Things don’t turn out so well when the boundaries of a debate are determined by just one side. It’s all but impossible to carry on a vibrant national dialogue when the parameters of our conversations are demarcated by powerful interests that profit from limiting the discussion and that know how to use the tools of communications to keep contrasting viewpoints off-limits. The civic dialogue that results is neither civic nor is it a dialogue. It is a ballgame that is fixed before the first pitch is thrown.
A number of authors and commentators have shown how the parameters of our national discourse have shifted significantly rightward in recent years. Fueled by huge infusions of special interest cash and polarized ideology, yesterday’s mainstream Democrat is depicted as today’s “liberal” and today’s mainstream Republican is yesterday’s “conservative”—often on steroids. “Moderate” is a term fighting for its life in a campaign world of increasing ideological certitude. The “vital center” has been sucked into a black hole.
Another way to put it: right- and center-field have become one, and left-field is out-of-bounds. Special interests have bought the stadium where the political “games” are played; they’ve drawn the chalk lines on what is fair and foul; and they’ve spent billions recruiting players who can knock the ball over the right-field fence.
The upcoming national elections are presented as budget deficit-centric contests in which candidates vie for “most hawkish” in their prescriptions for government-by-austerity. Good luck getting into the game if you’re not on the “deficits first” roster. Austerity seems to be every candidate’s mantra, even though Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and others have persuasively demonstrated what a poor prescription austerity is for the economic recovery America requires. Pity the candidate foolish enough to suggest that massive investment in our collapsing infrastructures (and in the infrastructures of the future, like broadband) may be the last, best hope for our dangerously-imperiled economy. Other than deficits, campaign coverage is all about horse-races, polls and “gotcha” politics.
It’s happening in telecommunications and media, too. Real issues are mostly out-of-bounds and what is covered is disproportionately influenced by the power of big, increasingly corporate, and usually anonymous money.
Here are a few examples:
DATA CAPS AND BROADBAND. “Sorry,” the big companies tell us. “You consumers are such data hogs gobbling up the spectrum that we’ve got to ration what you get and charge you more for it.” While price differentials between those who consume a little data and others who consume a lot may be part of the conversation eventually, we shouldn’t even be considering that at this stage of the game. There is just too much evidence that the big broadband providers operate a scarcity-based plan that works really well for their quarterly reports, but one that would be up-ended if they went out and invested in the increased broadband capacity consumers will need. Broadband strategist Blair Levin put it well in a recent speech: “When it comes to the wireline access network, instead of talking about upgrades, we are talking about caps and tiers. Instead of talking about investment for growth, we are talking about harvesting for dividends.” Make no mistake: America is not going to have the telecommunications infrastructure its future so urgently needs without a national commitment, public as well as private, to increase our broadband performance by orders of magnitude. We cannot harvest our future without planting the seeds for our future. It’s something we need to talk about—before the land goes barren.
INTERMODAL COMPETITION. When I became an FCC Commissioner in 2001, everyone was talking up the benefits of competition among wireline, wireless, cable and satellite services. Going toe-to-toe against one another would keep consumer prices down, accelerate innovative new products and services, and avoid monopolies and duopolies in the new world of broadband. Indeed, that’s what the Telecommunications Act of 1996 envisioned. And even some of those on the Commission with whom I disagreed on specific policy “cuts” nevertheless paid obeisance at the altar of intermodal. But dozens of subsequent bad calls got in the way of that competitive future. Broadband access was removed from effective oversight at the federal level; state public utility commissions were cut out of their public oversight responsibilties via full-court big company lobbying campaigns in the state capitals; and nascent competitors were forced out of business almost before the ink was dry on their incorporation papers. These developments seldom made the news people read. Instead, the big telecom/broadband providers succeeded in moving the debate to one between “regulation” (always bad) and “de-regulation” (always good).
The big guys lost one opportunity to ratchet up the score even more when the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission stopped the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile deal. But they’re still way ahead in the count, and now these government agencies are being asked to approve a new Verizon-cable cabal that could be the final deadweight that breaks competition’s back. Verizon will no longer have a potentially major competitor to worry about as it deploys its wireless services, and cable will reign uncontested in the truly high-capacity wireline and fiber networks that are the essential backbone of Twenty-first century communications. This transaction, and the anti-consumer, anti-competitive marketing agreement that accompanies it, should evoke a prompt and stern “No” from the Department of Justice. It is the obligation of those who administer the anti-trust statutes to find a way to stop such colossal collusion. The FCC, entrusted with competitive and consumer concerns transcending anti-trust, should also deliver a resounding “No.” The consolidation and cableization of the Internet are not what its inventors envisioned.
