children of that great blue white jewel. Through our mother we are part of the solar system and part through that of the whole universe. In the blazing poetry of the fact we are children of the stars.
I had better come down, I think. Churchill, Juliana of Norwich, let alone Ben Jonson and Shakespeare – Lord, what company we keep! Reputations grow and dwindle and the brightest of laurels fade. That very practical man, Julius Caesar–whom I always think of for a reason you may guess at, as Field Marshal Lord Caesar–Julius Caesar is said to have worn a laurel wreath to conceal his baldness. While it may be proper to praise the idea of a laureate the man himself may very well remember what his laurels will hide and that not only baldness. In a sentence he must remember not to take himself with unbecoming seriousness. Fortunately some spirit or other–I do not presume to put a name to it–ensured that I should remember my smallness in the scheme of things. The very day after I learned that I was the laureate for literature for 1983 I drove into a country town and parked my car where I should not. I only left the car for a few minutes but when I came back there was a ticket taped to the window. A traffic warden, a lady of a minatory aspect, stood by the car. She pointed to a notice on the wall. ‘Can’t you read?’ she said. Sheepishly I got into my car and drove very slowly round the corner. There on the pavement I saw two county policemen.
I stopped opposite them and took my parking ticket out of its plastic envelope. They crossed to me. I asked if, as I had pressing business, I could go straight to the Town Hall and pay my fine on the spot. ‘No, sir,’ said the senior policeman, ‘I’m afraid you can’t do that.’ He smiled the fond smile that such policemen reserve for those people who are clearly harmless if a bit silly. He indicated a rectangle on the ticket that had the words ‘name and address of sender’ printed above it. ‘You should write your name and address in that place,’ he said. ‘You make out a cheque for ten pounds, making it payable to the Clerk to the Justices at this address written here. Then you write the same address on the outside of the envelope, stick a sixteen penny stamp in the top right hand corner of the envelope, then post it. And may we congratulate you on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.'” William Golding, Nobel Literary Laureates Lecture: 1983.
Our understanding of this debate and of the Rosenbergs themselves has now been transformed by the publication of The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, edited by Michael Meeropol, the older of the two Rosenberg sons. Containing an astonishing 568 letters, this new edition demonstrates that the anonymous editors of the Death House Letters did a terrible disservice to their clients. Seeking to establish the Rosenbergs as popular heroes whose letters would be recognized as ‘world classics of democratic eloquence and inspiration — as the cover blurb of the second edition asserts — the edited versions obliterate nuance, distort sensible sentiments by eliminating their context, and reduce the Rosenbergs to relentless ideologues for whom all topics serve a political agenda.
The Rosenbergs were deeply committed Popular Front communists, and their political principles were an essential part of their character. Moreover, they knew at an early point in their imprisonment that their letters might be published, and they understood also that every line they wrote to each other, their children, and their lawyer Emanuel Bloch would be closely read by prison authorities and the government.
The contradictions inherent in this situation — the letters are simultaneously personal communications, documents open to their jailers, and a public case for their innocence — are apparent even in the complete edition of their correspondence. But the Death House Letters intensify these contradictions — through editorial carelessness, ruthless excision, principles of selection that are relentlessly political — making the Rosenbergs appear crudely manipulative and insincere, easy targets for the anti-communist polemics of Warshow and Fiedler.
Warshow’s attack consists primarily of a series of quotations from the Death House Letters, fragmentary selections of material already simplified, shortened, and fragmented. These quotations lead Warshow to speak of “the awkwardness and falsity of the Rosenbergs’ relations to culture, to sports, and to themselves.”6 Warshow’s most damaging argument — the point, really, on which his whole case for the mendacity of the Rosenbergs and their politics rests — centers on a letter from Julius to Ethel, written on July 4, 1951. His discussion of this passage confirms Andrew Ross’s notion that Warshow, like many other Cold War liberals, seized on the Rosenberg case as an occasion to demonstrate his own righteous anticommunism. Warshow writes:
[O]ne is forced to wonder whether the literal truth had not in some way ceased to exist for these people. It is now seventeen years since the Communists told the truth about themselves — the “popular front” was inaugurated during Julius Rosenberg’s student days at City College — and enough time has passed for the symbolic language of Communism to have taken on an independent existence. On July 4, 1951, Julius clipped a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times and taped it to the wall of his cell. “It is interesting,” he writes to Ethel, “to read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press and of religion in this setting. These rights our country’s patriots died for can’t be taken from the people even by Congress or the courts.” Does it matter that the Declaration of Independence says nothing about free speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, and that Julius therefore could not have found it “interesting” to read “these words” in that particular document? It does not matter. Julius knew that America is supposed to have freedom of expression and that the Declaration of Independence “stands for” America. Since, therefore, he already “knew” the Declaration, there was no need for him to actually read it in order to find it “interesting,” and it could not have occurred to him that he was being untruthful in implying that he had just been reading it when he had not. He could “see himself” reading it, so to speak, and this dramatic image became reality: he did not know that he had not read it.7
The arrogant ease with which Warshow dismisses the values of the Popular Front and speculates about Julius’s powers of self-deception is characteristic of the anticommunist rhetoric of the 1950s. The duplicity and hypocrisy of communists are so complete, the argument ran, that they are not in the usual sense human. “The implicit moral” of both Fiedler and Warshow’s essays, as Morris Dickstein has written, is that the Rosenbergs “were so empty, so crude, so bereft of style that there was nothing for the electric chair to kill.”8
But Warshow does make an apparently devastating point. Who but a blindly careless propagandist, indifferent to truth and contemptuous of the ordinary people for whom his sermon is intended, would claim to have read the Declaration, even to have attached it to the wall of his cell, only to confuse it with the Bill of Rights?
The new edition of the Rosenberg letters reveals that the propagandist who committed this howler is not Julius Rosenberg but the anonymous editor who prepared his letter for publication. Julius’s version is inelegant and verbose, but it does not mistake the Declaration of Independence for the Bill of Rights. A comparison of the “improved” version with Julius’s original demonstrates in small compass the immense latitude taken by the editors throughout the Death House Letters. First, the DHL version:
My Dearest Ethel,
Fortified by Ossining Manor’s delicious ice cream on this Independence Day, I’m making a celebration of this holiday for freedom. I clipped out a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times. It is interesting to read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press and of religion in this setting. These rights our country’s patriots died for can’t be taken from the people even by Congress or the courts.
