A Personal Journey Through the New Digital Media Landscape
This speech by Lawrence K. Grossman was made at the National Coalition of Independent Scholars in 2015.
I was surprised and honored that the National Coalition of Independent Scholars invited me to deliver the keynote talk for this august gathering at Yale celebrating the National Coalition’s anniversary.
Before I start on my personal journey through the new digital media landscape, however, I want to share with you a brief procedural concern. I have Parkinson’s disease, which, I hasten to add, is not contagious. But occasionally, it does strange things to the quality and volume of one’s voice. So, if at any time during my talk you find it hard to hear what I’m saying, don’t hesitate to raise your hand or shout, “louder, please!” If you happen to disagree with anything I’ve said, that’s another matter, which I hope we can deal with peacefully during the question period.
The Coalition’s invitation suggested that I focus on the impact of the digital media’s reshaping of society, which is proceeding apace throughout the globe. I will address that issue mainly from the point of view of a former news president and public television executive, who had been taking advantage of digital technology since the late 70’s when I was president of PBS. We were the first to use satellite technology to broaden our programming options across the country. And at NBC News we introduced computer technology that linked reporters, producers and editors across the world with the news executives in NYC.
Most of the work I do these days focuses on strengthening the public interest and public service performance of the media in the 21st century. It is really an extension of the work I did with the mainstream media in the last century at PBS and NBC News. Even before that, while I was in the advertising business, I led a local citizens’ challenge to the FCC’s renewal of the broadcast license of one of the worst performing commercial television stations in New York City. The station agreed to shape up and is still operating to this day.
Personally, as one who is a product of the 20th century, I still prefer to read books and newspapers the old-fashioned way, on paper rather than online. I confess I do not blog, do not text, and do not even tweet. And like many senior citizens, I rely on my grandchildren, who were born into the digital world, to explain the more arcane aspects of the new technology.
My analysis of the effects of new digital information technology will follow several stories from my personal journey. These will provide some context for my thinking and perhaps some lessons for the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. My talk will include: two anecdotes about my early experience with scholarly standards, my writing of the books The Electronic Republic and A Digital Gift to the Nation, and my involvement in the creation of Digital Promise together with examples of three projects that show the scope of their research in education and training. I will end with a call to action by the Coalition.
My two early experiences with distinguished scholars came well before the advent of the digital information era. In 1951, my senior year at Columbia, I inherited from a friend, who had already graduated, an old-fashioned, inexpensive box camera that had been fitted out with an ingenious home-made soft plastic lens. The lens was designed so that the text on the photographed pages would remain in focus and legible despite any curvature caused by the binding.
It was a simple and relatively primitive but efficient device, just about the only way that, in the age before Xerox, scholars and researchers could reproduce bound pages of text without having to copy them laboriously by hand using a pen or typewriter. That special camera was supposed to earn me the money to help pay for my senior year at college.
The eminent cultural historian Jacques Barzun, one of my favorite teachers, was the first to respond to my notice to the faculty that I could provide this service. He asked me to search the special collections library at Columbia for autographs of the nineteenth century’s most prominent composers to adorn his upcoming two volume biography of the nineteenth century French composer Hector Berlioz. I was to use my special camera to photograph the composers’ autographs.
The Columbia librarian came up with a book of beautifully reproduced autographs of famous composers and artists. I was spared the job of searching for each signature, one at a time in the archives. The following week, with the job completed, I proudly brought the autographs I had photographed to Professor Barzun. He was astonished at how fast I had done the work and how sharp the images of the autographs were.
When I explained how I was able to do the job, however, he threw the autograph collection back to me. “I can’t use these,” Professor Barzun protested. “My books are scholarly works. The composers’ autographs must be photographed from their original actual signatures, not from mere copies.” To him, it was a matter of scholarly standards.
That made no sense to me. I argued that the quality of the autographs I photographed, which had been selected for the autograph book, would be far superior to any taken from a wilted music score or crackled ancient personal letter. Nobody who bought the published editions of Professor Barzun’s Berlioz biography would know or care whether the autographs were printed from photographs of the original or from the originals themselves. Professor Barzun refused to accept (or pay for) my work. Any notions of academic scholarship I may have harbored were nipped in the bud by that humbling experience.
