Friday, April 29, 2005

Declan Does Broadband

A "Talk of the Nation" broadcast attempts to cover the landscape on community wireless. It's worth a listen from beginning to end and my hat's off to NPR for slotting more than 30-minutes for this. Though, it's not without its shortcomings. Shortest among them was NPR's choice of on-air "expert," Declan McCullagh of CNet News, whose grasp of the wireless issue hardly qualifies him for sage comment.

According to Sascha Meinrath, call-in questions from NPR listeners provided more information and insight than McCullagh's often inaccurate answers. Such is the state of many journalists tasked with covering this important story. Those who are employed to ferret truth from lies often succumb to the spin emanating from Verizon, Comcast, Qwest, SBC Communications and the other commercial broadband incumbents.

McCullagh: How's My Driving?
McCullagh states that many municipal wireless systems use "old technology" (the 802.11b that's common to millions of wireless users) without noting that the newer technology (802.16) has yet to become a standard.

McCullagh hasn't spent much time investigating municipal wireless initiatives across the country. Had he done his leg work, CNet's political correspondent would have found a corps of intelligent, eager and innovative technology officers who to a person -- in my investigations at least -- are aware of the latest technologies in play and capable of upgrading their municipal systems to improve service.

In McCullagh's defense, CNet has tasked him with covering all issues at the intersection of technology and politics, which is no small feat for even the most adept journalist. It seems, though, that he's spread himself a mile wide and an inch deep.

Guests Ed Schwartz (executive committee member of Wireless Philadelphia) and Brad Mayer (information services manager from the city of Chaska) fill in the blanks. Their competency helped deflate the corporate spin emanating from other on-air commentators, especially as regards municipalities lacking the credentials to provide broadband to their citizens.

In the interest of balance, NPR brought on Verizon's VP of Media Relations Eric Rabe who serves his master well by repeating their standard, fact-challenged critique of government-subsidized systems. He fails, however, to note that it was under the stewardship of predatory and anti-competitive commercial broadband providers (such as Verizon) that America fell from 4th to 16th in national broadband penetration; or that Verizon is responsible for circulating to journalists and legislators a series of false "talking points" in a brazen attempt to tear down municipal broadband initiatives.

(You can read more about that in the excellent report by my colleagues Ben Scott and Frannie Wellings.)

Rabe also fails to mention that it was his company that pressured Pennsylvania lawmakers to introduce House Bill 30 (a bill authored largely by Verizon lawyers) that prohibits towns and cities from offering cheap broadband to their citizens without getting the prior approval of the local commercial service provider (which, in most cases, is Verizon). This is akin to requiring a city to seek prior approval from Barnes & Noble before building a library.

It would have been nice to have heard Rabe's response to that. Alas, you won't find it on NPR.

NPR is right to cover this story. It's also right to air the corporate view on this issue. Sadly, many in the media feel they've done their job by merely airing opposing points. When one side is spreading falsehoods, however, its incumbent upon journalists to know enough about the issue to skewer the lies.

Put the Public Back in PBS

We have just announced a plan to "take public broadcasting to the people," working with the Consumers Union, Commom Cause and the Consumer Federation of America to propose a series of local hearings across the country where the public will talk directly to broadcasters and policymakers about the future of public broadcasting.

In a report released today, "A New Standard: Building a Public Broadcasting System that Deserves Public Support," Free Press called for "a public ascertainment process" before lawmakers and bureaucrats attempt to set politically motivated standards for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and other public broadcasters.

The report recommends a series of town meetings that include a broad array of constituencies, elected officials, and decision makers from local PBS and other noncommercial stations. It was released following a series of recent statements by politicians, bureaucrats and commentators that questioned the viability of PBS and other noncommercial media.

Recent appointments to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) raise additional concerns that a partisan agenda may have overtaken the agency that Congress put in place to safeguard public broadcasters from political interference and commercial pressure.

Many across the political spectrum seem willing to abandon public broadcasting, allowing it to turn it into a purely commercial enterprise. It is critical to bring viewers out to talk about what they want and how they would like to get it. And the only way to save PBS and other noncommercial media is from the bottom up.

Policy and programming decisions should not be based on the perceived interests of the public deduced by partisan political leaders and bureaucrats.