In RL, we find Julius’ actual words:
My Sweetest Precious Girl,
Fortified by Ossining Manors [sic] delicious ice cream on the occasion of Independence Day my thoughts naturally go to this memorable holiday of freedom in our country. I clipped out a copy of the Delaration [sic] of Independence that appeared in the New York Times. It should be read and studied especially the history surrounding it. The greatness of our country is the heritage of liberty derived from the sacred words of free speech, press and religion. These rights that the forefathers and patriots of our country have fought, bled and died for cannot even by Congress or the courts be taken away from the people.
Nearly every one of the 187 letters in Death House Letters has undergone similar corrective surgery, though this is perhaps the single most disastrous revision if one judges by its impact on the reputation of the Rosenbergs among American intellectuals. Warshow’s essay was widely influential, and his deconstruction of the July 4th letter was recognized as the linchpin of his argument. Here, for example, is Irving Howe, in a 1982 memoir, recalling the Fiedler and Warshow articles, which he describes as “perverse overkill”:
Warshow and Fiedler scored points: who, against the Rosenbergs could not? Julius had written his wife that he had hung the Declaration of Independence on his cell wall so as to “read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion,” whereupon Warshow tartly noted that the Declaration says not a word about any of these matters. Very well, the Rosenbergs were entrapped in Stalinist devices; but surely at the moment what counted much more was that, innocent or guilty, they were waiting to be killed. Was it not heartless to write in this spirit, even if the Rosenbergs were indeed the poor besotted dupes one took them for?9
Howe’s limited sympathy is creditable, I suppose. But, more fundamentally, the passage reflects the damaging afterlife of an arrogant editor’s careless revision.
Many of the Death House Letters were condensed even more radically than that of July 4, 1951. Words and phrases are routinely altered, long paragraphs are excised or reduced to a few sentences, and, as the example of the July 4th letter indicates, even salutatory endearments are censored by editorial commissars apparently reluctant to allow their heroic martyrs to lapse into sentimentality or idiosyncrasy. This last practice is revealing precisely because the intellectual or psychological stakes are so small. Ethel and Julius are rarely permitted to exceed their allotment of one endearment per letter. Here is a sampling chosen from dozens of similar repressions: “Darling” disappears from “My Most Precious Darling Ethel” (August 16, 1951), and “Sweetest” from “My Dearest Sweetest Wife” (August 23, 1951), Ethel’s “Dearest Darling” of February 29, 1952 becomes merely “Darling,” Julius’ playful “Hello Bunny” of October 5, 1952 dwindles to “Hello Dear.”
The impulse to minimize or suppress oddity or emotional display, simple playfulness or high spirits, even verbal or grammatical complexity is linked to the editors’ political motives. The sad irony, of course, is that in their ruling passion to place the political content of the letters in an unimpeded foreground the Rosenberg editors taint the residue of personal material that has escaped excision. Most of what might be called personal or non-political in the Death House Letters — discussions of their sons; remarks on books, songs, radio programs; exchanges about their shared passion for baseball or the sustenance they find in their Jewish heritage; even the couple’s professions of love and longing for one another — all this is so persistently subordinated to the political that it appears not merely secondary but insincere, a set of transparent stratagems aimed at gaining the reader’s sympathy. More ironic still, even the Rosenbergs’ defining political values lose much of their force and credibility — become mere dogmatic abstractions — when they are severed from their human context, from their role in the moral lives of particular individuals.
Here is a representative instance of this pervasive tendency of the Death House Letters to simplify, purify, and thus dehumanize its protagonists — a letter from Ethel to her husband, written on October 4, 1951. First, the unedited version:
Since my last letter to the children in which I described the activities of the trash I have been observing I find it increasingly difficult to sort out my thoughts and feelings concerning them, and to communicate there with some degree of clarity to myself, let alone to attempt to establish an unbroken line of correspondence with them. There is a commingling of resistance and guilt which is most disconcerting indeed. Perhaps I need the stimulus of a visit from Manny [the Rosenberg lawyer, Emanuel Bloch] and from Dr. [Saul] Miller [her psychiatrist], bringing me news of them and the home situation generally to arouse me out of the stupor into which I seem to have sunk. I am most desirous of seeing one of them at least this week end.
My darling, I had never dreamed I could experience such intense hunger such bitter longing; I glow with aliveness the better to savor the ashes of death. [Yet?] can the acrid taste accomplish aught but a fanning of the flame, a fiercer burning, a renewed striving to triumph and to live.
Sweetheart, I find myself regretting that we were unable to “exchange” our individual visits with Lee [Julius’ sister Lena]. Neither of us got around to sharing information the other had received about the kids. For example did she recount for you a certain phone call during which Robby assured her he always gave Michael her regards “but what’s the use, he never pays any attention to what I say anyway!” She also mentioned that “Pop” [Ethel’s affectionate name for Alexander Bloch, Emanuel’s father] had urged her not to forget to tell Ethel that I [that is, “Pop”] am fast becoming acquainted with them and they are very bright children! Incidentally Robby, with that refreshing lack of inhibition common to our emotionally healthy normal child, complained to “POP” about the size of the Hershey bar he had brought him compared it in favorable (and out loud) [terms] to the kind his uncle Dave usually buys!
Oh, darling, what a wave of wanting washes over me for them and for you; it grows more and more difficult for me to put off my natural human desires, to warn myself of the searing destruction of our hopes that may yet be ours to contend with!
Only love me, my dear husband, only love me; I am your wife with all of myself!
Your loving Ethel
Here is the “improved” version, purged not only of its human detail and awkward, sometimes florid prose, but also of Ethel’s confusion and pain, her very identity as a mother and a wife:
I had never dreamed I could experience such intense hunger and such bitter longing; I glow with aliveness the better to savor the ashes of death. No, what is true is that the threat of death only fans the flame in me more fiercely, creating a renewed striving to triumph and to live.
Oh, darling, what a wave of wanting washes over me for the children and for you; it grows more and more difficult to put off my natural maternal and human desires, to warn myself of the searing destruction of our hopes that yet may be ours.
Only love me, my dear husband, I am your wife.
Your loving Ethel
In their son’s edition of the letters, the Rosenbergs appear, perhaps for the first time, as credible human beings, neither monsters nor saints. They are not sources of wisdom, not elegant writers — although they achieve at times a genuine, unforced eloquence that is usually undermined by the editors of the Death House Letters. Their deep anguish over their children’s fate, their intense commitment to one another, their identity as Jews appear now as essential aspects of their character.
