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“Big Media Gatekeepers Are America’s Embarrassment”: Why The Biggest Problem With The Media Is Not ‘Liberal Bias’

Lately, Republican presidential candidates have found a political target that’s easier to hit than their primary rivals or even Hillary Clinton: the media.

For instance, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) scolded the moderators of last month’s CNBC debate, saying, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) declared, “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” And more recently, Ben Carson accused the media of reporting “a bunch of lies” that called into question parts of his biography. “I think it’s pathetic, and basically what the media does is they try to get you distracted,” he said.

Republicans are right to criticize the mainstream media, but they are doing it for the wrong reasons. That’s because the biggest problem with the media today is not their alleged liberal bias. Rather, it’s a corporatized system that is rigged against the public interest and failing our democracy. If they are truly interested in making the media better, here are three principles that politicians from both parties should embrace.

  1. No more mergers. Earlier this year, Comcast abandoned its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable after the Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department signaled that they would oppose it. The collapse of the deal between the country’s two largest cable companies, which opponents argued would lead to higher prices and worse customer service, was an important victory for consumers and media reformers alike. As former FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote at the time, “combining America’s two largest cable providers would have been anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-democracy.” But the merger’s defeat, while critical, was only one battle in a much larger war against media conglomeratization.

Almost immediately after Comcast dropped out, Charter Communications, the fourth-largest cable company, initiated its own bid to take over Time Warner Cable. A coalition of reform groups, including Common Cause and Free Press, is campaigning against the deal and asking supporters to sign a letter of opposition to the FCC. “If the transaction were approved,” the coalition warns, “New Charter and Comcast together would form a national broadband duopoly controlling nearly two-thirds of existing customers and the telecommunications wires connected to nearly 8 out of every 10 U.S. homes.”

  1. Protect the open Internet. As I’ve written in the past, net neutrality is essential to our democracy because it preserves equal access to the Internet and prevents corporate interests from putting up barriers to the marketplace of ideas. In 2014, the FCC received about 4 million public comments on its proposed net neutrality rules, shattering the record set after Janet Jackson’s televised “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl a decade earlier. President Obama responded to the American people’s clear demands by calling on the FCC to adopt “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality,” specifically endorsing the reclassification of the Internet as a public utility.

The FCC approved important regulations in February despite the objections of cable and telecommunications companies, as well as near-unanimous opposition from Republican lawmakers. Cruz, for example, has disparaged net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet.” Though the rules went into effect earlier this year, the fight is not over. In addition to introducing legislation to repeal the regulations, a group of House Republicans filed a legal complaint in early November contending that the FCC lacked the authority to act on net neutrality without input from Congress.

  1. Enforce disclosure rules. The 2016 election is expected to cost significantly more than the $6 billion spent in 2012. According to one estimate, television ads alone will account for some $4.4 billion in spending, much of it from super PACs and secretive “dark money” groups. For now, the avalanche of big money in our politics is inevitable, but there is a way to better inform the public and hold billionaire donors accountable. As Copps wrote in 2013, “All we need is for an independent agency, the Federal Communications Commission, to enforce a campaign finance disclosure requirement that is already on the books.”

In fact, there has been a rule in place since 1934 that requires television broadcasters to disclose the “true sponsor” of all advertisements. If properly enforced, the rule would entitle viewers to see not only the name of the group sponsoring political ads but also the donors behind them. Last month, Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation sent a letter calling on the FCC to force the disclosure of who is paying for campaign ads. “Voters across the land are under assault from shadowy secret money groups,” said Copps, who is now an adviser to Common Cause. “The FCC has the authority it needs right now to shine a light on all those anonymous broadcast and cable ads.”

While the three principles above are essential, the mainstream media obviously have more problems, too: their dedication to false balance, their bias toward sensationalism, their neglect of consequential issues, their policing of the debate. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said during this weekend’s Democratic debate, “What I would like for the media now is for us to be talking about why the middle class is disappearing, why we have more people in jail than any other country, why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and we’re the only major country on Earth without paid family and medical leave. We’ve gotten off the Hillary’s e-mails, good. Let’s go to the major issues facing America.”

