Sunday, December 17, 2006

Individual Freedom and Individualism

In 1922, after World War I and the Russian Revolution, Herbert Hoover, then President Warren Harding's Secretary of Commerce, wrote a small book called American Individualism. In many ways the book was similar to other statements of American individualism; it stated
that each individual shall be given the chance and stimulation for development of the best with which he has been endowed in heart and mind; it is the sole source of progress; it is American individualism.
Hoover was a very intelligent and decent fellow who was certainly the best of the three Republican presidents leading up to the Great Depression, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Harding is frequently considered one of our worst presidents and Coolidge, in my opinion, was thoroughly mediocre. It was probably Hoover's bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the stock market crash and the Great Depression hit.

Hoover emphasized equality of opportunity as essential to American individualism but it is not clear to me that he fully appreciated how large corporations and their attendant concentration of wealth and power placed significant limits on equality of opportunity.

An interesting case history of Hoover's actual implementation of his beliefs can be seen in his control over radio broadcasting as Secretary of Commerce (see Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy, 1993, Chapter 2). Radio broadcasting was in its infancy during the Twenties and had an extremely critical role to play in the informing and education of American citizens. In the early Twenties there was a great deal of competition and local influence over radio broadcasting which could have been fostered by Hoover and those under him. These decisions about radio would of course determine what would later happen to television. Hoover's decisions facilitated the eventual domination of radio by large broadcasting networks who depended for revenue on advertising and drove out the small local operators who were dominant before 1927. As McChesney wrote:
There was little sense prior to 1927... that private control meant broadcasting should be dominated by networks, guided solely by the profit motive, and supported by advertising revenues.
It is difficult to exaggerate the influence Hoover's radio policies would have over the quality of information, education and debate within the American polity. If you have difficulty with the pap fed you on TV and radio today and are sick of the greater and greater amount of time filled by mindless advertising, you have no one more important to thank than that great 'individualist', Herbert Hoover.

While philosophically saying many of the right things about competition and individual initiative, Hoover's policies centralized radio's control in the hands of a few network corporations, resulted in the radio waves being dominated solely by advertising for profit, and drove most of the small radio operators out of business. It's not clear to me what the use is of being for 'equality of opportunity' in the abstract while making concrete decisions that limit competition and opportunity in one of the most important arenas of life to a democracy, the provision of information, 'news' and public affairs communications to all of the democratic public.

Last year's film "Good Night and Good Luck" made clear with one example the results of these decisions in the Twenties. Even though Edward R. Murrow was the most highly respected radio and TV journalist of his times, and though his criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy turned out to be principled and correct, and though CBS head William S. Paley was a friend of Murrow's--Paley still slowly edged Murrow out of CBS TV news programs because the criticism of McCarthy was controversial and upset some CBS advertising sponsors. The bottom line: TV news and public affairs programming could not afford to be 'controversial' in ways that might upset sponsors. How can the voting citizens of America's democracy be informed on the crucial issues of the day when the advertising revenues of sponsors has a determining effect upon the 'information' they hear?

Between the 1960s and today our major 'news' networks have decided that they no longer even have a responsibility to cover political conventions and political speeches because it's more important to their advertisers that they provide 'entertainment' instead. Thank you Herbert Hoover.

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