Public service media form a complex nexus of policy, practice, and debate, one in which ideas about the uses of media technology meet ideas about governance. Historically, the term public service has been used to describe the goals that shape how media technologies and institutions are regulated, and to characterize forms of media programming. In each case, the assumption is that a particular technological arrangement, or aesthetic and rhetorical voice, will somehow contribute to the collective welfare of a state and its people. In this chapter, I am concerned with the methodological and political consequences, for progressive or leftist media historians, of this close association between public service broadcasting and conceptions of governance. How we understand this relationship influences our interpretations of the role of media technology in cultural history, encouraging certain conclusions while potentially, at least in some cases, foreclosing upon the possibility of others. These consequences extend beyond the question of whether we construct “accurate” accounts of a certain medium’s history. Debates about how the airwaves are governed are also debates about how the people who tune into to those airwaves are governed, or rather, in the language of liberal democracy, how they are helped or hindered in their ongoing aims of governing themselves.1 It follows, then, that at any given moment, assertions of what broadcast regulation should be, or what public service media should look like, are windows onto political history more generally, indices of someone’s sense of the sociopolitical problems blocking the process of democratic governance at that time. It also follows that media historians must be careful to avoid imposing their

own standards when measuring the levels of democratization achieved by particular media processes in the past. This is not because presentism is always bad, or because historical relativism is always good. It is because to do so is to replicate, rather than scrutinize, the basic axiom on which causal claims about public service media and democratic life rest, namely, that you can change people’s orientation towards citizenship by changing how they consume media, or by changing the media they consume. The point is that concepts of citizenship change, and so do ideas about what public service media can and should do. Determining the material arrangements, structures of ownership, and

forms of expression which ensure that broadcasting provides a public service is a social process that shifts over time, although it always involves making a claim about what democracy is. It also always involves defining its deficiencies at any particular moment, and forming a picture of how it might be vulnerable to anti-democratic forces. The particular form of broadcast regulation or programming that one defines as a public service, from this perspective, is best understood as an expression of a particular sense of what needs to be done to preserve democratic processes, or even, in some cases, correct the flaws that make their current operations less than perfect. The historian’s task is to unravel the interests and conflicts that underlie these historical definitions of mediated democracy, that motivate particular descriptions of its failings, and which make any particular technological fix seem natural or inevitable; it is not to offer a Whiggish or prelapsarian account of democratic progress from the perspective of the present day. In going about this task, it is helpful to think about the uses of public ser-

vice media to diagnose and treat problems in democracy as expressions of a persistent technocratic fantasy in US political culture: the fantasy of governing by television. Like all fantasies, this one proceeds from particular historical and material circumstances. Laurie Ouellette, whose work on the US Public Television network is an exemplary case study of this fantasy, notes that political contests of the late 1960s led elite social managers to see TV “as a device capable of solving problems, resolving conflicts, and reconstructing TV viewers as citizens instead of consumers of washing machines and potato chips.”2 Indeed, although the idea of governing through TV might conjure up Orwellian imagery – the minds of the people entirely controlled by government screens! – Ouellette’s work shows us that this fantasy is less totalitarian dystopia than democratic utopia, fusing McLuhan and Jefferson in an unquestioned equation of technological diffusion and civic participation. This equation is troubling from the perspective of the progressive historian of technology and media committed to methods of historical materialism. This is because it assumes that “democracy” is a pre-given, self-evident, and historically transcendent category, an ideal that can be achieved by “actually existing” social relations insofar as they approach it asymptotically, their proximity enhanced by the development of technological and regulatory instruments. Such models do not allow for the possibility that definitions of democracy

always emerge from historically specific organizations of power, authority, and political economy. As Michael Warner notes in a critique of techno-determinist approaches to the history of print, “enlightenment and democratization, instead of being seen as politically contested aspects of social organization, now appear as the exfoliation of material technology.”3 This is the kind of thinking that leads people to debate the question of whether, say, something like youtube.com helps or hinders the process of democratic participation, as if the answer is a clear “yes” or “no.” Such debates only make sense if we assume that “democracy” has some kind of fixed ontological integrity external

to the contexts in which it is invoked, and to which these contexts must be made to conform. They also require that we ignore the possibility that what people actually mean when they say democratic participation might change over time, in relationship to political, economic, cultural, and technological, shifts.4