An Introduction to Broadcast Band Bullshit

I’ve been following public policy debates over the TV broadcast band for several decades and have often been amazed by how much of it is bullshit and how so many insiders know that it is bullshit but never publicly call it out.  By bullshit I don’t mean lying, which assumes that a person knows or cares about the truth.  As Harry Frankfurt writes in On Bullshit, “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”

The parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes captures the central political logic of bullshit.  All the adults (read members of Congress and FCC officials) know that the assertion that the emperor (read broadcast lobby) is wearing clothes (are intellectually serious in their claims) is bullshit, but it isn’t in their self-interest to call this out publicly.  Given the terror with which members of Congress and other politicians view their local broadcasters, who control their message and the message of their opponents, the analogy to an emperor appears apt.

However, the analogy breaks down in two ways.  First, it downplays how much valuable information about power rather than truth the bullshit can convey.  The broadcast bullshitter is actually providing policymakers with extremely useful information, just not necessarily about the truth.  The bullshit functions as code to tell policymakers what fault lines they must not cross and what public arguments they must not use if they want to continue in office.   This is useful stuff, which helps explain why policymakers have an endless appetite for such bullshit.

Second, the analogy assumes that the bullshit is self-evident to an uninformed observer such as the child.  A closer analogy might be shrewd lobbyists who listen with effusive admiration to a U.S. Congressman spouting one insincere platitude after another.  Here the observant child would need background information to detect the bullshit.

This blog aims to provide that background information.  I intend to post on it rarely–only when the bullshit meter has moved far into the red zone.  Many months may go by without a post.  But if there is one thing I’ve learned from studying broadcast band politics over the decades, broadcasters will continue to dish out this bullshit as long as Congressional and FCC policymakers have an endless appetite to consume it.

Despite the above, I hope to release several bullshit analyses per week leading up to the FCC’s February release of its broadband plan.  Here is the current agenda.  The first two analyses accompany the launch of this blog.

[April 1, 2010 update: Obviously, I didn’t follow through with my original game plan to release bullshit analyses; instead, I have let the flow of media articles dictate my commentaries.  Nevertheless, I’m keeping the bullshit list below because I believe it has some use.]

1)      Free TV is free.

2)      Broadcast TV is efficient.

3)      TV broadcasters are committed to TV broadcasting.

4)      Broadcast TV is a technology leader.

5)      The best way to save broadcast TV is to kill it.

6)      TV broadcasters will sacrifice profits to protect consumer investment in broadcast TV equipment.

7)      TV broadcasters object to FCC official Stuart Benjamin’s arguments based on economic reasoning.

8)      TV broadcasters provide close to $10 billion in public service announcements each year as public compensation for their spectrum.

9)      TV broadcasters provide a meaningfully “local” service based on the information needs of a democracy.

10)  TV broadcasters want to engage in a serious discussion about the future of the broadcast TV band.

For my earlier writings on the politics of the broadcast band, including my book, Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local Broadcasters Exert Political Power, see the entries on the side of this blog.

–J. H. Snider

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