Lawrence K. Grossman

A Digital Gift to the Nation

VTR Date: December 7, 2000

Guest: Grossman, Lawrence K.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Larry Grossman
Title: “A Digital Gift To The Nation”
VTR: 12/7/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And some years back, when my guest today, Larry Grossman, the former President both of PBS, the public broadcasting system, and of NBC News joined me here to discuss his quite prescient book, “The Electronic Republic”, I replied to his enthusiasm for the electronic future by noting that I’m really something of an electronic Luddite. And I’ve long thought of mass communications as being ever more the medium of our discontents.

But it’s somewhat different for me now, I’ll admit. Different to a considerable extent because of the excitement generated by a foundation underwritten project whose end paper I’ve just read titled, “A Digital Gift To The Nation, Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age” prepared by my guest today and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minnow. The projects intrepid Director is Edee Bjornson, who long ago produced The Open Mind, among her many other accomplishments.

Well, the thrust of a “Digital Gift To The Nation” is clear. I quote it, “In this information age, the nation’s prosperity, its democracy, its culture and its future will depend as never before on the training, skills, ideas and abilities of its citizens. The people’s access to knowledge and learning across a lifetime must become a national imperative in this emerging knowledge-based economy.” At similar critical points in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries America’s future was transformed by three bold public investments in an educated citizenry. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance set aside public land to support public schools in every state. In 1862 the Morrill Act led to the establishment of 105 land-grant colleges which created the world’s pre-eminent system of higher education and advanced research. And, in 1944 the G.I. Bill profoundly expanded educational opportunities and attainments of more than 20 million men and women, who fought for us in World War II providing them an education that only the elite could previously afford. And now, for the 21st century, Larry Grossman, Newton Minnow, Edee Bjornson and their colleagues propose a fourth bold American investment in an educated citizenry that they title, “A Digital Gift To The Nation”. And I’ll ask my guest to describe that gift.

GROSSMAN: Well, Dick, the digital gift is really the opportunity that is brought about because the Federal Communications Commission is selling off the public electrical spectrum. The frequencies that we use for radio and television and now, in this new age, are being used to transmit signals of all kinds to Palm Pilots and computers and everything else, become enormously valuable public resources. And we have a long history, as you point out in this country of supporting public education through the use of public land in the 19th century, and indeed, in the 18th century, with the Land-Grant Colleges Act. And what we argue is that the 21st century equivalent of the public land of two centuries ago, is this publicly owned spectrum and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will being in some $18 billion dollars from those auctions. And what we are urging is to follow the precedent that has been so successful and so far-sighted in the past of using the proceeds, the revenues from this spectrum, and devoting it to a public trust, a digital information trust that will be used to provide the content … education, civic information, public health information, arts and culture, that makes our civilization great. And enables all people, throughout the nation to be able to take advantage of these new technologies for life-long learning, for improving themselves, for developing arts and having access to culture. And this is a very rare opportunity … it’s a once in a century opportunity, to do something incredibly important with this great public resource.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, there is that lovely symmetry of “once in a century”. As we have done these things once in each of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries. But, Larry … the 20th, 19th and 18th I should say … I can count. But Larry, I’m a historian by training and yet, I don’t know enough about the battles that took place, certainly not at the time of the G.I. Bill, but before. Weren’t those times when there wasn’t an interest countering the understandable desire of our government to bolster, to foster education?

GROSSMAN: No, there were, as a matter of fact, great battles that took place. For example, the Land-Grant Colleges Act was vetoed by President Buchanan. And was signed by President Lincoln during the dark days of the Civil War, as there were real questions about the Federal government’s involvement in education — which was supposed to be local — and, so on. But, this was such a major piece of legislation. It was, it was sponsored by a man called Justin Morrill, who was a Republican Congressman and then Senator from Vermont, who, by the way, was an uneducated farmer, who passionately believed in education in order to improve our agriculture, in order improve our manufacturing, in order to improve the American working population. And he was the one who devised this notion of using the revenues from public land, giving the revenues to the states, and enabling the states, as long as they used those revenues, to benefit from them by building great public education, higher education institutions. And it was the Land-Grant Colleges Act extended, after the Civil War, that first enabled the freed slaves to get money for an education. And eventually enabled Native Americans to get money for an education, and it left a legacy, as you pointed out of 105 great institutions, from MIT to Cornell to the great land-grant state universities of our country.

