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1965: Voting rights, communications & the FCC

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue September | BY Kenneth G. Robinson 

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Introduction

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Just recently, there was a big march in recognition of that anniversary in Atlanta. There was also a call by U.S. civil rights leaders for an extension of that law when portions of it are scheduled to sunset in 2007. The gathering didn't get much print or electronic press, however. Civil rights isn't that big an issue with a lot of people these days, is it?

The Role of TV: No Mention

Interestingly, no one at the Atlanta or other meetings on the Voting Rights Act seems to have mentioned broadcasting and television — although historians believe these electronic media played a pivotal role in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Television depicted the police abuse of demonstrators in Birmingham, for example. TV footage of fire hoses and snarling German shepherds had a significant public policy impact. TV also showed the great August 1963 "March on Washington," and, in other regards legitimated and validated this overall citizens effort.

Maybe as importantly, media coverage made it harder for politicians to duck civil rights issues as they had done previously. Not until the 1960s, remember, did the United States attain "universal television." Electronic news gathering wasn't easy. Film, primordial videotape, and motorcycle couriers were how it was often done.

The network evening news was just 15 minutes, moreover, until September 2, 1963 when CBS went to a half-hour format (actually 22 minutes, when commercials and other non-editorial messages are taken into account). Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise that civil rights wasn't a major factor on the political agenda until the 1960s, should it?

But just as CNN and broadcast coverage of Sarajevo or Somalia (but not Rwanda) decades later precipitated political action, that also occurred in the United States in the 1960s, when civil rights were a big deal. People in the South and the rest of the country were appalled by some of what they saw. No amount of politicians complaining about "outside agitators" dissuaded voters that something should be done. And, TV coverage made action legitimate, respectable, appropriate.

1965: "It Was A Year Like Any Year, Only... ."

What else was happening in communications, however, in 1965? Well, at the then largely still-segregated FCC, the agency issued a "policy statement" on comparative broadcast license renewals — something which was to engender lots of appellate litigation over the following 20 years. The FCC also issued its pioneer regulatory rules on cable television — they were described as "bringing structure" to the industry, and required syndicated exclusivity and network nonduplication. It's said, by the way, that the FCC only really got interested in cable when someone started "importing" distant signals into the Johnson family's Austin, Texas, electronic media monopoly preserve.

By 1965, most network TV was in color — though only about half the sets were color TVs. Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) filed its first anti-smoking petitions. The FCC made its initial "Fairness Doctrine" rulings against Pennsylvania's Red Lion Broadcasting. The agency also ruled that FM stations couldn't "simulcast" more than 50% of their affiliated AM station's programming. AM back then, remember, was king. Didn't you ever see American Graffiti? Even in the Sixties, there was pressure for Congress to enact an all-channel receiver law for radio. FM radio languished until GM, Ford, and Chrysler made AM-FM radios standard in most models in the early 1970s.

In the telephone world, AT&T opened its first all-electronic central office in 1965, in New Jersey (where else?) and the Trimline phone went on sale. Western Electric ceased production of cloth-covered telephone cords. Henceforth, they were all plastic- clad. In Texas, Thomas Carter in 1965 was fighting with AT&T over the connection of his "acoustic coupler" to the public switched network. He was to file a Federal antitrust action and it was referred to the FCC in 1966. Larry Roberts at MIT was writing early papers on how to put together a primordial Internet — TIPs, IMPs, etc. And, the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau Staff, headed by Bernard Strassburg, in 1965 decided that AT&T should sell Western's TWX operations to Western Union, to strengthen the domestic record communications business. The Vietnam War and its casualties, remember, began to generate telegram business and revenues for faltering Western Union. A series of Bell System rate investigations were also launched. Things like the "Seven-Way Cost Study" were envisioned.