Friday, April 22, 2005

America: A Broadband Backwater

Thomas Bleha's story in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs proves essential reading (esp since the publication is held in such high esteem among influential DC wonks). While he seems intent on skirting the municipal broadband issue, he gives thorough background on how an industry-friendly FCC and White House failed to open the sector to healthy competition.

Some pointers:

In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only "basic" broadband, among the slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world . . .
In the industry's pocket, our leaders refuse to take decisive action:
. . . In the administration's first three years, President George W. Bush mentioned broadband just twice and only in passing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) showed little interest in opening home telephone lines to outside competitors to drive down broadband prices and increase demand. . .
Meanwhile, the US falls to the back of the pack:
. . . It is now clear that Japan and its neighbors will lead the charge in high-speed broadband over the next several years. South Korea already has the world's greatest percentage of broadband users, and last year the absolute number of broadband users in urban China surpassed that in the United States. . .

. . . It is these countries, rather than the United States, that will benefit from the enhanced productivity, economic growth, and new jobs that high-speed broadband will bring. . .
And loses out on billions in economic benefits:
. . . In 2001, Robert Crandall, an economist at the Brookings Institution, and Charles Jackson, a telecommunications consultant, estimated that "widespread" adoption of basic broadband in the United States could add $500 billion to the U.S. economy and produce 1.2 million new jobs. But Washington never promoted such a policy. Last year, another Brookings economist, Charles Ferguson, argued that perhaps as much as $1 trillion might be lost over the next decade due to present constraints on broadband development. . .
Bleha thinks its because the broadband monopolies and duopolies refuse to open their lines to market competitiors:

. . . regional telephone companies relentlessly tried to reverse some of the promising measures that had been taken under President Clinton. Continuing efforts they had launched after the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed, they lobbied legislators and sought court decisions to overturn regulations that had forced them to open their residential telephone lines to competitors. . .

. . . at the urging of regional telephone companies, a court reaffirmed an earlier ruling that these companies need not share their residential lines with DSL competitors. Although many expected an appeal, higher levels of the administration chose not to challenge the decision. Thus, broadband competition over residential telephone lines was effectively killed. A proven strategy had been lost. . .

The reasons for industry reluctance to provide ubiquitous broadband are simple, Bleha states:
. . . cheap, high-speed broadband would lead to widespread use of Internet telephones and thus threaten the phone companies' lucrative voice-telephone business, and more inexpensive broadband would multiply outside video and movie offerings and endanger the cable companies' profitability. So, although both the telephone and cable companies could provide cheap, high-speed broadband if they chose to, they are not rushing to develop it.
While Bleha's conclusion puts far too much faith in the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee -- a group of private-sector IT leaders and academics -- to take decisive action to advance broadband deployment, he does paint a fairly complete picture of America's broadband bungling.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Challenge Lowry's 'Distinguished Service Award'

View the video
Later today in Las Vegas I and my colleague Josh Silver will announce the nominees for The Big Media Hall of Shame. The five nominees, all prominent media and government figures, will be saluted for their public disservice and contributions to media consolidation. Our announcement was made in conjunction with the National Association of Broadcasters' annual Las Vegas trade show. Moments after the NAB honors Clear Channel Chairman Lowry Mays with a “Distinguished Service Award,” we will officially nominate the radio executive to the Hall of Shame.

Check out our video for the event:

Real Player
Media Player

“The irony of the industry bestowing Lowry Mays with its ‘Distinguished Service Award’ has not escaped the public interest community,” said Josh. “Clear Channel’s predatory business practices have replaced local voices and independent music across the country with cookie-cutter programming piped in from corporate headquarters. Of course, for Mays, radio is never about providing quality news or great music – it’s only about pushing products to his listeners.”

Joining Mays in the inaugural class of nominees for Hall of Shame are Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp.; former FCC Chairman Michael Powell; Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; and Sinclair Broadcast Group Chairman and CEO David Smith.

Over the next four weeks, the public will vote at the Hall of Shame for the nominee who has done the least to serve the public interest. During a May 14 ceremony at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis, Free Press will induct the nominee who receives the most votes into the Big Media Hall of Shame.