HEFFNER: And you feel that you can provide this kind of legacy for our citizens in the 21st century.
GROSSMAN: Well, here we have this explosion of digital technology that’s being exploited for commercial purposes, and very effectively and very dramatically. It’s changing our whole economy, changing in many ways our whole society. But nobody has focused on the public interest, public service needs for the things that don’t make money, but cost money, like life-long learning and pre-school training and teacher training, and professional up-grading and free political time. And here’s an opportunity to use these new technologies for great purposes. And to develop what I would call the equivalent of a venture-capital fund for the non-profit public institutions in our society. To enable our libraries and our museums and our universities and our school systems and our State … Secretaries of State to get into the 21st century and into the digital and Internet world. And use these financial resources to provide content that will give everybody access to the best that our civilization has to offer.

HEFFNER: You know, as I read your report I wondered whether your own emphasis was on the funding aspect or on what is going to be done, in your estimation, in the digital age?

GROSSMAN: Well, so far we’ve been very good at developing ways to use the new digital technologies for consuming — for buying and shopping. For entertainment and diversion. For investing. For all of the very good commercial purposes. And for really changing and making much more efficient … our economy. But nobody has really worked on the content in any major way to enable our universities and the courses that are available to be brought home to every American. To enable our great public institutions to break out of their worlds and get into the workplace and get into homes and get into schools. And that’s what we hope and expect and propose that this great resource can be taken advantage of for public needs. And what we’re talking about are the new techniques in education so that people who change jobs, frequently have an opportunity to develop new skills. So that older people and we’re having a society that is growing old quite fast, don’t have to go to sit on college campuses in order to take advantage of the public events that are going on at universities and museums and libraries. So that the libraries can digitize their collections which makes them available … by the way not only to Americans, but to the whole world, through the Internet.

HEFFNER: What’s the opposition to the use of the spectrum in this way?

GROSSMAN: I can’t think of any opposition and so far, and, and Newt Minnow and I have spent a lot of time talking … literally … to hundreds of people both in Washington on the Hill because this has political implications, as well as to people in universities and the museums and the libraries. They are all eager to see this happen because nobody has put any resources into content. You know we’ve done a lot with hardware in the sense that the Federal government has provided … we are paying through out telephone bill … money for, to enable governments to give … put into classroom access to the Internet. Develop computers for use in the classroom. But nobody has put up any finances, any resources for the most important thing, not the hardware, but the content, the software … the courses, the curriculum, the digitizing of books and of papers and of the ability to develop plays and the arts and, and culture and make that available to all Americans.

HEFFNER: Of course, whenever you think or talk about content in this country, the first question that comes up is, “who controls it?”.

GROSSMAN: That’s right. That’s why we are setting up … talking about setting up and proposing to set up a national trust fund that would have a distinguished Board of Directors, on the model of the National Science Foundation, by the way. Which has a distinguished Board of Directors, it is apolitical, it is appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate and that oversees the distribution of funds … and they get a Federal appropriation … to bring the best of our technology forward in this country. And it’s been a very successful institution. And we think the same thing should be done for the other areas of our society that need help.

HEFFNER: A parallel organization? Or the NSF itself?

GROSSMAN: Well, it would have to have some change, and that’s still to be determined. But a good model is, is the National Science Foundation, and another good model is the National Institute of Health, which has many branches under its umbrella for various disciplines … mental health, aging, cancer, heart research. It would be useful to have a good precedent. It would be helpful not to have to start from scratch with an administrative structure. The National Science Foundation does do a good deal of work, not only in the science and technology, but also in the so-called “soft” sciences like social sciences and so on. And they have a good deal of experience at developing grants and contracts to do the best kinds of things. So we use that as a model and whether the two will be together under a single umbrella organization, ah, that’s really for Congress to decide what would make the most sense.

HEFFNER: Larry, you use the figure $18 billion dollars. Isn’t that kind of low?

GROSSMAN: Well, we use the figure that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the spectrum auctions will bring in. And many governments have sold off pieces of their unused spectrum and have received considerably more money than that. The British received some $30 or $40 billion dollars. And the Germans this summer received almost $50 billion dollars. But we’re using the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate. And if you invest that money on a yearly basis you will have over a billion dollars to spend. And let’s see what happens because it’s an opportunity to develop innovative programs, to figure out how to use the new technology for great public purposes. To try new experiments, just as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are trying new experiments. But they would … in the area where America has always been pre-eminent and that is in developing public education resources.