But the mainstream media will never do those issues justice as long as they are more accountable to powerful corporate interests than the people they serve. That’s why, as 2016 approaches, it’s as important as ever for keep building the movement for reform. “Without media reform, we simply cannot reform our country,” Copps told me. “No matter what issue a voter cares about, it won’t get anywhere with the media corporate-speak and infotainment that we’re being fed. Big media gatekeepers are America’s embarrassment.”

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 17, 2015

November 24, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Mainstream Media, Media Mergers | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“In The Interest Of The Public”: Barack Obama’s Plan To Save The Internet Is Perfect

This week, President Barack Obama came out in favor of net neutrality, the idea that all content on the internet should flow freely and equally without any intervention from service providers.

Specifically, Obama wants to categorize the internet under something called Title II, which would classify the internet as a utility, just like telephone lines.

This scares the pants off internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, etc. All of these companies have come out in favor of “the open internet,” but their definition of “open” is much different from what net neutrality purists want.

The fear is that unless ISPs are categorized under Title II, there could be a chilling effect on innovation when someone wants to create the next major internet company like Netflix, YouTube, or, say, Business Insider. ISPs could slow down content from the new companies in favor of their own content.

ISPs swear they don’t want to slow down rival content. And they are probably telling the truth. But under one proposal the FCC is considering, ISPs would, rather than slow down traffic, be able to make their web content get to you faster, giving them an advantage. So while ISPs and the FCC say all content on the internet will be equal, the reality is that some content will be more equal than the rest.

Critics say Obama’s proposal will stifle innovation because it will keep service costs low and slow down companies’ ability to invest more in infrastructure.

But the problem with that argument is that investment in building out broadband networks is already slowing, as Matthew Yglesias of Vox pointed out this spring. Telecom companies invested $17.65 billion in broadband between 2005 and 2008. But that investment fell to $12.24 billion between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, the cost of internet access continues to increase. Americans also get slower speeds for what they pay compared with other countries, according to the Open Technology Institute.

It’s also worth noting that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is a former telecom lobbyist, representing all the big ISPs. That makes it tough to trust that his proposals are in the interest of the public, not the ISPs.

That’s why Obama is right. ISPs have done nothing to prove that internet access won’t get more expensive over time. They have also done nothing to guarantee they won’t start favoring their services over those of rivals. As the proposals stand, there is still wiggle room for ISPs favor some content over others.

Obama’s Title II proposal is the only approach that guarantees the internet will be a level playing field for everyone. He put it best in his statement Monday:

For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.

In other words, the internet has become as vital to commerce and communications as phone lines were decades ago. Giving companies that have demonstrated only that they want to profit off that communication without investing in improving it and making it more affordable is a dangerous path.

 

By: Steve Kovach, Business Insider, November 12, 2014

November 16, 2014 Posted by | Internet, Net Neutrality | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sad But True”: The Only Way To Save The Open Internet Requires Sucking Up To Corporate Titans

The Internet as we know it will permanently change if new rules proposed this week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allow Comcast or AT&T to create a “fast lane” on the Web for companies that pay a fee. Content providers who buy off telecoms for faster speeds would simply outmuscle their counterparts, stifling innovation from startups that can’t afford to compete. If my local McDonald’s opened a special lane to their register that was closed to all competing traffic, while reaching the Burger King down the street required hacking through a mile of jungle, I’ll probably just get a Big Mac instead of a Whopper.

The FCC had to act, because of an appellate court ruling in January blocking their previous open Internet rules. But net neutrality advocates wanted the agency to reclassify broadband Internet as a common carrier service, as they do with telephones, preventing discrimination on whatever passes through the pipe. Instead, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, opted for an alternative that will enrich Internet service providers (ISPs) and lead to a permanent digital divide. Wheeler’s justification, that no content would face discrimination, but telecoms can charge for faster service, has been roundly criticized, and with good reason. But will anyone be able to mobilize against the powerful interests pushing through the proposed rules?

There’s a recent precedent for Internet-based mobilization actually bringing down a corporate giveaway that initially looked inevitable. In 2011, Congress appeared close to sneaking through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) just before the Christmas holidays. The bill would have empowered the government to compel ISPs to shut down websites based on subjective audio or video copyright claims. It was a giant wet kiss to the movie and music industries, a bill that would have effectively eliminated user-generated content on the Web (could Facebook be expected to police their entire site minute-by-minute for copyright infringement?) and allowed media conglomerates to take over. You won’t be surprised that the staffers in House Judiciary Committee chair Lamar Smith’s office who wrote the bill left right afterward to become entertainment industry lobbyists.