Some thirty years later, in 1988, I had another encounter with scholarly standards. This one, involving a skeptical group of prominent academic scholars, had a happier ending. Several days after I had resigned as president of NBC News, the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government called me to ask if I would come to Harvard to take on a very special new assignment, to become the first occupant of a prestigious academic chair the school had just been granted.
The Frank Stanton First Amendment Chair would focus on the unique relationship between the powerful medium of television and the First Amendment. Dr. Stanton, the long-time president of CBS, had donated the funds for the new chair. My responsibility, as the new temporary faculty member who occupied the chair, would be to develop and teach a new course on the subject. I jumped at the opportunity. But my wife Alberta was skeptical. She had just completed her doctoral thesis and experienced first-hand the complexity of academic scholarly standards. “Nothing in the academic world is ever that simple,” she warned. “It’s bound to take more than a single phone call to make it happen.” I thought she was being unduly pessimistic.
It turned out Alberta was right. When news of my appointment was released, several distinguished academic members of the Kennedy School faculty protested to the dean. It was nothing personal, they said. They just felt that an academic faculty member rather than a “philistine” like me should launch the new First Amendment chair.
My good friend and colleague Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC News correspondent, whose advanced academic degrees satisfied Harvard’s graduate school faculty requirements, was the director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for News, Politics and Public Policy, where the new chair was to be housed. Marvin told me that at the Kennedy School, differences of opinion over academic standards occasionally arose to divide the scholarly academic faculty members from the not-so-scholarly “real world philistines,” who were brought in to teach based on their professional journalistic experience.
Marvin moved quickly and decisively to deal with the internal controversy. Although I was a law school dropout with no advanced academic degrees, I had been awarded an honorary graduate degree at Columbia for my work at PBS. (I hasten to add, the degree came from Chicago’s Columbia not New York’s). Marvin also urged me to Fedex him copies of my recently published article, “Television and Terrorism,” which included footnotes that he thought might bolster my academic credentials. I did that, too. He also asked if I would mind being listed as “Lecturer” rather than “Professor” in the Kennedy School’s course catalog. That was fine with me.
Sure enough, several days later I was pleased to learn that the protest over my role in the new First Amendment course had been quickly and amicably settled. In the future, the First Amendment chair would be occupied by an academic faculty member. That was fine with me. And fortunately, my course on “Television and the Limits of the First Amendment” was voted one of the Kennedy School’s most popular.
During my time at the Kennedy School I started researching and writing The Electronic Republic, which analyzed the fundamental changes that are transforming our nation’s political system, many as a consequence of the rapidly rising new media landscape.
Published in 1995 by Viking Penguin, The Electronic Republic argues that we are fundamentally “Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age,” to quote the book’s subtitle. Described by the publisher as, “the first serious look at the fate of our political system in the media age,” The Electronic Republic opens with the provocative assertion that, “A new political system is taking shape in the United States. As we approach the twenty-first century, America is turning into an electronic republic, a democratic system that is increasing rather than diminishing the people’s day-to-day influence on the decisions of state.” In the book, I argued that, due in part to the oncoming digital information revolution, “…radical new elements of direct democracy are being grafted on to our traditional representative form of government.” Virtually no major political decisions are made by Congress or the President any more without first polling the electorate, for example. Candidates are being selected by voters in primaries rather than by party leaders in smoke filled rooms. States are increasingly resorting to referenda rather than legislators to decide controversial matters.
Soon after publication of The Electronic Republic, I began to work with Newton N. Minow on a project that 13 years later — in 2011 —, was to become Digital Promise. At PBS in the mid 80’s I had worked with Minow, the renowned former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who made headlines by calling television “a vast wasteland.” Minow had been elected chairman of PBS when I was PBS’s president and CEO. We shared a determination to strengthen the quality and appeal of America’s relatively young and underfinanced public television system. We wanted to turn PBS into a major force for public good.
We also shared the conviction that television, the nation’s primary medium for entertainment and news, bolstered by its newly developed interactive telecommunications capacity, had the potential to spur innovation at every level of teaching and learning. Given the emerging knowledge-based economy, and the rising challenge to the United States of global competition, we believed that the people’s access to learning across a lifetime must become a national imperative. We thought that research could help us develop effective television programming for the modern day educational and skills training needs of individual students and teachers.