It did not take shrewd editing to make politics the defining moral force in the Rosenberg’s lives. They were unswerving communists — though the word they had to use instead is “progressives” — and their political and cultural values were shaped by the eclectic simplicities of Popular Front culture.10 Julius’s letters in particular are full of the unrigorous universalism, the vague mingling of religious, patriotic, and marxist categories embraced by communists and other Leftists nurtured in Popular Front circles. In a representative letter in March 1953, he asserts that “the lessons of the struggle for freedom of the Jewish people from bondage will continue to serve . . . as an example of the endless striving for newer and broader horizons by mankind in every sphere of human endeavor, physical, mental, social, political.” But however vulnerable such perspectives are as history and theory, they provide the moral basis for the Rosenbergs’ political commitment to the powerless, to racial minorities, to the union movement.
“Advocacy of better conditions, social improvements, civil liberties and world peace,” Julius asserts defiantly, “are in the best traditions of the forefathers of our country. It is not necessary to conform with the political hacks who are in the saddle to-day to be a real patriot.” In a similar vein Ethel speaks of the “peace and good will and security all decent humanity so bitterly craves,” of a common “responsibility to our fellow-beings in the daily struggles for the establishment of social justice. Jew and Gentile, black and white, all must stand together in their might, to win the right!” (The awkwardly rhyming final phrase is, characteristically, excised from the version of this sentence in the Death House Letters.) Far more effectively and movingly than the Death House Letters, the new collection serves as an archive of the political and cultural values embraced by many thousands of working class and lower middle class Leftists in the decades before and after World War II.
Those values include many specific items with which few would now quarrel — civil rights, economic justice, free speech, and the right of political dissent. What is troubling in the letters, especially those of Julius who clearly sees himself as theoretically and philosophically enlightened, is their unquestioning belief in the inevitable march of history, in “progress,” “social advancement,” the imminent triumph of the working class. This naive marxist teleology is the governing principle both of politics and of personal life for Julius. Through the agency of “the people” we are moving toward “peace and a better world;” “the fraternal solidarity of mankind” gives him strength to withstand his imprisonment. These terms operate in the letters as a kind of mantra; their repeated invocation is Julius’ form of prayer. Disturbing even to a sympathetic reader because they are so entirely unanalyzed, these professions of faith come to seem a routinized and desperate ritual as the couple’s numerous appeals for clemency fail.
“I am encouraged,” Julius writes in a letter to Ethel less than three months before their electrocution, “and feel strong in the unity that binds us with our brothers all over the world against the tyrants that want to destroy us. Since they have no faith in the people, they fail to understand the elementary historical truth and to recognize the strength of the people.” It would be cruel to mock Julius’ faith in this god that failed, but it would be intellectually irresponsible not to acknowledge its moral and historical blindness.
Yet whatever the limitations of Julius’ simplistic faith in progress and in the people, his interpretation of the case is remarkably exact and persuasive. In several letters he notes the subtext of anti-semitism that stains public attitudes toward alleged communists; again and again he points to the link between the Korean War and the American government’s impulse to demonize communism; his detailed analyses of the trial record powerfully expose the weakness of the evidence against them and the surreal excess in Judge Kaufman’s rationale for the death penalty. In letter after letter there is a poignant and terrible power of concentration and will in Julius’ outraged critique of every detail of the trial record and of the anticommunist propaganda and innuendo that saturated mainstream press accounts of their arrest and trial.
Ethel, in contrast, falls into near silence during the last nine months of their lives. Though she writes occasionally to their lawyer and to the children, she writes nothing to Julius after October 3, 1952. (They were executed eight months later.) Julius continues to write her two and three times a week, but Ethel never answers. In her thoughtful biography of Ethel, Ilene Philipson sees this near silence as evidence of clinical depression. The letters themselves are unreliable clues in this regard, of course, since all were composed at least partly as public documents. But it is possible to see a change in Ethel’s writing. During the first year or so of her imprisonment, Ethel’s letters are in part light-hearted, even witty, and some to Julius contain openly passionate expressions of sexual desire. These personal elements subside over time, and she seems more and more to be addressing posterity, sometimes in tones that hint at suffering and even hysteria. Here, too, one may say that Ethel was ill-served by her first editors; their changes have a marginally calming effect, but her excesses are surely more emotionally truthful and revealing. In the following excerpt, from a letter to Emanuel Bloch on February 9, 1953, the italicized material does not appear in the Death House Letters:
So now my life is to be bargained off against my husband’s; I need only grasp the line chivalrously held out to me by the gallant defenders of hearth and home and leave him to drown without a backward glance. How diabolical, how bestial, how utterly depraved! Only fiends and perverts could taunt a fastidious woman with so despicable, so degrading a proposition! A cold fury possesses me and I could retch with horror and revulsion, for these unctuous saviors, these odious swine, are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulchre in which I shall live without living and die without dying!
In her first letter from prison, written August 12, 1950, the day after her incarceration in the Women’s House of Detention in New York City, Ethel tells her husband, ‘Darling, we mustn’t lose each other or the children, mustn’t lose our identities.’ They did, of course, lose each other and the children. But some part of who they really were, surviving the Cold War and the mythmaking of their friends and enemies, is available now in the words they wrote.” David Thorburn, “The Rosenberg Letters;” Boston Review, 1995
Due of the seamless nature of `Underground‘ this is a reasonable question to ask, although hints can be found at the back of the book in the Bibliography and Endnotes. The simple answer to this question is that we conducted over a hundred interviews and collected around 40,000 pages of primary documentation; telephone intercepts, data intercepts, log-files, witness statements, confessions, judgements. Telephone dialog and on-line discussions are drawn directly from the latter. Every significant hacking incident mentioned in this book has reams of primary documentation behind it. System X included.
The non-simple answer goes more like this:
In chapter 4, Par, one of the principle subjects of this book, is being watched by the Secret Service. He’s on the run. He’s a wanted fugitive. He’s hiding out with another hacker, Nibbler in a motel chalet, Black Mountain, North Carolina. The Secret Service move in. The incident is vital in explaining Par’s life on the run and the nature of his interaction with the Secret Service. Yet, just before the final edits of this book were to go the publisher, all the pages relating to the Block Mountain incident were about to be pulled. Why?