These nominees have dedicated their lives to making Big Media even bigger. Which one of these men sacrificed all dignity, ethics and morality to come out on top on 2005? It’s time for America to decide who belongs in the Big Media Hall of Shame.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Creative Kleptomania

Creative Kleptomania?
"I'm glad my article "Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?" is getting such prominent play. It was in the lead slot at SlashDot for most of yesterday (where it's received more than 700 comments and 10,000 readers), and was posted in its entirety on other sites -- citing fair use and other methods.

Fine. However, I wrote it for In These Times and posted it here on my blog.

It's important that more people become vocal about the issue of affordable broadband for all. But many of these sites carried my article in full without asking my permission; and now they're basking in the glow of tens of thousands of readers who apparently came to read the story. Meanwhile, the piece, as it was posted on this blog by its author, has received less than 200 visitors.

Don't take this wrong. I’m a sworn citizen of Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons. But somehow I feel as though I’ve just been reamed.

Payola: What Bush Knew and When

In case we needed more evidence to prove that deception is the central operating principle for this White House, Steve Soto sifted through the administration's Friday afternoon news dump and picked out this little gem:

Review of Formation Issues Regarding the Department
of Education’s Fiscal Year 2003 Contract with
Ketchum, Inc. for Media Relations Services

Lurking within this final report from the Office of Inspector General is evidence that George Bush may have lied when he told the media that the White House knew nothing about the DOE/Armstrong Williams contract.

During a January 26th White House Press Conference, President Bush said:"Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn't know about this in the White House." (my emphasis added)

In the middle of a footnote on page eight of the report is evidence that would suggest otherwise:

Margaret's Implausible Deniability
"During a meeting between White House and Department officials on July 13, 2004, pertaining to communications strategy, the Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy [now Sec of Ed. Margaret Spellings] briefly questioned the Deputy Director of OPA about the status of the Williams’ work request. The Deputy Director stated she was unsure of the status. No further discussion ensued on the subject until a few days after the meeting, when the former Chief of Staff (B) contacted the Special Assistant [Spellings again] to inform him the work request had already been signed and issued on June 25, 2004."

"Now we know why the release of the report was held until the Friday afternoon news dump," Soto writes in his blog TheLeftCoaster.

Bush said that the White House didn't know about the Williams deal. Margaret Spellings -- who prior to her tenure as Education Secretary was the Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy mentioned in the report -- has said that she and her chief of staff, David Dunn, were unaware of the deal when they worked at the White House.

"Spellings and Dunn did know," reports Soto, "and given how close Spellings is to Bush, it is likely that Bush did too."

The OIG report approved and issued by Spellings’ department confirms that the White House, including Spelings and her subordinate, did in fact know about Williams and had even asked DOE staff about the status of the payola contract.

According to Soto, “today's report brings responsibility for the payola-for-propaganda scam inside the White House.”

Friday, April 15, 2005

Fake News Flack Ducks Behind First Amendment

The Most Misquoted Man in Show Business
You know that the PR industry is in trouble when one of their own tries to take the moral high ground held by George Orwell. Such is the sad state of affairs at D S Simon Productions, the flacks who’ve built a business out of dressing up video news releases (VNRs) to look, sound and feel like real news.

Of late, however, their fake news product is failing the smell test, as more public scrutiny falls on this deceptive practice. And -- in the case of D S Simon -- they're seeking refuge under the wings of the 20th Century British satirist whose pen so convincingly skewered those who deliberately distort facts to serve the powerful. I'll get to Orwell in a moment. For now, here's the news that set Simon spinning.

Yesterday, the Senate voted 98-0 to pass a measure that would stop government agencies from handing over taxpayer funds to PR firms in exchange for VNRs cloaked as real news.

The Senate move follows the Federal Communications Commission’s notice to all newscasters and producers of VNRs to abide disclosure responsibilities under the Commission’s "sponsorship identification rules." The FCC notice was a direct response to the more than 40,000 Americans who signed a petition put forth by Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy. The agency cites our efforts in the first sentence of the document.

These actions may cut deep into D S Simon’s bottom line, and company executive and namesake Douglas Simon has come out swinging in defense of the billion-dollar fake news industry that has served him so well.

In a press release circulated by BusinessWire, Simon claims that the FCC decision "could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press." Simon’s calculated response is a tactic known to those in his own industry as "wrapping oneself in the flag."