HEFFNER: Haven’t we been involved in a gift of the spectrum in the last few years?

GROSSMAN: Well, in … the tradition in the 20th century when the spectrum suddenly became useful for radio and television has been to give it away. That’s absolutely right. And it used to be that it was given away to radio stations and to television stations … this is the frequencies … the publicly owned frequencies in return for their having an obligation to perform certain public services. Now in this new era of cable and of satellite transmission and of video cassettes much of that responsibility has dissipated in the era of de-regulation. So, in recent years, Congress has wisely urged the FCC, in fact, ordered the FCC to auction off the unused spectrum. And have the revenues go back to the government. It’s as if oil companies drilling on public land or the seas that are owned by the public, pay a certain fee in return for the use of that, or ranchers and so on.

HEFFNER: Is that why I have the impression that $18 billion … these days a few billion …

GROSSMAN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … here or there, you know, doesn’t make that much difference, but that $18 billion is a very low figure. Is that because of the perhaps continuing desire for those who now have, to want more?

GROSSMAN: Well, that’s part of it. Recently, several years ago under the Telecommunications Reform Act, right, Congress in effect gave away some $70 billion dollars worth of spectrum, of frequencies, to the broadcasters, to the television broadcasters, so that they could use it for digital transmission, as we’re changing the technology. There were some, including Senator Dole and Senator McCain who argued that that should be sold because the Federal government, the people should get a dividend … the $70 billion dollars in return. But there will be other spectrum that is being auctioned off over the next few years. Especially as the broadcasters will eventually return the old spectrum that they use, the old frequencies when they move over to the digital transmission. And it could well bring in considerable more than the $18 billion dollars. But at least that is what now is designated as the income expected.

HEFFNER: Larry, in terms of administering this … we’re talking about education and education has in the history of this country been a local, state, local community affair. Where does the community fit in?

GROSSMAN: Well, the emphasis obviously will be on local and regional as well as national contracts and funding. So that the local public library, the local school system can apply for grants for new ideas that the rest of the country might be able to benefit from, as well as the local communities. And the idea is for the Board of Directors of this new digital information trust to set up the policies and the priorities, what we anticipate … by the way, it’s not just education, it would be for free use of political … during our elections so we don’t have to get on television just to pay …

HEFFNER: Well, let’s call that education.

GROSSMAN: But it also would be for our performing arts’ institutions. For any of the public service, non-profit institutions that could use this for the public good.

HEFFNER: And if there are those who feel that it can be used for private good or private profit, they certainly must be in opposition to you.

GROSSMAN: We haven’t seen any opposition. In fact, quite the contrary because this is not competing against the private interests in any way. The spectrum is available for commercial use and has been made available for commercial use for data distribution, for cell phones and so on. And indeed, it’s the revenue from the use of that spectrum that we suggest should go into these public purposes.

HEFFNER: Rather than …

GROSSMAN: Well, rather than, let’s say impose those responsibilities on commercial broadcasters, which really doesn’t work and makes very little sense …


GROSSMAN: … it’s their own business to make money.

HEFFNER: Larry, I didn’t mean that.


HEFFNER: I meant that the $18 billion going into your trust fund … rather than where?

GROSSMAN: Oh, rather than have it go right back into the Federal treasury and be used up inside of a week. The … I mean it was fascinating going back to history, since you’re the historian as you mention …

HEFFNER: But I don’t know as much about it as you do, clearly.

GROSSMAN: That, that Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln had the foresight, in the middle of the Civil War, the huge pressures and the huge financial needs in this country, to say “No, we’re going to set this public land aside to be sold and the revenues used for education.” I mean what a breakthrough that was and what a long-term benefit to this nation that was.

HEFFNER: You’re going to need to do quite a selling job here and certainly you have your work cut out for you for your precedent’s set with the Lincoln involvement within each of our centuries … of our nation’s centuries a step being made so far in the future … forward for education. Now administration … you think in terms of a parallel organization to the National Science Foundation. Is this going to be a grant-making organization alone or will it be an innovative, active educational function itself?

GROSSMAN: Well as we propose in our report that it should be a grant and contract-making organization like the National Science Foundation. It will not do its own work, but it will be able to give out money to those who have good ideas … the best ideas. And it will encourage them to apply for grants and for contracts. They will also be encouraged to participate in partnerships, with universities, with the libraries, with, indeed, also commercial interests.

