Thursday, February 17, 2005

New York Times Swings Late, and Misses

The biggest news from the digital frontier may be the advent of Community Internet – low-cost, high-speed broadband services provided by municipal governments and community groups via local networks.

Hundreds of cities and towns – from Philadelphia and San Francisco to Granbury, Texas, and Scottsburg, Ind. – recognize broadband Internet access as a public necessity, no different from water, gas or electricity. Especially in rural and underserved urban areas, Community Internet promises to narrow the digital divide.

Telecom and cable companies are pushing laws across the country that would restrict local competition and cut off consumer choice. This newsworthy battle finally graced the front-page of the New York Times on Feb. 17, with a story pegged to Philadelphia’s ambitious plans to turn the city into “one gigantic wireless hot spot.”

The real problem with James Dao’s piece wasn’t its tardiness – other papers covered similar ground months ago – but the way the Times failed to question the true motivations of its sources.

The first quote in the story goes to Adam Thierer, identified as “director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan.” He tells the Times: “The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.”

Dao fails to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications — all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems. Thierer is little more than an industry sock puppet.

Dao then goes on to interview David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who asks: “Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?”

Fair enough. But again, Dao fails to alert readers to Cohen’s web of interests that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor’s mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector.

But Cohen still has Rendell’s ear, which might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed a bill into law last December that prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering competitive broadband services. Though the Philadelphia plan secured a last-minute reprieve, the rest of the state got shafted.

And Comcast – so concerned about the spending of its tax dollars – is more than happy to take public handouts. To finance the Comcast Center, which will be Philadelphia’s tallest skyscraper when it’s completed in 2007, Rendell put together a state aid package worth $42.75 million. The state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in another $12.75 million in grants and tax credits. Dao doesn’t mention it.

But Dao does give Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe the chance to remind readers that “government doesn’t do service well.” Tell that to the 40 percent of Philadelphians without access to broadband service.

Dao later wrote in an email to MediaCitizen that he was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. "But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices," he wrote. "This story was being relentless cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details."

Dao is free to prioritize those aspects of the story he finds most important. But it's hard to understand why he would choose to downplay this unseemly tale of collusion between corporations, state government and coin-operated think tanks like Cato and the dubious New Millennium Research Council, which are at the center of a well-funded campaign to paint municipal broadband as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

In fact, the opposite is true. Community Internet creates free-market competition, allows consumer choice, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. Municipal networks are proving a win-win for local politicians: They're relatively cheap to build and city officials gain points from bringing technology – and resulting economic opportunity – to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.

As Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief technology officer, asked of Verizon and Comcast in a recent column for ZDNet: “When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they’re really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven’t they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?”

All good questions. Perhaps the Times should have explored them further.

(written with Craig Aaron of Free Press)

11 comments:

Timothy Karr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard said...

When it comes to technology, the Times coverage reminds me of a huge lumbering oil tanker trying to get into a very small port. It takes hours to get to its destination, usually gets there late & finds it impossible to manuver into proper position.

It's just too big, unwieldy & stuck in convention to keep up with emerging technology trends.

This is of course a diff. angle than the one you mentioned here (ie. its inability to analyze the conflicts on interest of its informants). And you are of course right on this issue.

datadave said...

Nice research. I am pissed that my cell phone carrier is supporting the far-Right Libertarian Cato Institute. But it's not surprizing. I think Libertarians are on a roll... and our nation is threatened by that.

We need a combination of govt. and business to secure our prosperity...when govt. is made bankrupt and weakened by "business" (i.e. the "Rich") there's always a disaster pending: few public works, massive poverty, etc. Haiti comes to mind.

It's fairly obvious that we are overcharged by telephone companies for technology that is mostly derived from govt. funded research...(like the internet..) So why shouldn't the public control a public good like the internet?

Anonymous said...

This is a print guy?

They have to try to write a story that a mass audience that can't be assumed to know what "broadband access" means will want to read.

It would be a nice series of contests for bloggers, to explain aspects of the Web to people who've never seen a computer in 10th grade reading level terms.

Timothy Karr said...

Jim Dao of teh Times sent me a note via email. My response follows in the next comment:

= = = = =
Tim,

Steve Miller passed your web piece on to me and I had a few comments.

First, the Times did write about Philadelphia months ago. At least twice, in fact. (stories not by me). Sorry you missed them. But that was one of the reasons we wrote about it again: those stories had been buried. And it seemed a good time to push the issue onto the front page because Street may soon announce his plan.

Second, I was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices. This story was being relentless cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details.

And here's why. The story was not about Rendell's signing of the legislation. (That was one of the stories you missed). So details about why Rendell might have signed it, and Cohen's relationship with Rendell, would have been extraneous. (Rendell, needless to say, would have liked me to have included details about why the bill was good; also, in my mind, extraneous to this piece).

The story was about the broader debate between municipalities and the industry over who should provide this service. And I think the piece made it more than clear that the industry is fighting these projects because it is worried about competition. For most readers, that is all the context they would need to understand where Cohen and Rabe are coming from, don't you think?

