Skip to main content

Fighting To Make TV Fulfill Its Potential

Big-media nemesis Jeffrey Chester loves television. In fact, TV occupies such a big place in his heart that he and wife Kathryn Montgomery named daughter Lucy after Lucille Ball, a "role model" for them both.

"Growing up in the '50s, television was such a powerful medium," he says from the Washington office of the Center for Digital Democracy, the activist organization he founded in 2002. At a young age, already in love with television through I Love Lucy
and comedians Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, Chester watched Edward R. Murrow's coverage of the Army hearings led to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's downfall.

Murrow's See It Now
exposé of McCarthy continues to impress: "I see the potential for television to provide the public with more in-depth news and analysis." But TV's commitment to public affairs and investigative reporting have fallen far below expectations, and Chester has turned to broadband, particularly cable broadband, as a means for ensuring that Americans have access for independent and serious journalism.

Since 1989, Chester has played a key role in campaigns to preserve at least some of the government's role overseeing media. Most recently, he helped recruit a legion of unions and activists to oppose FCC broadcast-industry deregulation. Though losing at the FCC, deregulation opponents believe they've made their case with lawmakers and have established a broad base to fight for a rollback.

Chester's real interest is ensuring that cable companies, as the dominant provider of high-speed Internet access, aren't able to block independent video and news providers in the broadband world. He fought the recent broadcast battle mainly to build a base for the coming fight for broadband antidiscrimination rules. "Now we're ready for the battle over broadband," he says.

Cable protests to the contrary, Chester insists the industry's aim is to ensure that major media companies have a major say about which content audiences turn to on the Web.

As he sees it, cable's promise to keep today's unfettered access to all content is the latest in a long line of empty promises by media executives. "Radio said, 'Don't regulate us, and we will be a classroom of the air.' Broadcasting said, 'We will provide a variety of public-interest programming.' Cable television said, "We will be a community communications system.'"

Chester and Montgomery moved to Washington to join a dwindling media public-interest community after the Reagan Administration launched the first major forays into deregulation. Their first project was to fight for federal money for independent public-television producers that would bypass the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which many had criticized as afraid of offending politicians or corporations with hard-hitting reporting and documentaries. Today, the Independent Television Service grants $6 million annually to producers.

Using the guerilla tactics learned on the ITVS campaign, Chester and Montgomery scored their first major policy victory. Scouring stations' FCC license-renewal applications, they discovered that some stations made a mockery of their public-interest obligation by claiming The Jetsons
and other cartoons as educational programming. It rated a story on the front page of the New York Times. "We caught them with their license renewals down," Chester laughs.

He sees frustration over the ultra-patriotic coverage of the war as fueling demand for broadband regulation and reregulation of the rest of the media business. "In the absence of real legislative safeguards," he says, "the potential of the electronic media to fulfill a larger democratic agenda will go un-addressed."