Just as Johann Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the 15th century influenced freedom of the press, modern technologies continue to pose challenges to First Amendment freedoms — and sometimes lead to government actions. Responding to the burgeoning technologies of satellite communication and cable television, President Lyndon Johnson, in an August 14, 1967, message to Congress, stated his intention to appoint “a task force of distinguished government officials to make a comprehensive study of communications policy.” In 1968, the President’s Task Force on Communications Policy brought together more than 30 academic consultants and representatives of 15 federal departments and agencies.

The panel’s so-called Rostow Report, named for the task force’s chair, Undersecretary of State Eugene V. Rostow, was published December 7, 1968. It recommended the creation of a federal agency to provide the executive branch with comprehensive oversight of these emerging technologies; more mundane day-to-day matters would be left to the Federal Communications Commission.

In conjunction with Johnson’s Great Society vision for government intervention in domestic affairs, the report suggested that cable television in particular could be a means to help quell urban violence. The panel hinted at using cable to allow minorities greater opportunities to make their issues more widely known and to help them feel included.

One of the task force members’ major concerns was that federal policy be created to enable cable to be made available at the lowest possible cost without hampering the industry’s growth. Presciently, the report took note of possible problems stemming from “multiple nationwide ownership of cable systems as well as cable ownership by television networks, movie producers and distributors, local television stations, and publishers of national magazines.”

Although Johnson’s March 1968 announcement that he would not seek re-election slowed the Rostow Report’s momentum as an instrument of policy, the report did produce one addition to the government infrastructure. In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon implemented one of the report’s recommendations, creating the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy by executive order. In 1978, the responsibilities of this office were transferred to a bureau of the Department of Commerce known as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which continues to advise the president on telecommunications issues.

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