As for Cato, well, here's my view: Many Times readers will know that Cato is a ferociously free-market organization. Their view on municipal Internet service would have been predictable without knowing where they got their money. The same could not have been said about a lesser known organization, such as the Millennium Research Council, or whatever it is called, whose relationship to the industry might need more explaining. I do not think that Cato, whatever one thinks of its positions, is a front organization for an industry. But I don't entirely reject your assertion that the funding sources for think tanks, even well known ones, should be mentioned. Perhaps we should do more of that.

Finally, your article leaves the impression that my piece was somehow naively tilted toward the industry. That just seems patently unfair. It may include more industry quotes than you wanted to see, but a close analysis would show it has as much if not more from advocates of municipal Internet projects. Personally, I think helping readers see how a person like Denise Stoner benefits from wifi is as important, perhaps more so in this context, than knowing where Cato's funding comes from.

You may disagree, but then that's the beauty of a blog. You can fill in where we left off or did not have the room to explain things in such detail. I applaud your role in doing that. I just object to what seems to me an unfair portrayal of the piece.

Cheers,

Jim

Timothy Karr said...

To which I have responded:

= = = = =
Jim,

Thanks for writing . . . . You bring up several very good points that I would like to share with my readers, if that's OK.

I'd like to address them here as well.

First, yes, I had read all of The Times coverage of Philadelphia's municipal wireless initiative. My complaint was not that The Times had ignored the story, but that your February 17 report did little to shed new light on territory already traversed by others.

The community broadband movement is at a critical moment. I'm pleased that The Times has given it prominent play. Though, from the perspective of one who is steeped in the debate, the most important new development is the collusion among government officials, corporations and think tanks -- such as the Cato Institute, the New Millennium Research Council and the Progress and Freedom Foundation -- to stamp out homegrown broadband initiatives before they take flight.

The common thread linking the think tanks is financial support from the likes of Verizon, SBC Communications, Qwest, Time Warner and Comcast, the same corporations that have been actively lobbying legislators to introduce prohibitive legislation in State Houses across the country (for more on this, visit Free Press' Community Internet site at http://freepress.net/communityinternet)

Too often, journalists fail to make these connections -- taking comments and data from these coin-operated think tanks at face value without revealing the conflicts of interest that would impugn their research. To assume that Times readers already know from where this information comes does a disservice to the record.

An report discrediting community internet issued by The New Millennium Research Council, for example, has been cited nearly a dozen times by journalists in the two-and-a-half weeks since its release. Not a single reporter bothered to let their readers in on the fact that NMRC receives money from many of the corporate telecom and cable providers mentioned above.

I'm pleased that The Times is open to doing more on this. Too much is at stake to let corporate interests steamroll innovative local efforts to bring broadband into rural and underserved urban areas.

This is not just a business story about the battle between corporations and local governments. It's about giving people more choice in determining the means by which broadband crosses that "last mile." News organizations like The Times could do much to educate Americans about their role in determining the future of media. Telling the story from the perspective of Denise Stoner was helpful to that end.

The MediaCitizen report was not meant to attack you personally. It was about bringing this debate to a wider audience, which is all for the good.

Regards,

Tim

cc: Craig Aaron, Free Press

Anonymous said...

I've been following the progression concerning the introduction of RFID chips into just about everything. The ultimate objective is to track and trace everything we own and us via the wifi networks. Ownership of the network would give the government easy access to one's browsing history, email, and such. Government is IN the pocket of the corporations and BOTH are trying to get control of our privacy.Add to this Philadelphia's history of corruption--once again a reasonable sounding idea is being used to get us to pay taxes for our own enslavement. I believe this debate hides the real story--paying for the tracking and tracing system government wants in place. see http://www.nocards.org and http://www.infowars.com for more information on the control grid being put in place

datadave said...

That was a great interchange of ideas and criticisms between Jim and Tim, but saying this sounds like Dr. Phil. Sorry. as to last post:
I have my doubts about WiFi. I'd like it to happen but being highly mobile, cell phones still top the list of viable communication apparati. The heavy, bulky pda/cellphone/wifi/blackberry units are interesting but not likely to catch on.

(the last anon.): Worried about enslavement? Rarely in our history has the majority not been enslaved by need, work, family, sickness. Worrying about communication devices enslaving us shouldn't be a hindrance to staying in the market of ideas. For one thing there are so many "dissidents" here in the US, the 'authorities' can't keep up with us.

Phil said...

Why is the internet and technology moving so fast? Because the government has kept their hands out of it all!!

Ever tried calling your phone company and dealing with those wastes of space? I don't want my internet to be that way! ..and that's what will happen when Uncle Sam steps in. Even here in ultra left-wing Finland we don't have TOO much state involvement in the internet.

About CATO - they support libertarian principles, it has nothing to do with where they get their money from. Opposing state-controlled internet is very much a libertarian principle. If CATO suddenly received funding Michael Moore (for instance), they wouldn't start pushing his left-wing agenda.

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