A group of the nation’s leading foundations including Century, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Knight, MacArthur and the Open Society Institute, shared that belief and asked Minow and me to develop a study to determine how research into the use of new interactive telecommunications technologies for teaching and learning should proceed. Six years later our recommendations, along with background papers from a cross-section of distinguished experts who participated in the study, were published in a book entitled, “A Digital Gift to the Nation, Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age.”
For the next seven years, Minow and I along with the late Anne G. Murphy, whom we had invited to be co-chair of our project, campaigned for the support of educators, opinion leaders, and the general public for funding of research in using digital information technologies for teaching and learning. We also sought support from members of Congress for legislation. Murphy, known especially for her work as executive director of the American Arts Alliance, played a major part in shaping the campaign.
In 2008, Congress authorized the establishment of a not-for-profit independent, “National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies.” The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Three years later, the National Center was launched by President Barack Obama as an independent 501(C3) corporation under the auspices of Digital Promise, with start-up funds from the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie, Hewlitt Packard and Gates foundations.
The Digital Promise mission is to spur innovation in education, and improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans. Through its work with educators, entrepreneurs and researchers, Digital Promise supports a comprehensive agenda to benefit lifelong learning and provide Americans with the knowledge and skills to compete in the global economy.
Chairman of Digital Promise is Eamon M. Kelly, former President of Tulane University and ex-chair of the National Science Board. President and CEO of Digital Promise is Karen Cator, formerly Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. I am co-founder and serve as Vice Chair of Digital Promise.
One of Digital Promise’s first and most ambitious initiatives was to launch the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, designed to work in collaboration with school boards across the nation on research projects that show promise. The League currently has 57 public school boards as its members, serving 3.2 million students in 27 states. I have chosen to tell you about three impressive projects under study that have markedly different objectives.
One of those members is Piedmont, a small rural district in northeastern Alabama, which provides students with always available access to technology and broadband, at a time when many households are unable to afford it because of financial and geographic limitations. Piedmont partnered with the local government and cable provider to create a wireless network that serves students in school and at home. Students living within city limits can access the Internet for free at home. For students living outside the city, Piedmont worked with Verizon to provide WiFi hotspots, making access to high speed broadband available first for free and then for $15 a month for low income families. With this access, students can take courses previously unavailable, like computer science, foreign languages, and robotics and can advance through their education at their own pace.
Another League project involved a cooperative effort with a California school board and a commercial company. In the Vista Unified School District, Verizon Wireless partnered with Digital Promise to close the digital learning gap in eight schools. Through the program, each student and teacher receives a tablet equipped with a two-year 5GB monthly data plan donated by Verizon Wireless to Digital Promise. Two of the schools have a dedicated technology coach to support the teachers’ work. In the project’s first year, schools are providing a rich assortment of project-based learning opportunities.
The final example of the many intriguing original efforts I could have cited is the Blue Valley Unified School District in Kansas, home to the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), a nationally recognized, innovative high school and college program. Students are fully immersed in a professional culture, solving real world problems, using industry standard tools and mentored by actual employers. One example is engineering student Cory, who created a “robo-hand” using a 3-D printer for a disabled third-grade student.
Digital Promise, with offices in San Francisco and Washington, DC, already has become a leading force, fully engaged in developing, testing and encouraging advanced educational research and providing resources to improve the effectiveness of the nation’s teachers and the educational progress of its students. You can follow its progress by going on-line to digitalpromise.org.
Continuing on the matter of progress, the speed, timeliness and increasing global interactivity of the information technologies have begun to change virtually every aspect of our lives. My focus today is on the vast increase in the number of outlets for news and information — the internet, cell phones, social media, tablets, now even watches —that gives millions of ordinary people unprecedented opportunities to be heard, to react, to organize support, to participate in civic and community dialogs, perhaps even to challenge the influence of big money in politics.
The texting, tweets, instagrams and videos made possible by this new technology certainly add to the clout of the nation’s powerful “Fourth Estate,” that keeps track of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of government.