No, Mr Simon, the FCC decision has nothing to do with our treasured First Amendment. You’re welcome to challenge it on those grounds, though I’m guessing that even your own lawyer wouldn't answer that call. This decision is about protecting the public from a PR industry that’s gotten in bed with government and corporate clients who seek to exploit the public trust in news by spreading covert propaganda via our airwaves. There are time-tested rules on the books that already prohibit such abuse.

Simon claims to have no part in such PR "misdeeds" and seizes every opportunity to wash his hands of the "misleading behavior" of his colleagues: "We require in our contracts that clients agree to allow us to disclose the actual funding source of all VNRs that are sent to the media both on the tape and in media pitch alerts," he states in the company release.

While D S Simon ducks behind our First Amendment to toss stones at fellow flacks, his company makes clear that D S Simon Productions is a part of the PR deception that he condemns. They disguise their VNRs as real news with the intent that they be passed off by newscasts as such. The company website states: "Our goal is to get your story aired. We not only transmit two satellite feeds of your story but also send broadcast quality tapes to stations to generate additional pick-up."

"Our strategy is to involve news decision-makers in the VNR process before scripts are written or any production dollars are spent." In November 2003 the company announced that it was working with Pathfire "to distribute video news releases, b-roll footage and other short-form content directly to newsroom desktops in broadcast newsrooms throughout the U.S."

So much for the great editorial firewall.

The company claims to produce more than 200 video press products in this fashion. I wonder whether any of these have been aired by their trusted friends in the news industry without full disclosure of their source. Let’s let the public decide.

Mr. Simon, in the interest of our free press, will you enlighten we the public by revealing the history of use or -- as the record might show -- abuse by newscasters of all D S Simon Productions VNRs?

We’re waiting on your reply.

SIDEBAR: The Doug and George Show

Simon closes his release with a jab at me and my colleagues at Free Press, characterizing as Orwellian our efforts to involve the public in the news process:

"It is ironic that an organization named 'Free Press' (which was listed in the footnotes of the FCC Notice) is contributing to having potential limits on press freedom," Simon states. "It seems like something from George Orwell."

This from a man who has built his livelihood upon the proliferation of corporate- and government-funded propaganda.

Had Simon taken a moment to thumb through any of Orwell’s great literature, he might come to appreciate the profound irony of his claim.

Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?

Also Available in the Current Edition of "In These Times"

ISPs See Red
We have Big Media to thank for saving Americans from themselves. Just as the notion of affordable broadband for all was beginning to take hold in towns and cities across the country, the patriots at Verizon, Qwest, Comcast, Bell South and SBC Communications have created legislation that will stop the creeping socialism of broadband community internet before it invades our homes.

And to think that Americans might want to receive high-speed access at costs below the monopoly rates set by these few Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Today, monthly broadband packages offered by the national carriers can hover as high as $75, barring access to millions of Americans who can’t afford the sticker price. Cities and towns across the country have taken up the task of building a cheaper alternative -- often choosing easy-to-build wireless mesh networks -- to bridge the gap that has kept many on the darker side of the digital divide.

Telecommunications giants have mobilized a well-funded army of coin-operated think tanks, pliant legislators and lazy journalists to protect their Internet fiefdoms from these municipal internet initiatives, painting them as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

Their weapon of choice is industry-crafted legislation that restricts local governments from offering public service Internet access at reasonable rates. Laws are already on the books in a dozen states. This year alone, 10 states are considering similar bills to block public broadband or to strengthen existing restrictions.Spinning broadband as theirs alone to provide, ISPs have chalked up some early victories—including a draconian law now on the books in Pennsylvania, which strips local governments of the right to choose their own homegrown broadband solutions without the prior approval of a monopoly phone company. In late 2004, Verizon dictated the law word-for-word to local legislators, who then quietly slipped it into the middle of a 72-page bill that appeared to call for improved communications infrastructure for all Pennsylvanians.

It will have the opposite effect.

Forcing public broadband networks to ask permission from Verizon before offering service is akin to forcing public libraries to ask permission from Borders before checking out books.

Meanwhile, the United States has slipped from fourth to sixteenth place in national broadband penetration, falling behind South Korea, Japan and Canada, where effective private-public sector initiatives have paved over the digital divide, allowing more citizens to reap the economic benefits of the open information era at a fraction of the costs we take for granted.

Not so in the United States. A nation that once prided itself as the global pacesetter in technological innovation and affordable communications is now held in the thrall of corporations eager to keep a basic 21st Century right—the right to connectivity—from citizens who can’t afford their exorbitant access fees.