But the Internet, in a coordinated pushback, beat SOPA, amid virtual silence from broadcast media, whose parent companies supported the bill. Web users of all political stripes bombarded Congress. At one point, Tumblr announced they were generating 3.6 calls per second. On January 18, 2012, hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, participated in the largest Internet strike in history, redacting their content and posting links to help people register constituent complaints. Lawmakers walked away from the bill in droves; in the end, it never even got a vote.

The net neutrality fight shares some common elements with the SOPA battle. The universe of people affected—everyone who uses the Internet—is sufficiently big to enable a mass coalition. Demand Progress, a group active in the SOPA fight, has already begun to mobilize in conjunction with RootsAction, gathering 26,000 signatures on a petition in a matter of hours.

But the SOPA fight was truly trans-partisan, as conservatives made common cause with progressives against censorship of their websites. That potential doesn’t exist on net neutrality, as Republicans have rejected what they consider government regulation of the Internet. So the fight already begins with a narrower base. In addition, it’s easier to target individual members of Congress over proposed legislation, than rules from independent regulatory agencies (although, considering that the Obama Administration reaffirmed their commitment to net neutrality just two months ago, activists can try to hold them accountable).

Most important, net neutrality advocates likely need buy-in from corporate America. In a recent political science study, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern found that economic elites and organized business interests can have significant impact over public policy, while ordinary citizens just don’t. When the government acts in the interest of citizens at all, it’s often an accidental by-product of public preferences coincidentally matching those of business groups.

Many took this study to mean that the United States now functionally operates as an oligarchy rather than a democracy. It may actually mean that in America, citizens are typically disorganized on most public policy questions, particularly in an age of labor union decline, but can reverse that through mass organizing. Whatever your perspective, the SOPA fight offers a perfect case study. That effort really took off when Google, Reddit, and other major websites decided to join the fight, counterbalancing pressure on the other side from Hollywood. Tech giants knew that their businesses would be damaged by onerous copyright restrictions. The public interest and the interests of at least one set of elites aligned.

It’s not yet clear whether the same coalition will materialize to fight the FCC. The larger incumbent content providers, like Yahoo and Google, may well like paying for a faster Internet pipe, because it narrows competition to those who are already established. Netflix has already started paying for priority speeds, in a deal with Comcast for better back-end transit. In addition, Google is both a content producer and, through Google Fiber, an Internet service provider, and can reap profits by charging tolls for their fast lane. The company has been veering away from net neutrality for quite some time. Notably, the Internet Association, a coalition featuring Google, eBay, Netflix and other tech bigwigs, has said nothing about the FCC’s proposed rules yet, despite nominally supporting net neutrality. Google did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

This transformation by Google and others is common. As formerly upstart companies mature, they suddenly grow comfortable with regulations that favor incumbency—as long as they’re the incumbents. For a movement-based response to the FCC to succeed, activists must peel off companies willing to stay true to their word, and essentially rebuild a new corporate coalition that can engage their user base.

Netflix seems like an obvious choice. Despite their previous dealings, the streaming video giant has lashed out against Comcast for “arbitrary interconnection tolls,” and publicly opposed the merger between Comcast and Time Warner. Surely Netflix executives understand that a telecom industry freed to charge for faster broadband speeds will be able to raise prices over the years, and gouge incumbents. Netflix can go along with the arms race, or help to end it before it begins. Their leadership will attract smaller Internet players that can take more risks, because a pay-to-play Internet really does threaten their survival.

In this case, you can easily recognize the seeds of mass mobilization, which may provide enough political cover for a Netflix or Twitter to act. Tech communities with big audiences have responded to the FCC announcement with outrage. People intuitively know and resist the concentration of power controlling the tools they use every day. Several Democrats have criticized the proposal, from Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Nancy Pelosi, who actually urged people to contact the FCC with their criticisms. The ferocity of the backlash may have rocked the FCC back on their heels a bit, but time is short, with a May 15 meeting to move forward on the proposal looming.

But the sad fact of modern political life is that democratic action requires more than mere expressions of dissent, or the expectation that politicians who share our tribal sympathies will work on our behalf. To reach the critical mass necessary to succeed, savvy political organizing in the 21st century now includes convincing the business sector to recognize their interests and when they’re imperiled.