HEFFNER: So you don’t see it as a programmer itself.

GROSSMAN: No. We don’t see it as a programmer itself.

HEFFNER: Why not?

GROSSMAN: Well, first of all, I think there’s a great concern in this day and age to have the Federal government, in effect, or a Federal agency or a Federal institution actually doing its own programming when there are so many institutions in this country already in existence. I mean one of the beauties of this is that we don’t have to start from the beginning, we have great educational, cultural, arts institutions (museums, libraries, universities and so on) already there. They are kind of crying for funds. To be able to develop these innovations and these new techniques and these experiments to be used for teaching and for performing and for information delivery, and so we don’t have to invent new institutions to do that, all we have to do is set up a funding agency that will enable them to get the money and to get the recognition that they require.

HEFFNER: How parallel is this? How similar is it to what we have had in public broadcasting?

GROSSMAN: it’s very similar to what we have had and in fact in public broadcasting, in a re-invented public broadcasting, in the digital world, we’ll have access to every home with four or five channels in the digital world. They will be able to take one channel, one network in effect and turn it into four or five different kinds of channels. So that it becomes a great freeway, a public freeway on the information superhighway, to be used to deliver this kind of material that we’re talking about. So, it’s an opportunity to really realize, take advantage of the investment… billions of dollars that we made in our public broadcasting system. To use that in new ways for education, for information, for arts and culture, both on a programming side, but also on a purely educational curricula development side, because they have the capacity, they have the facility that reaches in every community that reaches into every home in the nation.

HEFFNER: there’s been so much talk in recent years about “privatization”. Doesn’t this seem to be moving in an opposite direction?

GROSSMAN: Well you know our society has been, our economy has been brilliant at exploiting the new technologies for commercial purposes. And there will be some educational uses of the new technologies for commercial purposes. Those are already developing.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

GROSSMAN: Well, for example, Michael Milken and other investors are setting up funds to develop private, digital universities that don’t have campuses. But that sell courses and sell credentials, by enabling you to take courses. Most of them are in the business end, business because courses that’s where the money is. But there are many areas where we have deep needs in our society, for teacher training, for pre-school training, for the fixing many ways and developing new materials for our school system, as well as our arts and culture, that don’t make money, but cost money. And those have no sort of funding other than some Federal funds and some private funds that are given from foundations and from eleemosynary purposes. And so what we need to do, as they did in previous centuries, is bolster that with a major sort of funds that will enable that to flower in the new digital and Internet age.

HEFFNER: So what’s the next step?

GROSSMAN: Well the next step is really to, the one that you cited, which is to educate and inform. Not only the Legislators and the next President, and this report is being prepared for the next Congress and the next President. But also the American people, as well as the potential beneficiaries who will be our great public institutions. And if they all recognize that they have a major stake in this, as many of them already do because we’ve talked to all of the major library systems and museum’s directors. And university, many of the university land-grant colleges group. If they recognize that they have a stake in this, as indeed they will, and get, get them to get behind it and to help make this project go through.

HEFFNER: Larry, we just have a couple of minutes left. You and I both went from commercial television into public television. Do you think there’s another chance for public television.
GROSSMAN: I think there’s a real opportunity, as I’ve said, for public television to flower in a very different way from what it has come to in recent years. That is to focus and to emphasize its role in education, it’s role in distributing all sort of services. It’s role in giving candidates and public issues a free airing, because it will have so much more access to the home through their multiple channels than they did before. Right now they can barely afford to put on one, programming for one channel. But in the new digital world they can provide text books and they can provide digital access and they can provide curricula material and they could provide skills training and job re-training and life-long learning because it’s a great delivery system. And so I think there’s an opportunity for a new lease on life for our public broadcasting system.

HEFFNER: It didn’t make enough use of the old lease. Do you believe it will of a new lease on life?

GROSSMAN: Part of it, the reason for that we have always underfunded this public resource, although we have a very good delivery system, we haven’t funded content. Part of the effort here is to enable them to make good use of this new lease on life.

HEFFNER: In closing all I do, want to do is hope again that you get a lot more than $18 billion dollars to do this. So I’m going to trust you to look for $30 billion, $50 billion perhaps … if the British and the Germans can do it, certainly we can.

GROSSMAN: Well, as you say, “a billion here, a billion there”, soon it gets to be real money.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] It adds up. Larry Grossman, thank you again today on The Open Mind. And “good luck”.

GROSSMAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.