New Works in the Field

Epistemic Crises, Then and Now: The 1965 Carnegie Commission as Model Philanthropic Intervention

Editors’ Note: Peter Kaufman argues that the 1965 Carnegie Commission that led to the creation of the U.S.’s public television and radio systems can be a model for a philanthropic intervention to address our current epistemic crisis.

With lies now so rampant on the Internet, television, and radio – with every printed page, moving image, recorded sound, and live event suffering, it seems, from what commentators have called “truth decay” – we need to interrogate anew what responsibilities American society has to better govern itself, and whether our knowledge institutions and our media in particular might need more regulation and fresh philanthropic attention.  As I discuss at greater length in my 2021 book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, we might want to look at the 1965 Carnegie Commission, led by MIT’s former president James Rhyne Killian, and study that work as a model for our leading foundations as they consider meaningful interventions for our media and information ecosystem.

I.        

The ideas that people walk around with today – about Covid being harmless, about the vaccines being poisonous and packed with microchips, about Biden’s 2020 election being manipulated, even stolen – all come from somewhere.  Many of these ideas – the cracked ones above for certain – lead us into harm’s way.  A large number of the 700,000 Americans dead from Covid today, and virtually all of the perpetrators jailed, hurt, and killed at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, met their fate because of the faulty ideational foundation of their thinking.  Can we do something about this?

Some 85 years ago, the sociologist Karl Mannheim developed a field of social science that he called the sociology of knowledge.  Concerned in the 1930s with the darkening ideas taking hold in Germany and Central Europe, Mannheim, a Hungarian working in Germany, declared that the “principal thesis” of his field would be that ways of thinking – “modes of thought” – could not be “adequately understood as long as their social origins [were being] obscured.”  He had been startled to realize that, by his lights, anyway, “no adequate theoretical treatment of the social organization of intellectual life” existed.  The absence of such a treatment, of this kind of deeper understanding, he believed was palpable; and it was having a dramatic and deleterious effect on society.  “It is one of the anomalies of our time,” he would write in Ideology and Utopia, “that those methods of thought by means of which we arrive at our most crucial decisions, and through which we seek to diagnose and guide our political and social destiny, have remained unrecognized and therefore inaccessible to intellectual control and self-criticism.” “This anomaly” becomes “all the more monstrous,” he emphasized – in 1936 – “when we call to mind that in modern times much more depends on the correct thinking through of a situation than was the case in earlier societies.” 

Mannheim got out of Germany, fleeing to Britain, but the ideas that did take hold in Germany as he was writing these words fed directly into what became, in historian Daniel Goldhagen’s memorable words, the “hallucinatory ideology” underlying the Nazi genocide.  These beliefs – about Jews, of course, in particular – that seem to us, as Goldhagen would later write, “so ridiculous,” “worthy of the ravings of madmen,” somehow became, “the common property of the German people.”  Deploying, with his grounding as a historian, the sociology-of-knowledge approach that Mannheim pioneered, Goldhagen interrogated how all of the country’s newspapers, books, radio, and film media, and virtually all of its educational, cultural, and social institutions, propagated without reprieve a “fantastical,” “demonological,” “apocalyptic,” “psychopathic,” “transvaluated” “ontology,” “cosmology,” and “moral culture,” which is to say how it so successfully propagated what Goldhagen called its “insane” ideas relentlessly and every day for years to all 65 million residents of the Reich. 

II.       

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the extraordinarily powerful new medium of television in the United States had reached a state of crisis.  In his now-legendary “Good-bye and good luck” speech, television’s star newscaster, Edward R. Murrow, delivered a stinging public indictment of the industry.  He spoke to the television directors who had assembled to hear his 1958 farewell – he was straight-out quitting – about the “abiding fear” he had developed regarding the damage television and radio were doing to “our society, our culture, and our heritage.”  “If there are any historians about 50 or 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”  He spoke of the fact that on prime-time TV there was only ever “fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger.”  And he called for more programs about what we were doing to the remaining Native Americans.  About U.S. foreign policy.  About cigarettes and lung cancer.  Programs on Russia.  China.  The nuclear threat.  “Just once in a while,” he said, “let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East.”  Murrow minced no words: the turn that our commercialized TV networks had taken now insured that they would focus on frivolous and useless subjects, on every topic except the ones essential to social growth.  A few years later, in 1961, President Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow would echo Murrow in decrying the vast wasteland of American television.  Equally aware of the growing power of screen-based media in America and the harm that a market-based national media infrastructure was doing to us, he, too, would begin a long and fitful process of imagining a healthier social psyche.[1] 