 

By: David Dayen, The New Republic, April 24, 2014

April 26, 2014 Posted by | Cable Companies, Corporations, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Coming Soon, The United States Of Comcast”: Comcast Time-Warner Merger Will Create Orwellian Monopoly

In George Orwell’s 1984, the world is divided into three totalitarian superstates, but in the world of broadband and cable television only a single company may soon reign supreme. Comcast announced today it has agreed to acquire Time-Warner, its largest and only significant competitor in the cable and broadband business.

Some financial analysts are claiming Verizon will still provide stiff competition to the new mega-company. “Verizon is offering video service in the most markets Comcast is participating in,” a Yahoo Finance reporter declared. But Verizon’s FiOS service is available to only 15 percent of Comcast’s existing customers, and in the fall 2011, Comcast and Verizon reached an agreement that solidified Comcast’s control over the non-wireless industry. In exchange for parts of the wireless spectrum that Comcast owned, Verizon agreed not to expand its FiOS network, which offers far superior service to that of Comcast or Time-Warner.

The combined company would now serve about thirty percent of the cable television market. That doesn’t seem large until you realize that it would have a virtual monopoly in 19 of the 20 largest media markets. (Here’s a useful map.) It would also serve over half of the customers who buy “triple-play” cable-telephone-broadband services. (I haven’t seen figures on the companies’ high-speed internet penetration, but according to the National Broadband Plan, only about 15 percent of consumers have a choice of more than one plan.) The companies claim that the merger wouldn’t threaten consumers because they operate in different markets. But that’s ludicrous. The merger would replace two monopolists (that is, very large companies with monopoly power over a market) by an even more powerful single monopoly, even better equipped to discourage competition.

Large companies, even monopolies, are not necessarily contrary to the public interest if they are strictly and intelligently regulated. But in the wake of the 1996 telecommunications act (which idiotically assumed that deregulation would lead to competition) and a pliant Federal Communications Commission, the big telecom companies have progressively avoided regulation. As a result, they are already committing many of the abuses that come with monopoly power, and if the new merger passes muster, will do so with a vengeance.

Monopolies make it more difficult for new entrants to compete. As a result, they allow the larger companies to raise prices without fearing a loss of market share. Since deregulation in 1996, cable prices have risen at about three times the rate of inflation. According to a study from the Free Press, prices for expanded cable service (what most consumers purchase) went up five percent from 2008 top 2013 –almost four times the rate of inflation. Monopolies also allow companies to neglect service to consumers. The American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Comcast and Time-Warner the two worst cable and broadband companies.

Monopolies can also have a corrosive effect on related industries. The big cable companies have been able to squeeze cable content providers—even to cut off access to customers, as Time-Warner did with CBS last fall.  If they also own content providers, as Comcast does, they can harm rival content providers—as Comcast seems to be doing to Netflix.

Monopolies also slow innovation, because companies have less incentive to replace older equipment. That was a major argument for the breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in 1982. According to a report from the New America Foundation’s, Open Technology Institute, the United States has lagged behind other countries in the price and quality of its broadband service. The American city with the highest quality internet is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which gets its service from a municipally owned provider.

Under the new merger, the new company—let’s call it Xsanity—will be in an even stronger position to raise prices, neglect service to its customers, squeeze content providers, harm rival content providers and slow innovation. If local, state or national officials attempt to police them, the single big company will have even greater clout. Of course, Comcast will promise to keep prices down, enforce net neutrality, and spur innovation. There is reason, however, not to take these promises seriously.

When Comcast and Verizon were seeking FCC approval of their agreement in 2011, they promised that they would create a technology/research and development joint venture. Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen told a Senate Subcommittee that “by enhancing the Cable Companies’ and Verizon Wireless’s own products and services, the Joint Venture will … spur other companies to respond, perpetuating a cycle of competitive investment and innovation.” Two years later, the two companies abandoned the joint venture.

In short, the only beneficiary of these merger will be Xsanity’s management and stock holders. Consumers will get screwed. The American telecom/broadband industry, already lagging behind South Korea and other upstarts, will fall further behind. Of course, the FCC or the Justice Department could block the merger. But what has happened before does not inspire confidence. Obama’s Justice Department did threaten to block the merge of AT&T and T-Mobile, USA, but Comcast has strong ties to the administration—Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts is one of Obama’s golfing buddies and Cohen has been a major fundraiser—and in the past, the administration has been soft on the company. The FCC approved the merger of Comcast and NBC and the agreement between Comcast and Verizon.