Famous WLBT

In May 1965, the FCC ruled 4-2 that Lamar Life Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi, licensee of WLBT-TV, deserved only a "short- term" (1-year) renewal. With Commissioner Wadsworth not voting, the FCC majority went along with the arguments of WLBT's counsel — Paul Porter of Arnold, Fortas & Porter — and agreed that the United Church of Christ's Office of Communications lacked standing to challenge the station's renewal. Lamar Life Broadcasting, 38 FCC 1143 (1965)(Chairman E. William Henry & Comm'r Ken Cox, dissenting). A year later, Chief Judge (later U.S. Chief Justice) Warren Burger of the D.C. Circuit was to reverse the FCC and rule that the Church did have standing. Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ v. FCC, 359 F.2d 994 (D.C. Cir. 1966). This landmark decision removed procedural obstacles to future citizens group challenges, of course. Three years later, the appeals court was to respond to what it regarded as near-contumacious FCC conduct by rescinding WLBT's license and ordering another hearing (425 F.2d 543 (1969)).

Communications & Society

In 1965, the top grossing movie was Julie Andrews in Sound of Music. "Do, a deer, a female deer; Re, a drop of golden sun; Mi, a name I call myself; Fa, a long long way to run...."

Probably the classiest TV show that year was E.G. Marshall's great series about lawyers, "The Defenders." Sir Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, and T.S. Eliot died, and Malcolm X was murdered.

The United States sent troops to the Dominican Republic that year, and the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam. U.S. forces there were to top 190,000 by the end of the year, and Walter Cronkite began his systematic body count reports.

"Early Bird" — our first commercial communications satellite — was launched and Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" appeared. It seemed to have little impact on the sale of the Chevrolet Corvair "Monza," incidentally, a nifty little coupe (which was to stay in production until 1970). "The Girl From Ipanema" by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto was the most-honored record of 1965. Arlan van Doorn joined the FCC. He was to work in the Field Operations and Enforcement Bureaus for the balance of his career. The late Mrs. Dolly Johnson joined the agency, too; she was to work in various FCC Chairmen's offices, later for then-Commissioner Kevin Martin.

Conclusion

In 1965, when the FCC was debating the WLBT case and television was covering the civil rights movement, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin hadn't yet been conceived (he was to be born December 14, 1966). At Dolly Johnson's FCC memorial service, incidentally, then-Commissioner Martin remarked that she'd worked at the FCC before he was born).

Bill Gates was a precocious 10-year-old in Seattle (he was born October 28, 1955). Heaven knows what he was planning, right? The President was a Yale freshman (his birthday's July 6, 1946). We don't know if he'd yet been selected for Skull & Bones, or been named a cheerleader. But probably so. His family was important. Senator Kerry, incidentally, was a junior (and Yale soccer star); he was to join the Navy and fight in Vietnam in 1967, together with his Yale classmate and Federal Express founder, Fred Smith.

In 1965, the three oldest broadcast television networks plainly set the country's electronic media agenda, and the unified Bell System overwhelmingly dominated the telephone business. People still thought that "foreign attachments" could cause all sorts of harm to the public switched telephone network. Walter Cronkite described local station owners as "having the mentality of theater operators." Network-affiliate relations weren't nearly as tense as today.

There was a large private radio communications business, dominated by Motorola, but mobile telephones were very rare, the preserve of top-ranking military, business leaders, and senior politicians. Important people including doctors had BellBoy pagers. The average American household also owned one TV, possibly color, one and one-half telephones, and a couple of radios (not including an AM radio in the car).

In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown was given permission by Hearst to recast and rescue Cosmopolitan, a magazine founded in 1886. She went on to become a legend in the New York publishing field. In Washington, three daily newspapers competed.

College students in 1965 were still using slide rules and logarithm tables. In college biology courses, the new and innovative term was "ecology." Xeroxing was a novel proposition, and the IBM Selectric was cutting edge office equipment. Cable and satellite television, electronic garage door openers, microwave ovens, and even "Mister Radio" were unfamiliar, unimaginable to most Americans. Ken Olson of DEC was remarking that nobody would ever need a home computer.

So what'll historians 100 years from now recall about 1965? It might well be the Voting Rights Act, something which former President Carter later said made possible capitalizing on all the South's human resources. But it was also a significant year for communications events and policies.

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