Suelette had flown to Tuscon Az where she spent three days interviewing Par. I had spent dozens of hours interviewing Par on the phone and on-line. Par gave both of us extraordinary access to his life. While Par displayed a high degree of paranoia about why events had unfolded in the manner they had, he was consistent, detailed and believable as to the events themselves. He showed very little blurring of these two realities, but we needed to show none at all.
During Par’s time on the run, the international computer underground was a small and strongly connected place. We had already co-incidentally interviewed half a dozen hackers he had communicated with at various times during his zig-zag flight across America. Suelette also spoke at length to his lead lawyer Richard Rosen, who, after getting the all-clear from Par, was kind enough to send us a copy of the legal brief. We had logs of messages Par had written on underground BBS’s. We had data intercepts of other hackers in conversation with Par. We had obtained various Secret Service documents and propriety security reports relating to Par’s activities. I had extensively interviewed his Swiss girlfriend Theorem (who had also been involved with Electron and Pengo), and yes, she did have a melting French accent.
Altogether we had an enormous amount of material on Par’s activities, all of which was consistent with what Par had said during his interviews, but none of it, including Rosen’s file, contained any reference to Black Mountain, NC. Rosen, Theorem and others had heard about a SS raid on the run, yet when the story was traced back, it always led to one source. To Par.
Was Par having us on? Par had said that he had made a telephone call to Theorem in Switzerland from a phone booth outside the motel a day or two before the Secret Service raid. During a storm. Not just any storm. Hurricane Hugo. But archival news reports on Hugo discussed it hitting South Carolina, not North Carolina. And not Black Mountain. Theorem remembered Par calling once during a storm. But not Hugo. And she didn’t remember it in relation to the Black Mountain raid.
Par had destroyed most of his legal documents, in circumstances that become clear in the book, but of the hundreds of pages of documentary material we had obtained from other sources there was wasn’t a single mention of Black Mountain. The Black Mountain Motel didn’t seem to exist. Par said Nibbler had moved and couldn’t be located. Dozens of calls by Suelette to the Secret Service told us what we didn’t want to hear. The agents we thought most likely to have been involved in the the hypothetical Black Mountain incident had either left the Secret Service or were otherwise unreachable. The Secret Service had no idea who would have been involved, because while Par was still listed in the Secret Service central database, his profile, contained three significant annotations:
1. Another agency had “borrowed” parts Par’s file. 2. There were medical “issues” surrounding Par. 3. SS documents covering the time of Black Mountain incident had been destroyed for various reasons that become clear the book. 4. The remaining SS documents had been moved into “deep-storage” and would take two weeks to retrieve.
With only one week before our publisher’s “use it or lose it” dead-line, the chances of obtaining secondary confirmation of the Black Mountain events did not look promising.
While we waited for leads on the long trail of ex, transfered and seconded SS agents who might have been involved in the Black Mountain raid, I turned to resolving the two inconsistencies in Par’s story; Hurricane Hugo and the strange invisibility of the Black Mountain Motel.
Hurricane Hugo had wreathed a path of destruction, but like most most hurricanes heading directly into a continental land-mass it had started out big and ended up small. News reports followed this pattern, with a large amount of material on its initial impact, but little or nothing about subsequent events. Finally I obtained detailed time by velocity weather maps from the National Reconnaissance Office, which showed the remaining Hugo epicentre ripping through Charlotte NC (pop. 400k) before spending itself on the Carolinas. Database searches turned up a report by Natalie, D. & Ball, W, EIS Coordinator, North Carolina Emergency Management, `How North Carolina Managed Hurricane Hugo’ — which was used to flesh out the scenes in Chapter 4 describing Par’s escape to New York via the Charlotte Airport.
Old Fashioned gum-shoe leg-work, calling every motel in Black Mountain and the surrounding area, revealed that the Black Mountain Motel had changed name, ownership and.. all its staff. Par’s story was holding, but in someways I wished it hadn’t. We were back to square one in terms of gaining independent secondary confirmation.
Who else could have been involved? There must have been a paper-trail outside of Washington. Perhaps the SS representation in Charlotte had something? No. Perhaps there were records of the warrants in the Charlotte courts? No. Perhaps NC state police attended the SS raid in support? Maybe, but finding walm bodies who had been directly involved proved proved futile. If it was a SS case, they had no indexable records that they were willing to provide. What about the local coppers? An SS raid on a fugitive computer hacker holed up at one of the local motels was not the sort of event that would be likely to have passed unnoticed at the Black Mountain county police office, indexable records or not.
Neither however, were international telephone calls from strangely accented foreign-nationals wanting to know about them. Perhaps the Reds were no-longer under the beds, but in Black Mountain, this could be explained away by the fact they were now hanging out in phone booths. I waited for a new shift at the Black Mountain county police office, hoping against hope, that the officer I had spoken to wouldn’t contaminate his replacement. Shamed, I resorted to using that most special of US militia infiltration devices. An American accent and a woman’s touch. Suelette weaved her magic. The Black Mountain raid had taken place. The county police had supported it. We had our confirmation.
While this anecdote is a strong account, it’s also representative one. Every chapter in underground has many tales just like it. They’re unseen, because a book must not just be true in details, but true in feeling.
True to the visible and the invisible. A difficult combination.” Julian Assange, “Researcher’s Introduction;” Underground, 1997: http://www.gutenberg.org/
For democrats, this concentration of media power and attendant commercialization of public discourse are a disaster. An informed, participating citizenry depends on media that play a public service function. As James Madison once put it, ‘A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.’ But these democratic functions lie beyond the reach of the current American media system. If we are serious about democracy, then, we need to work aggressively for reform.
What kind of reform? In broad terms, we need to reduce the current degree of media concentration, and, more immediately, blunt its effects on democracy. More specifically, we need special incentives for nonprofits, broadcast regulation, public broadcasting, and antitrust. I present these proposals as the start of a debate about media reform, not as ultimate solutions. I am sure that spirited discussion will improve these ideas: my immediate concern is to get that discussion started. I will not dwell here on the weaknesses of the current US media system, beyond summarizing arguments that I (and many others) have made elsewhere. The point here is to begin answering the natural follow-up to such criticisms: ‘If the status quo is so bad, what do you propose that would be better?’
