The Fast Lane and the Dirt Path: Corporate Media, Democracy and the FCC [Audio]

In "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," communications scholar Bob McChesney wrote about how democracy tends to be the first casualty in the collision of big media and big money. As keynote speaker at the Nov. 3 Citizen Media Forum put on by Twin Cities Media Alliance, he continued the theme in a discussion about "journalism's freefall" and the challenges and triumphs of the fledgling media reform movement, which has grown exponentially since he founded its top advocacy group, Free Press, in 2002. One of the biggest feathers in the movement's cap is the massive public campaign in 2003 that stalled the Federal Communications Commission's attempt to relax media ownership rules. Another is the halting of attempts to ban "network neutrality," the policy that ensures all web users get the same level of access as anyone else.

But both of these successes are again threatened. Under new chair Kevin Martin, the FCC is scrambling to relax longstanding rules governing media consolidation. It announced, with only one week's notice, that the final public hearing on media ownership will be held in Seattle this Friday, Nov. 9. By year's end, the Commission may change the provision that prevents the same company from owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same town. And net neutrality remains under fire, thanks to the telecommunications and cable industries that want to replace an equal-access Internet with a two-tiered scheme that McChesney calls a "fast lane" and a "dirt path."

On Saturday, he spent a few minutes discussing these important policy crises and their impact on democracy.

Paul Schmelzer: Two things I wanted to ask you about are the FCC ownership vote and net neutrality. But let’s start with the FCC. What is the story there?

Bob McChesney: The FCC under Kevin Martin has reopened a review of its media ownership rules, as it’s required to by law. And he agreed, and the FCC agreed after the last time the rules were thrown out in the court system, that to make sure it’ll past legal muster this time they would hold at least six public hearings on what people think of these rule changes. The last one is coming on November 9 in Seattle. Chairman Martin of the FCC is making it clear that he is determined to change the rules – he’s been public about this – as quickly as possible, as dramatically as possible, and really has no concern whatsoever with following the spirit of the process where the public hearings hold any value. He’s given in almost every case minimum possible notice to the community that’d they’d be having hearings. The last two, literally a week's notice. And these are supposed to be hearings to solicit public opinion from across the board. They’ve tried to put them during daylight hours when working people can’t get away from work. And he’s made a mockery of the process.

Some people say, "With the democratic control in Congress, won’t this get stymied?" In all likelihood it will, and in all likelihood there’s a good chance the courts with throw it out again, because it’s such a blatant violation of the spirit of the law.

But my sense is that there’s tremendous pressure on the Bush administration and therefore on the Republicans on the FCC to scrap these rules to allow the big media owners, who really depend on being able to gobble up local media monopolies, to get their way. They’re calling their debts in, so to speak. I think they’re going to try to ram this through and then negotiate it in Congress and get some of the deals through. They understand it’s completely bogus what they’re doing -- legally, ethically, morally. But it’s all about power politics and delivering the goods to very wealthy and powerful campaign donors and funders.

PS: Kevin Martin hasn’t said what his proposal would be, but it’s understood that he’ll probably be relaxing cross-ownership rules. But is it true that he hasn’t laid out a plan, and if so, what are people responding to?

BM: They won’t lay out a plan, and they’ll give the bare minimum amount of time for the public to see what exactly it’s proposing, if any time at all.

PS: So people are having hearings about media ownership in general, but no specific proposal.

BM: They’re saying, “What do you think about consolidation? What do you think about media in your community?” Which isn’t actually bad; it’s just open-ended. I"f you could have a clean slate, what do you think a healthy media environment—what policies would get you there?"

And what Kevin Martin is hearing everywhere, overwhelmingly, [is that] people are dissatisfied with the current state of media in their communities. There’s way too much commercialism and concentration, and if anything, they want policies that are going to encourage more local owners, more diverse ownership, and generate some sort of coverage on radio, television and related newspapers that’ll actually serve communities rather than just be a service to advertisers and corporate headquarters in some far off land.

PS: So who is Kevin Martin? Everyone knows Michael Powell [former FCC chair and son of Colin Powell], but Kevin Martin is not really known to many people. He was kind of a buddy with Powell. He’s a Republican member of the Commission, right?

BM: He was on the commission in 2003, and he made his name working for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000, and he has very clear political ambitions. Generally speaking, when you leave this position at the FCC, either you have political ambitions, you try to go into political office – in which case, feathering the nest of major potential funders is a smart move – or you do what Michael Powell did and most members of FCC have done in the past: you go to work for the industry and make a seven-figure income capitalizing on your public service. So that’s his fallback position. If he can’t raise enough money to be a U.S. senator from North Carolina, he can make a million dollars-plus a year working for AT&T or Comcast or one of these big companies he’s theoretically regulating in the public interest.

PS: It’s been argued by some that this probably has to do with the pending purchase of the Chicago Tribune by Sam Zell. What I’ve heard is that this will serve him well in a market like Chicago. Basically, doesn’t the Tribune own WGN, the paper, all these different things? This would benefit him.

BM: If the rules change that are being proposed, he’d be at the top of the list of beneficiaries. There’s a lot of others there, but he’d be at the top of the list. It would be in reverse alphabetical order.

PS: Net neutrality: Can you tell us what it is and why we need to worry?

BM: Net neutrality is the principle that all websites are created equal – that if you start a website, you’ll have the same shot of getting through the system as a website owned by Microsoft or Rupert Murdoch. The genius of the Internet was never technology; it was always policy. It was the policy of network neutrality. It wasn’t built into the technology. It was something that was required by US telecommunication laws. It was a hard-won victory. And the big telecom, telephone and cable companies that now provide 98 percent of the broadband service in the United States hate it, because they basically want to make their websites come through faster – or websites that pay them off come through faster. If you don’t pay them off you get put on the dirt path. So they’re trying to get rid of net neutrality, that core founding principle.

They got the Bush administration FCC, under our good friend Martin, to renege on net neutrality in 2005, but we’ve been able to forestall it through a number of fights. But in the next two years, it’ll go one way or the other, and it’s absolutely imperative that we lock in the idea that all websites are created equal. Otherwise, we’re just going to have a supercharged digital version of a corporate oligopoly built into the technology now, not even just the marketplace.

PS: Give me a real-world example of what that’d mean.

BM: If you get rid of net neutrality, it means there will be a fast lane and a slow lane on the Internet. So there’s going to be really a tiered service. It’s built into the model that there’s a fast lane and a slow lane; there’ll be a digital divide. So you’ll pay more to get the fastest possible service at your end as a consumer. But the real measure will be: when you want to go on and buy a book, you aren’t going to have that many options, because the fast-lane options are going to be people that cut in with the phone or cable company and give them a piece of the action. For somebody to compete with them they've got to cut in a better deal with the phone or cable company or they’re going to be on the dirt trail – or banned altogether.

And I think we should also understand there’s a real political implication here. In Canada, where they don’t have net neutrality, the dominant cable company banned the website of the union when they had a strike, so people couldn’t see what the union had to say.

And I think we know already in the United States, that the phone company and the cable company have voluntarily participated in spying on the citizenry illegally. We have no reason to trust them whatsoever. Even if they were the most wonderful people on earth, you should never give a couple of institutions that much power over your free speech and free press. And they’re not the most wonderful people on earth, so case closed. It’s just a non-starter.

The National Conference on Media Reform, sponsored by Free Press, comes to Minneapolis June 6–8, 2008.

Photo via Grade the News

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