So, what is the “public interest,” anyway?

The 1927 Radio Act is the first place where the phrase “public interest” became tied to media regulation. Throughout Jennifer Holt’s Empires of Entertainment, it also becomes increasingly clear that the phrase has undergone a variety of shifts in meaning and can easily be applied to nearly every media context.

Early broadcasters were encouraged by the FCC to uphold the ambiguous term of “public interest” (Holt 54). Loosely, this could mean that they were to provide information that was useful or helpful to the public. Moving forward, the term seems to mean nothing at all. “The public interest standard, for example, is based on the notion of the broadcast spectrum’s scarcity, but new technologies and delivery systems have rendered this model inadequate. Further, the government has yet to successfully force broadcasters to value the public’s interest above their own, rendering the vaunted phrase largely an empty rhetorical prop” (Holt 14).

The utility of such an “empty rhetorical prop” is that corporations have every ability to claim that they exist for the benefit of the public, regardless of whether or not what they are doing is actually beneficial. Professor of Government and the Press Tom Patterson (featured in the video below) contends that commercialism of media, specifically in news networks, has led to a “softened” system of news, which exists to please all people rather than inform (in an in-depth manner) only some people.

The reality is that doing what best serves the public (by providing the most information) does not matter. Presenting sensationalized news or other media content is easier because, although it may lack truth, or exhibit inflated bias, it is inherently more interesting. Content that is made with disregard for what is “best” for the public is the new normal. An opinionated, controversial news story with a caricatured host is miles more intriguing than simple, bland, “just the facts” type of news. Where’s the sex appeal in presenting only the facts, or the intrigue, or the potential for scandal?

Truthfully, the American public doesn’t want what’s best for them. They want what’s best marketed towards them, and that is exactly what the “public interest” has become. Anyone, any company, any news network, can claim that they are best for the public interest because the very notion of the public interest has been so dissolved through the expansion and commercialization of today’s media that it no longer exists. What is best for the public interest is simply determined by what the largest power source says is best.

Public Interest's Homepage

As an aside, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek fashion, the name “Public Interest” has been used by a Santa Monica, California based ad agency. Public Interest’s tagline explains, “we create powerful advertising for good causes”. There is a delightful boldness to this whole matter, specifically in the positing of advertising as the true interest of the public. It places the control of the public’s interest in the hands of a business, which has an immensely satisfying air of self-awareness.

You can see the rest of their website here



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