Media and Democracy
The case for media reform is based on two propositions. First, media perform essential political, social, economic, and cultural functions in modern democracies. In such societies, media are the principal source of political information and access to public debate, and the key to an informed, participating, self-governing citizenry. Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinion and analysis and debate on important issues, reflects the diversity of citizens, and promotes public accountability of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be. In short, the media in a democracy must foster deliberation and diversity, and ensure accountability.
Second, media organization-patterns of ownership, management, regulation, and subsidy– i s a central determinant of media content. This proposition is familiar from discussions of media in China and the former Soviet Union. For those countries, the idea that the media could promote deliberation, diversity, and accountability, while being effectively owned and controlled by the Communist Party, was not even worth refuting. Similarly, we are not surprised to hear that when cronies of the Mexican government owned the country’s only TV station, television news coverage was especially favorable to the ruling party.
In the United States, in contrast, analysis of the implications of private ownership and advertising support for media content has been limited. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, Americans have heard that we have no reason to be concerned about corporate ownership of media or dependence on commercial advertising because market competition forces commercial media to “give the people what they want,” and journalistic professionalism protects the news from the biases of owners and advertisers as well as journalists themselves.
Such views now seem very dubious. Consider first the alleged benefits of competition. The main media markets– film, TV, magazines, music, books, cable, newspapers– are all oligopolies or semi-monopolies with severe barriers to new entrants. Moreover, media economics make it virtually impossible for a firm to be dominant in just one sector. Because of opportunities that come with having properties in different media markets, the largest media firms all have rushed to establish conglomerates over the past decade. Time Warner, for example, is one of the top five US or global leaders in film production, TV show production, cable TV channels, cable TV systems, movie theater ownership, book publishing, music, and magazine publishing. It also has amusement parks, retail stores, and professional sport teams. Disney, too, seems to have mastered the logic of conglomeration: its animated films Pocahantas and Hunchback of Notre Dame were only marginal successes at the box office, with roughly $100 million in gross US revenues, but both films will generate close to $500 million in profit for Disney, once it has exploited all other venues: TV shows on its ABC network and cable channels, amusement park rides, comic books, CD-ROMs, CDs, and merchandising (through 600 Disney retail stores). Firms without these options simply cannot compete in this market, which is why animation is the province of only the largest media giants. This example is extreme, but it sharply underscores the fundamental principle.
These observations about conglomeration, however, barely begin to explain just how noncompetitive the media market is-if we take “competitive” in the economics textbook sense. Firms in specific markets do directly compete, at times ferociously. But these firms are also each other’s best customers, as when a film studio sells its product for presentation to a broadcast network’s cable channel. Moreover, to reduce risk and competition, the largest media firms have turned to “equity joint ventures” in the 1990s. Under such arrangements, media giants share the ownership of a specific media project: Fox Sports Net is jointly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and John Malone’s TCI; the Comedy Central cable channel is co-owned by Time Warner and Viacom. Murdoch explains the logic behind joint ventures as only he can: “We can join forces now, or we can kill each other and then join forces.” The nine largest American media firms have, on average, joint ventures with nearly six of the other eight giants. Murdoch’s News Corp. has at least one joint venture with every single one of them.
In such noncompetitive markets, the claim that media firms “give the people what they want” is unconvincing. The firms have enough market power to dictate the content that is most profitable for them. And the easy route to profit comes from increasing commercialism-larger numbers of ads, greater say for advertisers over non-advertising content, programming that lends itself to merchandising, and all sorts of cross promotions with non-media firms. Consumers may not want such hyper-commercialism, but they have little say in the matter. So we have a 50 percent increase in the number of commercials on network TV in the past decade; the development of commercially-saturated kids’ programming as arguably the fastest-growing and most profitable branch of the TV industry in the 1990s; becoming standard in motion pictures. The flip side of this commercialism is the decline of public service-of the notion that there is any purpose to our media except to make money for shareholders.
Under such conditions, journalistic norms can hardly be expected to stem the commercial tide. Contemporary commercial journalism is essentially a mix of crime stories, celebrity profiles, consumer news pitched at the upper middle class, and warmed over press releases. Bookstores are filled with dispirited reports by former editors and journalists bemoaning the brave new world of corporate journalism. Journalist unions are very important in this regard, by protecting journalistic norms from the commercial interests of the owners. But without other measures to weaken corporate media power, unions are not likely to be able to resist pressures from the current media system.
For democrats, then, media competition and journalistic norms do not suffice for deliberation, diversity, and accountability. If media are central to the formation of a participating and informed citizenry, and if media organization influences media performance, then issues about ownership, regulation, and subsidy need to be matters of public debate. But such debate has been almost non-existent in the United States. Even in broadcasting, where the publicly owned airwaves are licensed to private users, the public has never had any meaningful participation in the formation of policy.
Consider the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law it replaced, the Communications Act of 1934, regulated telephony, radio, and television. The 1996 Act provides the basis for determining the course of radio, television, telephony, the Internet-indeed virtually all aspects of communication as we shift over to digital technologies. Its guiding premise is that the market should rule communication, with government assistance. The politics of the Act consisted largely of powerful corporate communication firms and lobbies fighting behind the scenes to get the most favorable wording. That the corporate sector would control all communication was a given; the only fight was over which sectors and which firms would get the best deals. The public was for the most part unaware of these debates. The drafting and struggles over the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were hardly discussed in the news media, except in the business and trade press, where the legislation was covered as a story of importance to investors and managers, not citizens, or even consumers.
The results of the Telecommunications Act, with its relaxation of ownership restrictions to promote competition across sectors, have been little short of disastrous. Rather then produce competition, a far-fetched notion in view of the concentrated nature of these markets, the law has paved the way for the greatest period of corporate concentration in US media and communication history. The seven Baby Bells are now four-if the SBC Communications purchase of Ameritech goes through-with more deals on the way. In radio, where ownership restrictions were relaxed the most, the entire industry has been in upheaval, with 4,000 of the 11,000 commercial stations being sold since 1996. In the 50 largest markets, three firms now control access to over half the radio audience. In 23 of those 50 markets, the three largest firms control 80 percent of the radio audience. The irony is that radio, which is relatively inexpensive and thus ideally suited to local independent control, has become perhaps the most concentrated and centralized medium in the United States.
No doubt the United States needed a new communications law. Digital technologies are undermining the traditional distinctions between media and communication sectors that formed the basis for earlier communication regulation. But the legislation we ended up with reflects the failed process that produced it.