How has America fallen so far back?

The struggle for accessible, locally provided broadband has been building for several years. But it didn’t hit the corporations’ radar until the middle of 2004, when larger cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco recognized broadband access as a basic public utility—no different from water, gas or electricity—that they could provide.

It’s easy to understand the local appeal. Broadband networks have proven a win-win for municipal governments: Community internet creates free-market competition for communications services, improves schools, enhances public safety and social services, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. These networks are relatively cheap to build and bring technology—and resulting economic opportunity—to low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities that are routinely passed over by the large commercial providers.

For consumers and citizens, low-cost broadband is extremely popular. Across the country municipal referenda and city council measures in favor of building public broadband pass easily—in some cases offering not only community Internet, but also television and telephone service.

“Access to the Internet today is as much a necessity of life as the more traditional services and should be available to all,” says Jonathan Baltuch, an economic development consultant from St. Cloud, Florida, a city that voted to provide citizens with a wireless network covering 30 square miles.

According to Baltuch, St. Cloud’s municipal network has yielded a considerable return to residents. Prior to the city’s broadband network, a St. Cloud resident paid on average $450 a year for commercial Internet access. Today they pay on average $300 a year in property taxes—money that not only provides broadband access but also supports efforts to keep city streets clean, pick up residential garbage and provide for local police and fire protection. “By the city providing this one service to its residents the average household savings will be 50 percent more than the average tax bill for all city services,” Baltuch says. “Further the $3 to $4 million per year that is leaving the city to flow to corporate headquarters all over the country will stay in the local economy.”

Philadelphia decided to follow suit. Last year, Mayor John F. Street announced plans for “Wireless Philadelphia” a project that by next year will provide the city's population of 1.6 million, spread out over 135 square miles, with a full range of Internet services.

It was at this point that the incumbent ISPs began to show their horns. The ISPs is loath to loosen their stranglehold on a market that, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association, could yield $212.5 billion in revenues by 2008.With so much at stake, it was time to mark out their territory and smother municipal broadband projects wherever they began to take root.

The goal was simple—legislate competition out of existence. But to do so the industry needed allies in its fight against local choice. It found them easily among state representatives willing to sell statehouse votes to fill their campaign coffers, and Washington-based think tanks—such as the Cato Institute and the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC)—willing to produce “research” that pleased their corporate funders.

To this mix of industry sock puppets add a gullible media. In a finely targeted media campaign, the “evils” of municipal broadband were pressed upon local journalists who were willing to echo corporate concerns without digging for an opposing view. Too often, local papers failed to follow the money that linked their sources at the Cato Institute and NMRC to the industry—taking at face value comments and data from these think tanks without revealing the conflicts of interest that would impugn their research.

A report discrediting community Internet issued by NMRC, for example, has been cited nearly a dozen times by journalists in the two months since its release. Not a single reporter bothered to let readers in on the fact that the NMRC receives money from the same corporations whose policy positions it just happens to profess.

On February 17, the battle over access finally graced the front-page of the New York Times, with a story pegged to Philadelphia’s ambitious plans to turn the city into “one gigantic wireless hot spot.” The first quote by Times writer James Dao went to Adam Thierer, identified as “director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.” He told the Times: “The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.”

Dao failed to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications. Dao then interviewed David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who also disparaged community networks.

Again, Dao failed 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 Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor’s mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector. This relationship might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed into law last December the bill that shafted Pennsylvania communities seeking to offer homegrown broadband services.

These corporations say that they’re shutting down homegrown broadband efforts to safeguard the best interests of American free enterprise. But, as Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief technology officer, asked 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?”

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Citizens Demand End to Fake News, FCC Responds

On Wednesday night, the Federal Communications Commission called on all television newscasters to clearly disclose the origin of video news releases (VNRs) used on their programs. "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems," the FCC stated in a public notice unanimously approved by all four FCC commissioners.

Propaganda Bust
The FCC issued the public notice in response to a "large number of requests" to investigate the use of VNRs, specifically citing the more than 40,000 concerned citizens who signed a petition circulated by Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy.

On March 21, the two groups filed a complaint with the FCC, urging Chairman Kevin J. Martin to investigate news fraud and enforce existing laws against payola and the use of federal funds to create "covert propaganda."