The merger of these giants on the top of American business—not simply insulated from regulation but with the power and money to block any future attempt at regulation—is an awful prospect to contemplate, but it could well come to pass.

 

By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, February 13, 2014

February 16, 2014 Posted by | Cable Companies, Telecommunications | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Circle Of Corruption”: Guess Who’s Profiting Most From Super PACs?

Candidates may raise the unprecedented sums of political cash being funneled through Super PACs this year, and media strategists may decide how to spend them – but the people who actually wind up pocketing much of the money are America’s television broadcasters. Since the Supreme Court voided limits on political donations in Citizens United, more money than ever is being devoted to negative TV ads. Industry analysts predict that upwards of $3 billion will be spent on political advertising this year – a surge of more than $500 million over 2008.

“Election season has turned into Black Friday for broadcasters,” says Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which fights for transparency in elections. “It’s just a huge bonanza.”

While TV stations are required by law to offer discounted airtime to politicians, Super PACs have to pay market rates. With these outside groups expected to buy more than half the ads benefiting the Romney campaign, the increased competition to place ads in battleground states only serves to drive up the price. In a key market like Columbus, Ohio, where campaign spots are already airing at a record pace, the ad buys are expected to exceed the haul from 2008, when political ads made up half of all TV spots purchased during the final week of the election.

In essence, broadcasters are now profiteering from a vicious circle of corruption: Politicians are beholden to big donors because campaigns are so expensive, and campaigns are so expensive because they’re fought through television ads. The more cash that chases limited airtime, the more the ads will cost, and the more politicians must lean on deep-pocketed patrons. In short, the dirtier the system, the better for the bottom line at TV stations and cable systems. According to an analysis by Moody’s, political ads are expected to account for as much as seven cents of every dollar broadcasters earn over the full two-year election cycle for 2012.

The influx of political cash also means that TV news divisions have what Allison calls a “huge conflict of interest” when it comes to reporting on campaign finance. The profit motive stifles critical coverage of top donors and meaningful reforms, such as public financing of elections. “Broadcasters have an incentive not to see the system changed,” he says.

But while there’s no hope of curbing campaign spending in the near term, a new FCC rule could soon give the public real-time data about who is profiting from the Super PAC marathon. In April, the commission ruled that affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the nation’s 50 biggest markets must post their revenue from political ads online, for all to see. (Such records have long been public – just inaccessible, kept in paper form in files at each station.) The reform would help expose some of the “dark money” spending by mega-donors like the Koch brothers, but it’s only a modest start: Many communities in battleground states – like Fort Myers, Florida, and Reno, Nevada – are located in smaller markets that are not covered by the new rule. A study by the Campaign Media Analysis Group suggests that at least 40 percent of spending on over-the-airwaves presidential ads may remain exempt from disclosure.

But the rule’s shortcomings haven’t kept broadcasters and their GOP allies from going all out to stop it. In June, Republicans on the House Financial Services Subcommittee voted to block disclosure and enable donors to operate in secrecy. And on July 10th, the National Association of Broadcasters filed an emergency motion to postpone the rule, arguing that it will allow cable and other competitors to undercut their business. “Shifting even a small percentage of this advertising away from television,” the NAB confessed, would cost TV stations “millions of dollars in revenue.”

The rule is scheduled to go into effect in August – but the NAB move could delay it until well after the election. One bright spot: Time Warner has voluntarily begun posting online rec­ords of its political ad buys, even though the new FCC rule doesn’t apply to cable companies. Its records are not sortable by dollar amounts – so the public can’t quickly tally how much money the Obama campaign is spending on, say, ESPN2. But voters can now examine individual ad buys. In Columbus, for example, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, one of the largest and most notorious dark-money groups, has booked three daytime ads to run on Fox News during the last week of October. The spots may be designed to aid Romney and the GOP, but Time Warner will enjoy a tidy bit of political profiteering: The cable company is charging $24 per ad – a staggering 12 times what the same ads would have cost in May.

 

By: Tim Dickinson, RollingStone.com, August 6, 2012 (This story is from the August 16th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone).

August 11, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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