Because corporate control and the role of advertising are effectively off-limits to public discussion, reformers have faced limited options. Hence they have tended to press for mild reforms that do not threaten corporate and advertiser hegemony. And because these mild reforms generate little enthusiasm from the broad public, media activists have put little effort into organizing popular support for their efforts. The result is an “inside-the-beltway,” low-political-stakes style of public interest lobbying. For example, in 1997 some media activists claimed victory when the Federal Communications Commission began requiring broadcasters to do three hours a week of educational programming for kids. The problem with this “victory” was that these educational programs would all remain commercially sponsored with ultimate control in the hands of business interests.
Other reformers have turned to “civic” or “public” journalism, a well- intentioned attempt to reduce the sensationalism and blatant political manipulation of mainstream journalism. Unfortunately, the movement completely ignores the structural factors of ownership and advertising that have led to the attack on journalism. Public journalism, not surprisingly, is averse to “ideological” approaches to the news, and therefore encourages a boringly “balanced” and soporific newsfare. Claiming to give readers news they think is important to their lives, advocates of public journalism may in fact be assisting in the process of converting journalism into the type of consumer news and information that delights the advertising community.
Still others have joined the media literacy movement. The idea here is to educate people to be skeptical and knowledgeable users of the media. Media literacy has considerable potential so long as it involves explaining how the media system actually works, and leads people to work for a better system. But a more conventional wing of the movement implicitly accepts that commercial media “give the people what they want.” So the media literacy crowd’s job is to train people to demand better fare. The resulting strategy may simply help to prop up the existing system. “Hey, don’t blame us for the lousy stuff we provide,” the corporate media giants will say. “We even bankrolled media literacy to train people to demand higher quality fare. The morons simply demanded more of what we are already doing.”
While media literacy has an important role to play in media reform, civic journalism has been at best a mixed blessing. Some observers credit civic journalism, which is widespread in North Carolina, with helping in Jesse Helms’s 1996 re-election. Why? Because civic journalism was ill-equipped to generate tough questions, or press politicians to answer them. So Helms got a cakewalk from the press, barely having to defend his record.
The evidence is clear: if we want a media system that produces fundamentally different results, we need solutions that address the causes of the problems; have to address issues of media ownership, management, regulation, and subsidy. Our goal should be to craft a media system that reduces the power of a handful of enormous corporations and advertisers to dominate the media culture. But no one will press for reform until we have some ideas worth debating. The ultimate trump card of the status quo is the claim that any change in our media system will invariably lead to darkness at noon. The purpose of the balance of this article is to establish that there are indeed several workable proposals for media reform that will expand, not contract, freedom and will energize our culture and democracy.
Media Reform Proposals
Building nonprofit and noncommercial media. The starting point for media reform is to build up a viable nonprofit, noncommercial media sector. Such a sector currently exists in the United States, and produces much of value, but it is woefully small and underfunded. It can be developed independent of changes in laws and regulations. For example, foundations and organized labor could and should contribute far more to the develop of nonprofit and noncommercial media. Labor, in particular, has to be willing to subsidize radio, television, Internet, and print media. Moreover, labor cannot seek to micromanage these media and have them serve as its PR agents. For independent media to flourish, they must have editorial integrity.
Sympathetic government policies could also help foster a nonprofit media sector, and media reform must work to this end. Government subsidies and policies have played a key role in establishing lucrative commercial media. Since the 19th century, for example, the United States has permitted publications to have quality, high speed mailing at relatively low rates. We could extend this principle to lower mailing costs for a wider range of nonprofit media, and/or for media that have little or no advertising. Likewise we could permit all sorts of tax deductions or write-offs for contributions to nonprofit media. Dean Baker of the Economic Policy Institute has developed a plan for permitting taxpayers to take up to $150 off their federal tax bill, if they donate the money to a nonprofit news medium. This would permit almost all Americans to contribute to nonprofit media-not just those with significant disposable incomes-and help create an alternative to the dominant Wall Street/Madison Avenue system.
Public Broadcasting. Establishing a strong nonprofit sector to complement the commercial giants is not enough. The costs of creating a more democratic media system simply are too high. Therefore, it is important to establish and maintain a noncommercial, nonprofit, public radio and television system. The system should include national networks, local stations, public access television, and independent community radio stations. Every community should also have a stratum of low-power television and micropower radio stations.
The United States has never experienced public broadcasting in the manner of Japan, Canada, and Western Europe. In contrast to the US, public broadcasting there has been well funded and commissioned to serve the entire population. In the United States, public broadcasting has always been underfunded, and effectively required to provide only programming that is not commercially viable. As a result, public broadcasters typically provide relatively unattractive programming to fringe audiences, hardly a strategy for institutional success. Moreover, Congress has been a watchdog to see that public broadcasting did not expand the range of ideological discourse beyond that provided by the commercial broadcasters. In sum, public broadcasting in the United States has been handcuffed since its inception. Still, it has developed a devoted following. This following has provided enough vocal political support to keep US public broadcasting from being effectively privatized, but most of this toothpaste is now out of the tube. Public radio and television are increasingly dependent upon corporate grants and “enhanced underwriting,” a euphemism for advertising. The federal subsidy only accounts for some 15 percent of public broadcasting revenues. Indeed, public broadcasting, by the standard international definition, no longer exists in the United States. Instead, we have nonprofit commercial broadcasting, closely linked to the corporate sector, with the constant threat of right-wing political harassment if public stations step out of line.
We need a system of real public broadcasting, with no advertising, that accepts no grants from corporations or private bodies, and that serves the entire population, not merely those who are disaffected from the dominant commercial system and have to contribute during pledge drives. Two hurdles stand in the way of such a system. The first is organizational: How can public broadcasting be structured to make the system accountable and prevent a bureaucracy impervious to popular tastes and wishes, but to give the public broadcasters enough institutional strength to prevent implicit and explicit attempts at censorship by political authorities? The second is fiscal: Where will the funds come from to pay for a viable public broadcasting service? At present, the federal government provides $260 million annually. The public system I envision-which would put per capita US spending in a league with, for example, Britain and Japan-may well cost $5-10 billion annually.