Foundation executives, looking at the televisions and radios in virtually every American home, took notice.  If Murrow was concerned, and if Minow was concerned, these foundations had reason to be concerned as well.  After all, Murrow had been America’s top correspondent in Europe during World War II; he had been one of the first Americans to broadcast reports about Nazi atrocities in the camps.  His concern about what was emanating from our own screens and speakers now, at home, was primordial.  As Goldhagen would uncover many years later about Nazi Germany, “A society’s conversation defines and forms much of an individual’s understanding of the world . . . [and] when beliefs and images are uncontested” or “even just dominant” within a given society, “individuals typically come to accept them as self-evident truths.”  The danger that Murrow saw was real.  Violence was everywhere – political and civil rights leaders were being murdered in Dallas, Decatur, Memphis, New York, San Francisco, and we were bombing and incinerating foreign cities and jungles half a world away.

Without reference to, probably without even thinking of, Mannheim or the Holocaust that had ended barely 20 years earlier, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and other philanthropies began to recognize the challenges to American society and to American thinking posed by television.  In November 1965, the leaders of the Carnegie Corporation put in a call to James R. Killian, recent president of MIT and the chair of MIT governing board.  They asked Killian if he would consider chairing a new national commission that they would fund on the future of media and communications, and specifically on the future of educational television.  Killian agreed, and in 1966 he assembled an extraordinary group.  It included fifteen members – current and former university presidents, a novelist, a pianist, media titans, labor activists, government officials, businesspeople and inventors – on a roster that privileged white men but included women, people of color, foreign-born individuals, and represented a variety of religious denominations.  Killian had tapped James B. Conant, former president of Harvard; Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison; Edwin H. Land, the inventor and president of Polaroid; pianist Rudolf Serkin; Oveta Culp Hobby, chair of the Houston Post Company; Leonard Woodcock, vice president of the United Automobile Workers of America; and ten others. 

In the space of a year, this commission and its members held eight formal meetings over some 28 days and sought input from more than 225 people.  There were 124 educational television stations broadcasting programs across the United States in 1966; commission members understood their charge as one to build a system to network them all, establish new ones, and endow them with lasting resources.  Its members visited 92 of these 124 educational stations in 35 states; they also studied and visited the television systems of seven foreign countries.  “We have become aware of technology as an immense power,” their landmark 1967 report stated.  “What confronts our society is the obligation to bring that technology into the full service of man, so that its power to move image and sound is consistently coupled with a power to move mind and spirit.”[2] 

Carnegie’s philanthropic funding of the commission, the political ability and connections of the commissioners, and the timing of its establishment all allowed things to move quickly.  The Commission’s report – published as an instant trade book – advocated for the establishment of a new Corporation for Public Television and for increased federal support of quality broadcasting.  The report was distilled almost immediately into a bill (S. 1160) that quickly in turn became Public Law 90-129 (81 Stat. 365): the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.  At the signing ceremony where he turned the act into law, President Johnson said, “We rededicate a part of the airwaves – which belong to all the people – [. . . ] for the enlightenment of all the people.”  “We must consider,” he said, “new ways to build a great network for knowledge – not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”  The system, he said, “will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all of our people.”  It became the system of public television and public radio and American public media that we know today.  Other work and reports on the future of media would come later, funded by Carnegie, the Sloan Foundation, the Twentieth Century Fund, the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and more, but it was Carnegie I, as the work of this Commission came to be known, that paved the way for the revolution in knowledge transmission and which matured into our invaluable public broadcasting service.  In the assessment of New York Times columnist James Reston, the report was “one of the transforming occasions in American life.”[3] 

III.     

The market orientation of the key commercial networks that Murrow and Minow described was dangerous enough to think about all those years ago; but now we have entire national television and radio networks and enormous and well-funded media ecosystems dedicated to propagating big lies about our core political institutions, science, medicine, and more.  There are and indeed have been since World War II powerful private interests, including not insignificant numbers of private philanthropies, purposely fueling misinformation as well – all to audiences as large as those that both Mannheim and Goldhagen were concerned about.[4]  During the Trump presidency those forces were tied to – even harnessed by – state power.

One place to focus philanthropic attention on, now as a half century ago, is education, and specifically our knowledge institutions – universities, libraries, museums, and archives – which are key actors in the sociology of knowledge.  The power of these institutions to affect change in thinking remains significant – indeed, with the weight of their presence online now, more powerful than ever. 