"The broadcast industry's use of video news releases and other government- and corporate-funded fake news continues to enrage Americans," said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. "We welcome the FCC's statement and will continue to monitor local newscasts. Unless broadcasters take immediate action to cease or disclose their use of this material, we will pressure the government to take stronger action."

"Not labeling VNRs constitutes news fraud and violates the most basic ethical standards of journalism," said John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. "It's now time for TV news producers to own up their responsibility to the viewing public and fully disclose their use of fake news."

The FCC instructed all newscasters abide FCC sponsorship identification rules when they air "video news releases" (VNRs) and called for comments from license holders and cable operators about their use of VNRs.

"Recently tens of thousands of citizens contacted the FCC demanding an investigation into the failure of broadcasters to disclose their use of government-generated 'news' stories. They were right to do so," said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps in a statement. "This Commission should investigate each such case. And it should strenuously enforce the rules against inadequate sponsorship identification."

In a separate statement, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said: "Today's Public Notice is in response to these developments, and reminds broadcast stations, cable operators, and others of their disclosure obligations under our rules, if and when they choose to air VNRs, and to reinforce that we will take appropriate enforcement action against stations that do not comply with these rules."

A March 13 article in the New York Times identified 20 federal agencies that used taxpayer funds to produce television news segments promoting Bush administration policies. These VNRs were broadcast on hundreds of local news programs without disclosing their source.

At least three investigations by Congress' Government Accountability Office (GAO) previously concluded that these segments constitute illegal "covert propaganda." Yet the White House recently instructed all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings and continue to produce VNRs.

Later on Thursday, the Senate voted 98-0 to approve an amendment to a supplemental spending bill introduced by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) that would prevent any federal agency from using taxpayer dollars to produce or distribute prepackaged news stories which do not clearly identify that the so-called news was created by a federal agency or funded with taxpayer dollars.

Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy are also working with local groups to establish "citizen agreements" with local stations, under which broadcasters pledge to clearly identify or label pre-packaged reports produced by the government or corporations.

To learn more about news fraud, payola pundits and government propaganda, read my in-depth report at Free Press at

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Verizon Lies = Media Truths

Verizon has seeded the media with their own "covert propaganda." This time it takes the form of memos quietly forwarded by Verizon's external communications department to trade journalists and congressional offices.

More Hot Air
It's unclear whether the content of these memos originated within Verizon's communications department or at the many coin-opertated think tanks that receive money from Verizon and other telco giants to produce dubious "research." This list includes the Cato Institute, New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), and Progress and Freedom Foundation.

What's clear is that Verizon hopes that spreading lies about municipal broadband will turn media and politicians against citizens-powered efforts to provide access at a price more Americans can afford. Verizon is building an argument out of hot air. Sadly, it's enough to float many in the media.

Check out the memo within Free Press' report: "Telco Lies and the Truth about Municipal Broadband Networks."

Here are a couple of gems from the report:
Verizon Hot Air: "Glasgow, Kentucky’s city-owned cable system would require a subsidy of $716 per residential household to cover its pattern of losses."

Free Press Fact: Glasgow’s municipal system has enjoyed positive cash flows for the last several years, offering low-cost, high quality service that has saved local residents over $30 million.

Verizon Hot Air: "The Cedar Falls, Iowa venture had a negative free cash flow for each year of operation, even before starting to pay back its $8.3 million in debt."

Free Press Fact: Cedar Falls began posting positive cash flows in 1998 and positive net income in 2003. The network has attracted new business and over $100 million in new construction to the town.

Many in the media (yes, this means you David Harsanyi and James Dao) are gobbling up this and other forms of "anti-muni" propaganda shoveled forth by the industry and their sock puppets within the Cato Institute and the NMRC.

Ben Scott, Policy Director at Free Press puts it this way: "The industry lobbies and their affiliated think tanks have been peddling misinformation for too long. . . This report offers the unvarnished truth and exposes the Orwellian propaganda that labels success as failure."

It's the latest from a powerful collective of monopolistic telecoms and ISPs who seek complete control of broadband access nationwide. Their enemies are those of us who believe Americans should have a choice.