There is no one way to resolve the organizational problem, and perhaps an ideal solution can never be found. But there are better ways, as any comparative survey indicates. One key element in preventing bureaucratic ossification or government meddling will be to establish a pluralistic system, with national networks, local stations, community and public access stations, all controlled independently. In some cases direct election of officers by the public and also by public broadcasting employees may be appropriate, whereas in other cases appointment by elected political bodies may be preferable. As for funding, I have no qualms about drawing the funds for fully public radio and television from general revenues. There is an almost absurd obsession with generating funds for public broadcasting from everywhere but the general budget, on the bogus premise that public broadcasting cannot be justified as a public expense. In view of radio and television’s importance in our lives, it clearly deserves a smidgen of the money we use to build entirely unnecessary weapons systems. We subsidize education, but the government now subsidizes media only on behalf of owners. We should seek to have a stable source of funding, one that cannot be subject to manipulation by politicians with little direct interest in the integrity of the system.
A powerful public radio and television system could have a profound effect on our entire media culture. It could lead the way in providing the type of public service journalism that commercialism is now killing off. This might in turn give commercial journalists the impetus they need to pursue the hard stories they now avoid. It could have a similar effect upon our entertainment culture. A viable public TV system could support a legion of small independent filmmakers. It could do wonders for reducing the reliance of our political campaigns upon expensive commercial advertising. It is essential to ensuring the diversity and deliberation that lie at the heart of a democratic public sphere.
Regulation. A third main plank is to increase regulation of commercial broadcasting in the public interest. Media reformers have long been active in this arena, if only because the public ownership of the airwaves gives the public, through the FCC, a clear legal right to negotiate terms with the chosen few who get broadcast licenses. Still, even this form of media activism has been negligible, and broadcast regulation has been largely toothless, with the desires of powerful corporations and advertisers rarely challenged.
Experience in the United States and abroad indicates that if commercial broadcasters are not held to high public service standards, they will generate the easiest profits by resorting to the crassest commercialism, and will overwhelm the balance of the media culture. Moreover, standard-setting will not work if commercial broadcasters are permitted to “buy” their way out of public service obligations; the record shows that they will eventually find a way to reduce or eliminate these payments. Hence the most successful mixed system of commercial and public broadcasting in the world was found in Britain from the 1950s to the 1980s. It was successful because the commercial broadcasters were held to public service standards comparable to those employed by the BBC; some scholars even argue that the commercial system sometimes outperformed the BBC as a public service broadcaster. The British scheme worked because commercial broadcasters were threatened with loss of their licenses if they did not meet public service standards. (Regrettably, Thatcherism, with its mantra that the market can do no wrong, has undermined the integrity of the British broadcasting system.)
In three particular areas, broadcast regulation can be of great importance. First, advertising should be strictly regulated or even removed from all children’s programming (as in Sweden). We must stop the commercial carpetbombing of our children. Commercial broadcasters should be required to provide several hours per week of ad-free kids’ programming, to be produced by artists and educators, not Madison Avenue hotshots.
Second, television news should be taken away from the corporate chiefs and the advertisers and turned over to journalists. Exactly how to organize independent ad-free children’s and news programming on commercial television so that it is under the control of educators, artists, and journalists will require study and debate. But we should be able to set up something that is effective.
As for funding this public service programming, I subscribe to the principle that it should be subsidized by the beneficiaries of commercialized communication. This principle might be applied in several ways. We could charge commercial broadcasters rent on the electromagnetic spectrum they use to broadcast. Or we could charge them a tax whenever they sell the stations for a profit. In combination these mechanisms could generate well over a billion dollars annually. Or we could tax advertising. Some $200 billion will be spent to advertise in the United States in 1998, $120 billion of which will be in the media. A very small sales tax on this or even only on that portion that goes to radio and television could generate several billion dollars. It might also have the salutary effect of slowing down the commercial onslaught on American social life. And it does not seem like too much to ask of advertisers who are permitted otherwise to marinate most of the publicly owned spectrum in commercialism.
Third, political candidates should receive considerable free airtime on television during electoral campaigns. In addition, paid TV advertising by candidates should either be strictly regulated or banned outright, as the exorbitant cost of these ads (not to mention their lame content) has virtually destroyed the integrity of electoral democracy here. If they cannot be banned, or even reduced by regulation, then perhaps a provision should be made that if a candidate purchases a TV ad, his or her opponents will all be entitled to free ads of the same length on the same station immediately following the paid ad. This would prevent rich candidates from buying elections. I suspect it would pretty much eliminate the practice altogether.
Even in these pro-market times, the corporate media have been unable to rid the public of its notion that commercial broadcasters should be required to serve the public as well as shareholders and advertisers. Hence, when commercial broadcasters were able to force the FCC in 1997 to give them (at no cost) massive amounts of new spectrum so they could begin digital TV broadcasting, the Clinton administration established the Gore Commission to recommend public service requirements to be met by broadcasters in return for this gift. Following the contours of US media politics, the Gore Commission has been little short of a farce, with several industry members stonewalling all but the lamest proposals. But we can hope that the Gore Commission will generate some more serious public service proposals, and provide the basis for a public education campaign and subsequent legislation to give them the force of law.
Antitrust.. The fourth strategy for creating a more democratic media system is to break up the largest firms and establish more competitive markets, thus shifting some control from corporate suppliers to citizen consumers. By all accounts, the current antitrust statutes are not satisfactory, and if antitrust is ever to be applied to media it will require a new statute, similar in tone to the seminal Clayton and Sherman Acts, that lays out the general values to be enforced by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. The objective should be to break up such media conglomerates as Time Warner, News Corporation, and Disney, so that their book publishing, magazine publishing, TV show production, movie production, TV stations, TV networks, amusement parks, retail store chains, cable TV channels, cable TV systems, etc. all become independent firms. With reduced barriers-to-entry in these specific markets, new firms could enter.
The media giants claim that their market power and conglomeration make them more efficient and therefore able to provide a better product at lower prices to the consumer. There is not much evidence for these claims, though it is clear that market power and conglomeration make these firms vastly more profitable. Moreover, even if one accepts that antitrust would lead to a less efficient economic model, perhaps we should pay that price to establish a more open and competitive marketplace. In view of media’s importance for democratic politics and culture, they should not be judged by purely commercial criteria.
Antitrust is the wild card in the media reform platform. It has tremendous appeal across the population and is usually the first idea citizens suggest when they are confronted with the current media scene. But it is unclear whether antitrust legislation could be effectively implemented. And even if it does prove effective, the system would remain commercial, albeit more competitive. It would not, in other words, reduce the need for the first three proposals.