At MIT, for one case study, that power is vast.  It includes, first, the Institute’s own publications and productions.  Calculate, for example, that MIT’s free classes were watched on YouTube for 1,079,802 hours worldwide in the month of July 2021 alone.  But it also includes the reach of the media platforms with which the Institute works systematically.  Explore the reach of the Boston Review and Journal of Democracy, for example, where MIT professors often publish, add the reach of the publications of the MIT Press, then add the media reach of the Knowledge Futures Group (a new initiative founded by the Press and the MIT Media Lab).  Add the reach of its radio and television partners.  Add the reach of Wikipedia and the Internet Archive and the impressions radiating from MIT-originated content there.  Then recall that there are a lot of other universities, libraries, museums, and archives – in fact 35,000 museums, 120,000 libraries, and 4,000 colleges and universities – so thousands, all together, virtually all of them “on air,” to use the 1960s term, able to reach the public directly online on the web.  The tally becomes extraordinary.  The reach is real. 

IV.

One is not born a racist or a believer in Covid vaccine conspiracies.  That knowledge is socialized.  Mannheim and others approached 1930s society as a living organism, interrogating how that diseased organism metabolized knowledge and information.  Today the organism is seriously diseased again. 

The Duke Sanford Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society has designated Carnegie I as one of the 100 greatest philanthropic interventions.  Others who study rampant disinformation now are writing about how “foundations could return to their historic role of incubating new public media experiments.”[5]  What if one of the next 100 best interventions could feature a study and intervention like Carnegie I, one that focuses intentionally, proactively, on affecting the sociology of knowledge; one that builds, over the long term, a new network of knowledge again: a support structure designed to link and fund the work of our knowledge institutions online?  Imagine, for example, a national, noncommercial, 24/7 television news network that’s also online, focused on news and culture and science and built in partnership with these knowledge institutions, hand in glove.[6]  The Carnegie Commission had the foresight to propose knitting together the 124 educational television stations then in operation.  Perhaps now it is time to knit together our own educational stations as it were – some 160,000 cultural and educational institutions – in a new network: wired, as before, but now through the Internet.

We should establish commissions like Killian’s to explore how best to connect, empower, and embolden our knowledge institutions.  We should audit and analyze the reach of our knowledge institutions today, especially on the key issues around which society is once again hallucinating.  We should outline plans of action to center these 160,000 knowledge institutions in the production, distribution, and social construction of fact-based knowledge and new ideas, in part to stop these hallucinations and in part to try and cure them.  Goldhagen discovered that antisemitism in 1930s Germany was “immanent in the structure of cognition.”  Couldn’t we design and support a long-term action agenda to eradicate our own fatal phantasmagoria?  To reduce the hatred and violence immanent in our own thinking?  Shouldn’t we try? 

In the current moment, we need another new network for knowledge.  We need to build a system – a network – for our screens and speakers that can rely on verifiable information from our sources of factual knowledge.  We need it before the next pandemic hits and new rounds of violence erupt.  We need it, in a word, before it’s too late.

-Peter B. Kaufman

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is a member of the Knowledge Futures Group.  He is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge (Seven Stories, 2021). His forthcoming book on the future of our knowledge institutions is called The Fifth Estate.


[1] See also Newton N. Minow, Equal Time: The Private Broadcaster and the Public Interest (New York: Atheneum, 1964).  For more on Minow’s larger ambitions, see “Broadcasting in the Public Interest: The Newton Minow Collection,” https://americanarchive.org/special_collections/newtonminow.

[2] Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, Public Television: A Program for Action: The Report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (New York: Bantam Books, 1967).

[3] Stephen Schindler, “America’s System of Public Broadcasting and Public Radio,” online at: https://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/descriptive/public_broadcasting.pdf and https://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/CarnegiePBSfinal.pdf.  See also A Public Trust: The Landmark Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (New York: Bantam Books, 1979); On the Cable: The Television of Abundance: Report of the Sloan Commission on Cable Communications (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971); Quality Time?: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Television (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1993); and Lawrence K. Grossman and Newton N. Minow, A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2001). 

[4] Jane Kramer, “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie,” The New Yorker, August 9, 2021.

[5] Victor Pickard, “The Public Media Option: Confronting Policy Failure in an Age of Misinformation,” in W. Lance Bennett and Steven Livingston, The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), p. 250.

[6] Public broadcasting started with just such cultural and educational partnerships.  See Kaufman, The New Enlightenment, pp. 97-149.

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