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Potential applications include student education, citizen education,
and citizen participation. Schools might wish to incorporate such material
into the academic curriculum, and perhaps thereby introduce a new dimension of
reality into high school civics and college political science courses.
Three out of four public schools now have television sets and therefore
the capability to receive congressional programming broadcast over nationally
interconnected educational or public TV stations. Nine percent of schools
have a closed circuit or instructional TV system which could be cable-connected.
And about one-fourth of all public schools have videotape and cassette technology. 28 Up to now, use of telecommunications in political coursework has been largely limited to local government activity, but emergent systems could make congressional activity equally accessible.
Students might follow a particular bill through the entire legislative
process or focus on the activities of a particular committee or subcommittee.
When integrated into the teaching plan and coordinated with written and other
Instructional materials, the total experience would likely be more than the equivalent of a trip to Washington, with a substantial savings in time, energy,
With such systems, congressional activities could also be transmitted
to individual citizens in their homes, either by cable or via public broad
casting, and to libraries or other public buildings where interested citizens
might meet on their own, in groups, or perhaps as part of adult education
courses. Or the emergent channels could make it possible to hold more frequent
28Polly Carpenter, Cable Television: Uses in Education (Santa Monica, Ca.: RAND Corp., 1973), esp. pp. 43-47; also see Meredith W. Watts and Ronald D. Hedlund, "Fostering Cognitive Learning Among Undergraduate Political Science Students: An Experiment Using the Television Medium," paper prepared for the 1973 APSA Annual Meeting, New Orleans, September 1973.
committee and subcommittee hearings at field locations, so as to enhance
citizen access, while at the same time transmitting the proceedings live back
to Washington so that interested members of Congress and staff can still
follow the activity.
Also on the institutional level, it will soon be possible to economi
cally interconnect the House information system, for example, with district
offices and local cable television systems or community information centers.
Members, staff, and constituents in both Washington and district locations
could then have access to computerized retrieval of legislative information
(like bill status, committee reports, and the congressional calendar) on a
more timely and relevant basis.
The concept of HIS interconnection received substantial support among the congressmen and staff participating in this study. However, preference seems to be greater for community centers (like in schools or libraries) rather than home availability (via cable television) because of the belief that the center concept would (1) be more feasible financially, (2) deter frivolous use and abuse, (3) require some citizen initiative (and therefore at least a minimum level of interest), (4) provide interpretation and learning opportu
nities to ensure that the information is understood, and (5) perhaps serve as
& telecommunications center as well.
No doubt other potentially useful institutional applications can be identified. But the basic point is that the emergent telecommunication channels might well serve to help better educate citizens--both student and
adult--about the role and activities of Congress as an institution and help
provide a foundation for more informed and constructive participation in public
This potential should be a priority for further study.
The public policy implications of this or any other research which
bears on political communication are of necessity complex, given the multi
faceted nature of the political process itself. The congressman wears several
hats: that of a public official working to carry out important legislative
and representative responsibilities in the political system; that of an
ombudsman for constituents who need help; that of an overseer of federal
programs and monitor of their effects on citizens; and that of a politician seeking to ensure re-election.
For most offices in this sample, constituent communication is viewed as essential to the job of the congressman. As the study has documented, members have available to them and make heavy use of a wide range of communication services: (1) postage-free (franked) letters, reports, and questionnaires to constituents; (2) stationery, staff, travel, telephone, telecopier,
office space in Washington and the district, and various other services paid
for with allowances from the public treasury, many of which are used primarily for constituent communication; and (3) access to low-cost facilities for recording audio and videotape reports to constituents via the mass media.
Nonetheless, despite the availability of these channels, many congress
men and staff emphasize that effective communication is becoming more diffi
cult all the time. Emergent telecommunication is perceived as having the
potential for helping congressmen overcome communication problems and better
meet their varied public responsibilities. Faced with increasing social complex
ity and a rising volume and diversity of citizen demands, emergent channels
can apparently assist Representatives in establishing more effective feed
forward, feedback, and dialogue with constituents.
On the other hand, some members have expressed concern that use of emergent telecommunications might further entrench incumbents and simply serve as just one more powerful political weapon. They note that the perquisites of office clearly give incumbents built-in advantages. In addition, incumbents
generally are more newsworthy than potential challengers, and therefore are
likely to get additional media exposure. 29
In the view of several congressmen and staff in the present study, and
of this researcher, a basic goal of emergent public policy should be to realize
whatever long-range potential the emergent telecommunications may have for an
improved political dialogue. Emergent policy should be concurrently geared
(1) assisting congressmen (and other public officials) in better
meeting their legitimate communication needs; and (2) achieving fair and balanced access to communication channels for all political participants, including incumbent office-holders, challengers, and representatives of constituent groups
and interests (both public and private). One innovative approach to access
allocation--the concept of "representative time"--is discussed briefly in
Perhaps the most important potential of emergent telecommunications
is to help promote a reaffirmation and positive reinforcement of basic political rights and responsibilities. Telecommunication already plays a major part in
29 Incumbents may also have advantages in acquiring party support, issue information, campaign workers, and--perhaps most important when it comes to telecommunications--campaign funds. See, for example, David A. Leuthold, Electioneering in a Democracy: Campaigns for Congress (New York: John Wiley, 1968); Robert J. Huckshorn and Robert C. Spencer, The Politics of Defeat: Campaigning for Congress (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 1971); David W. Adamany, Campaign Finance in America (North Scituate, Ma.: Duxbury Press, 1972); Common Cause, "Total Campaign Finances in the 1972 Congressional Race," mimeographed report, Washington, D.C., September 13, 1973; and U.S., Congress, Senate, Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Communications, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1973, Hearings, 93rd Congress, 1st Session, "Report on Political Broadcasting and Cablecast ing" (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973).
American political life, and effective exercise of these responsibilities and
rights increasingly requires access to telecommunication forums.30 In the
unfolding Communication Era, new channels--11ke cable television, information
retrieval, and the videoconference-- perhaps can provide the opportunity for improved access and help ensure that political communication will not be dominated by any particular individual, group, or organization at any level or
in any sector of society.
of course, as
recognized earlier, when and how emergent tele
communications become available depends on a number of uncertain regulatory,
institutional, and political factors, even assuming that conditions of technical feasibility and economic viability are met. And public policy on telecommunications can include many dimensions, such as: technical standards; research and development support; controls on ownership and operations; or regulations
on rates and usage for commercial, educational, public safety, governmental,
personal, or political purposes, among others. 31
30See, for example, Bernard Rubin, Political Television (Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth, 1967); Robert MacNeil, The People Machine: The Influence of Television on American Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1968); Herbert E. Alexander, "Communication and Politics: The Media and the Message," Duke Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems 34 (Spring 1969): 255-277; Harold A. Mendelsohn and Irving Crespi, Polls, Television and the New Politics (Scranton, Pa.: Chandler, 1970); Newton N. Minow, John Bartlow Martin, and Lee M. Mitchell, Presidential Television (New York: Basic, 1973); and Jerome A. Barron, Freedom of the Press for Whom? The Right of Access to the Mass Media (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973).
3. For discussion of public policy on cable television, see the Sloan Commission on Cable Communications, On the Cable: The Television of Abundance (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971); Martin H. Seiden, Cable Television U.S.A.: An Analysis of Governmental Policy (New York: Praeger, 1972); Steven R. Rivkin, Cable Television: A Guide to Federal Regulations (Santa Monica, Ca.: RAND Corp., March 1973); and U.S., Cabinet Committee on Cable Communications, Report to the President (Washington, D.C.: Office of Telecommunications Policy, Executive Office of the President, 1974).