Not to Worry?
The fundamental flaws in our corporate-dominated, commercial media system are widely appreciated. Unfortunately, there is also a rush to assert that the Internet should silence our fears. Because the Internet is open to all at relatively low prices, the hegemony of media giants and advertisers will soon end, to be replaced by a wide-open, decentralized, diverse, fast-changing, and competitive media culture. Best of all, this result is implicit in the Internet’s digital network technology, and will not require government regulation. Indeed, the mainstream consensus-strongly endorsed by the Clinton administration’s Internet policy-is that government regulation alone could prevent the Internet from working its magic.
Though the Internet and digital communication in general are certainly creating a radical change in our media and communication systems, the results may not be a more competitive market or more democratic media. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that as the Internet becomes a commercial medium, the largest media firms are most likely to succeed. The media giants can plug digital programming from their other ventures into the Web at little extra cost. To generate an audience, they can promote their Web sites incessantly on their traditional media holdings. The leading media “brands” have been the first to charge subscription fees for their Web offerings; indeed, they may be the only firms for which this is even an alternative. The media giants can (and do) arrange to have their advertisers agree to advertise on their Web sites. The media giants can also use their market power and brand names to get premier position in Web browser software. The new Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 offers 250 highlighted channels, and the “plum positions” belong to Disney and Time Warner. Netscape and Pointcast are making similar arrangements. Moreover, approximately half the venture capital for Internet content start-up companies comes from established media firms; they want to be able to capitalize on profitable new applications as they emerge. In addition, the evidence suggests that in the commercialized Web, advertisers will have increased leverage over content because of the number of choices before them.
When these market considerations are taken together, it is difficult to imagine the growth of a competitive digital media marketplace in which small suppliers overwhelm corporate giants. Digital communication will cause considerable dislocation, but not a revolution. And in the end, the content of the digital communication world will appear quite similar to the content of the pre-digital world.
Ironically, the most striking feature of digital communication may well be not that it opened up competition in communication markets, but that it has promoted consolidation by undermining traditional distinctions between radio, television, telecommunication, and computer software. In the 1990s, almost all the media giants have entered into joint ventures or strategic alliances with the largest telecom and software firms. Time Warner is connected to several of the US regional (Bell) telephone giants, as well as to AT&T and Oracle. It has a major joint venture with US West. Disney, likewise, is connected to several major US telecommunication companies, as well as to America Online. News Corp. is partially owned by WorldCom (MCI) and has a joint venture with British Telecom. Microsoft, as one analyst noted, seems to be in bed with everyone. In due course the global media cartel may become something of a global communication cartel.
So how does the rise of the Internet alter my proposals for structural media reform? Very little. There are, of course, some specific policy reforms we should seek for the Internet: for example, guaranteeing universal public access at low rates, perhaps for free, and assuring links for nonprofit Web sites on the dominant browsers and commercial sites. But in general terms, we might do better to regard the Internet as the corporate media giants regard it: as part of the emerging media landscape, not its entirety. So when we create more and smaller media firms, when we create public and community radio and television networks and stations, when we create a strong public service component to commercial news and children’s programming, when we use government policies to spawn a nonprofit media sector, all these efforts will have a tremendous effect on the Internet’s development as a mass medium. Why? Because Web sites will not be worth much if they do not have the resources to provide a quality product. And all the new media that result from media reform will have Web sites as a mandatory aspect of their operations, much like the commercial media. By creating a vibrant and more democratic “traditional” media culture, we will go a long way toward doing the same with the Web.
Imagine a world in which scores, even hundreds, of media firms operate in markets competitive enough to permit new entrants. Imagine a world with large numbers of public, community, and public access radio and television stations and networks, with enough funding to produce high quality products. Imagine a world where the public airwaves provide compelling journalism, children’s programming, and political candidate information, with control vested in people dedicated to public service. Imagine a world where creative government fiscal policies enable small nonprofit and noncommercial media to sprout and prosper, providing some semblance of a democratic public sphere.
Though imaginable, this world seems wholly implausible-and not only because of the political muscle of the corporate media and communications lobbies. Over the past generation, “free market” neoliberals have understood the importance of media as an instrument of social control far better than anyone else. The leading conservative foundations have devoted considerable resources to reducing journalistic autonomy and ideological diversity and pushing media in a more explicitly pro-business direction. The pro-market political right understood that if big business dominated the main fora for political education and debate, then public scrutiny of business would be markedly reduced. These same “free market” foundations fight any public interest component to media laws and regulations, oppose any form of noncommercial and nonprofit media, and lead the battle to ensure that public broadcasting stays within narrow ideological boundaries. In short, we had a major political battle over media for the past generation, but only one side showed up. The results are clear, and appalling.
But now there are signs that the battle for the control of our media is about to be joined. Organizations such as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watch group, have boomed in the 1990s, and local media watch/media activism groups have blossomed in Denver, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and elsewhere since 1995. In 1998 the Rainbow/PUSH coalition made media reform one of its two major organizing drives, holding regional conferences on the subject across the nation. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have agreed to draft and sponsor legislation in each of the areas mentioned earlier. Organized labor, especially media unions, have shown increased interest in and support for the issue. All of this would have been unthinkable only five years ago. It follows the trend around the world in the late 1990s, where media reform has become an indispensable part of democratic political movements. But we still have a long way to go. Large sectors of the population that are disadvantaged by the media status quo and who should be among media reform’s strongest advocates-educators, librarians, parents, journalists, small businesses, laborers, artists, kids, political dissidents, progressive religious people, minorities, feminists, environmentalists-are scarcely aware that the issue even exists to be debated. The corporate media lobby is so strong that victory seems farfetched in the current environment, especially when the corporate news media show little interest in publicizing the issue.
Winning major media reform, then, will require the sort of political strength that comes with a broader social movement to democratize our society. We need to see that media reform is a staple of all progressive politics, not just a special interest cause. And media reform may have broad political appeal. Some ‘cultural conservatives’ may be open to calls to reduce the hyper-commercialism of our media culture. And strongly pro-market democrats may recognize that media is an area where the crude application of market principles has produced disastrous ‘externalities.’ In sum, the train of media reform is leaving the station. If we value democracy we have no choice but to climb aboard.” Robert McChesney, “Making Media Democratic;” Boston Review, 1998.