POLITICAL ADS AND THE MEDIA. Political advertising on the media has become a multi-billion dollar business. This year’s media take will surpass all previous records. Candidates spend much of their days, weeks, week-ends and even vacations pleading for dollars to finance their media buys. (Isn’t it ironic that the campaigns hit us up for money so they can pay broadcasters to use the people’s airwaves to run those awful ads we then have to watch?) SuperPacs, special interest “independent” groups, and corporations are front-and-center in the great electoral hoe-down. (Little known fact-in-the-making: the SuperPacs and these other groups have already bought up so much of the available advertising time between now and November that the candidates themselves may not be able to find the time slots they want to buy. Talk about poetic justice!)
The Citizens United decision of the U. S. Supreme Court to unleash unlimited and unaccountable corporate and other funds into our campaign contributions system was a body blow to our country’s political process (and it doesn’t look any better just because the High Court made a less hidebound decision on health care). The long-term corrective to this decision is a Constitutional Amendment making clear that elections can’t be bought by special interests.
Unfortunately, the principal debate we’re having so far is whether TV stations should be required to put their current political files online. That’s obviously a good idea in an age when everything else is going online—but it doesn’t do a thing about identifying who it is that is trying to sway our votes and win elections. The current files don’t disclose the information people need to know—because the FCC hasn’t used its authority to make sure those files are updated to reflect the new world of SuperPacs, “independent” political organizations, and unregulated spending that today imperil our electoral system. So putting those current records online won’t add enough light to illuminate a glove compartment. Even with such a requirement—should it take full effect—we still won’t know anything more about the ads we’re being inundated with during this seemingly endless campaign season—ads that will proliferate exponentially in the four months ahead. The current files at the station tell us that, say, the “Committee for a Red, White and Blue America” (I made that up) paid for the ad you’re seeing. But neither in the station file nor the online file will we have a clue about who funds that committee and is really paying for the ad. If the “Committee for Pure Air” (I did it again!) is really a chemical company refusing to clean up a toxic dump, citizens have a need to know that. We have a right to know who is doing the paying and the swaying. Of course the broadcasters, intent to keep the spotlight away from the real issue of whose money it is, are crying tears (and, no surprise, suing the FCC) about making more public that which is already public. That buys them months, maybe more, to run anonymous ads from unaccountable interests.
Meanwhile, the FCC could be following up on authority it already has in Section 317 of the Communications Act to require full disclosure of “the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” buying these ad slots. Legendary FCC Chairman Newton Minow and former General Counsel Henry Geller have also cited this existing authority. It’s a tool sitting there waiting to be used. Would the broadcasters sue again? Of course. But that would be a fight worth having, wouldn’t it?
MORE CONSOLIDATED MEDIA. Another discussion we should be having is about what’s really happening to our media. This is the most important dialogue of all, because media incapable or unwilling to tee up the other issues I have touched on means there will be no viable dialogue. And that is pretty much where we are: newsrooms decimated, investigative journalism fast becoming a lost art, and citizens fed a toxic brew of infotainment and ideology that is drastically at variance with the needs of the country. As consolidation grows, real news shrinks. Yet the urge to merge continues. Big Media would like us to believe that the era of consolidation is over, but a new study from the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism tells us, for example, that sales of local TV stations were back over $1 billion last year, a nearly ten-fold increase from the previous year. Transactions involving Comcast-NBCU, Sinclair, and more than 50 stations prove the case. And often it is hedge funds and private equity buying up stations. (Now there’s a challenge to the good stewardship of our airwaves!) Life can’t be easy for the small, independent broadcaster who tries against these heavy odds to serve the public interest. Luckily we still have some of those, but they’re living in a hostile environment.
Just as so much of big media lost sight of the public interest, so too has the public sector defaulted. Government has for a generation been AWOL in encouraging a media environment that better serves democracy. Allowing privileged interests to stage the debate, skirt the real issues, and buy our votes with anonymous money hoodwinks voters, undermines citizenship, and mocks self-government. We need media that can dig for facts, cut through the bull, and tee up what’s really at stake—not just for a better media, but for a better America.