A case in point is one of the biggest continuing domestic news stories, the deeply troubled, sometimes lethal, relationship between the police and inner city blacks. It became one of the biggest news stories largely based on videos shot not by journalists but by observers who happened to show up on the scene with cell phone cameras. These videos have “gone viral.” Just one of hundreds of videos on the day Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darien Wilson, was viewed 2, 111, 520 times. Eiden Santana’s video of the shooting of Walter Scott by patrolman Michael Slager in North Carolina on April 5th was played on line by all news outlets. Youtube calculated that 7, 770,000 individuals had visited their site.
Today we are experiencing what might be considered the democratization of news. As many more outlets open up online, they can serve not only the general public but also specific public and private interests and points of view from left to right. NBC News, for example, produces two different news services, each with its own set of standards. One is the traditional network television news service, which seeks to attract a general audience by being balanced, objective and fair-minded. The other NBC News service, seen on MSNBC, NBC’s cable channel, provides news with a left wing or liberal slant to compete with the arch- conservative Fox News. Many of the same correspondents appear on both NBC News services. That would have been considered thoroughly inappropriate in my day.
News standards are broadening. Even in mainstream media, members of the public are encouraged to report stories, provide feedback and give their opinions about public issues by texting, tweeting, phoning or blogging Nor is today’s news confined to news broadcasts that feature professional journalists. Comedians and talk show hosts often play a major role. Jon Stuart’s show on Ferguson was viewed 2,409,800 times on YouTube; John Oliver’s show on the subject was viewed 6,413,539 times.
In a New York Times on-line publication of statements on the Ferguson case, Sarah Seltzer, a blogger at Flavorwire, wrote “In Ferguson and the St. Louis area, social media has been there to document outrages, large and small. Social media brought the mainstream media to town, kept the nation’s eye on their city, and rightly turned this story into one with national, even global, symbolism and ramifications.” She also argued that social media has given people a voice when those in power prefer to ignore them.
In the same publication, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch was troubled by all this participation. In his statement explaining why Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing 18 year old, unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he argued, “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about. Following closely behind were the non-stop rumors on social media.”
Both are right. The Fourth Estate now includes the mainstream media and the fast expanding digital media as well as the American people themselves. Their challenge is to continue their efforts to maintain standards for fairness and accuracy in the storm of information and the pressure of surviving in the increasingly competitive media world. The American people need to join in supporting this effort.
While we focus on the new digital media’s extraordinary potential for the public good, some have raised critical issues of special concern to many in this room. One of the most important issues centers on the public’s ability to access essential information and research materials that are under digital protection.
As National Coalition Secretary Janet Wasserman pointed out earlier this year, “Independent scholars without institutional academic affiliation feel the pressure of commercial ownership of digitally formatted research, even if some of those interests are nonprofit. For profit or not,” Ms. Wasserman continued, “these organizations all too often deny or prevent individual scholars from access to critical digitized sources. As independent scholars we too must benefit from the Digital Promise,” she said. “We learned the technology and we used it. Now we struggle to access its benefits.”
With digital access to information increasingly essential for the success of our democracy and our economy, the National Coalition of Independent Scholars and its members must take the initiative to fight for regulatory policies that encourage the widest possible access to the marketplace of information.
President Obama recently issued an executive order that research paid for by taxpayers through grants from publicly financed organizations like the National Institutes of Health, should be made available to the public free of charge.
I suggest that the time is ripe for the National Coalition of Independent Scholars to organize a special members’ task force that will closely follow the development of new digital media technologies and the regulatory policies being proposed to guide their use.
Do these policies advance or restrict independent scholarship in this country and others? As independent scholars, you have a vested interest in these issues. Reasonable access is absolutely essential and is clearly in the public interest. The National Coalition and its members should be in the forefront, advocating openness, reasonable access to the marketplace and transparency, especially for research paid for by public funds. You will have plenty of supporters who share these views. Your task force members will become experts on critically important digital media issues and the public will benefit from your efforts to provide reasonable access for all taxpayers. As a not-for-profit organization of independent scholars, the National Coalition’s positions on these issues will be influential and can command significant support from an informed public.
So, go to it and get involved! It’s essential that you do so!