Honk if you care:

Verizon External Communications
1300 I (Eye) Street
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel. 202-515-2515

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Big Media Hall of Shame

On April 18 in Las Vegas, Lowry Mays, chairman of radio giant Clear Channel Communications, will receive the broadcast industry's "Distinguished Service Award." This is the same Lowry Mays who has obliterated local news and music, buying up 1,200 radio stations and scrubbing homegrown artists from their playlists.

Sadly, Mays is not alone. He's one among a cast of media kingpins who have climbed the ladder of success by placing their own political and business interests ahead of the public good. Now's your chance to give these shameful men the recognition they deserve -- by voting for your top pick for the first annual Big Media Hall of Shame.

Nominees include some of your favorites: Rupert Murdoch (of News Corporation, owner of Fox News), David Smith (of Sinclair Broadcast Group), Michael Powell (ex-chairman of the FCC) and other captains of industry. Don't see your choice of most shameful? Nominate your own.

Everyone who votes becomes eligible to win a free trip to the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis, May 13 - 15 where the winners will be announced. Don't miss this chance to tell Big Media what you think of their man of 2005.

Go to for more.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Cable’s Digital Future Too Close for Comfort

Red Sky at Morning
The hundreds of cable executives who are descending upon San Francisco next week have much to discuss. Now, more than any time in its brief history, their industry stands poised to inherit the future of American television. And many of these executives have come to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s annual convention to marshal through projects that will guarantee their position atop the TV heap.

No one project is more vital to cable’s power grab than interactive television. And no one component of interactive television is more important to cable executives than its ability to gather personal information about the millions of customers they’re supposed to serve.

Cast in its best light, interactive television is about enabling viewers to pick the shows they want to watch at the most convenient times. It marks a tectonic shift of the power dynamic between the television business and its audience, placing more control in the hands of those who hold the remote.

But the technology behind all that new viewer freedom slices both ways.

The same digital pipeline that turns your television into a viewer-customized device also can be used to siphon off personal data to be sold to an advertising industry eager to target their products more finely, one consumer at a time.

Until recently, the history of commercial television was built around broadcasters’ ability to beam into homes a carefully mixed cocktail of programming and advertisements. This is all changing as new technologies such as Tivo allow millions of viewers to fast-forward through the 30-second commercials that once bankrolled commercial programming. This practice, known as “commercial avoidance,” threatens to bring the $60-billion-a-year TV advertising business to its knees.

According to a recent Smith Barney report, the tipping point for commercial avoidance devices could come as early as 2007, when the television industry may lose as much as $7.6 billion -- or about 10 percent of its annual ad revenue -- as companies seek other ways to reach consumers.

This stormy media forecast has scattered television’s business model to the whims of the viewers, forcing a mass industry shift toward new devices that will keep them in the game.

Cable’s safe harbor is a technology called “video on demand,” or VOD. Its concept is simple: make users pay for their content directly. This notion is not foreign to cable. Since its inception, cable has asked consumers to ante up endlessly rising sums for programming. But many of the cable executives in town this week believe they need to go one step further: that the very survival of television depends on viewers, not just advertisers, accepting that they must subsidize the high cost of producing each of the shows that Americans love to watch.

VOD and its sister service, pay-per-view, is already a $1.35 billion business; many cable analysts are projecting a meteoric increase as the service spreads from home to home. Cable is going to be the conduit by which this revenue streams back to the content makers -- but not before cable providers gobble up their chunk of the fee.

Companies like Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner have spent nearly $95 billion since 1996 to make VOD a reality, laying an on-demand path into American homes, involving high-speed fiber networks and cable wires. And they’re ready for their big payback.

With the groundwork in place, VOD will allow users to choose their own programming from a startling array of content -- from movies and sitcoms to, one hopes, locally produced documentaries and niche news and information -- all at the click of a remote. According to industry analysts, the cost will range from 30 cents to $1 for standard programming, with higher rates applied to first-run films, sporting events, live concerts and, yes, even pornography.

More than 91 percent of cable-ready homes in the U.S. have access to interactive television services that make VOD services possible -- with more than a third of U.S. cable customers now subscribing to digital cable. This number is expected to increase apace as cable providers roll out more interactive technology.

Ultimately, viewers who spend several hours each day before their sets will be paying more to the cable industry to enjoy their favorite programs. But that’s not all they’ll be giving away.

A spate of new companies have rushed forth to offer software and services that will give cable operators more direct access to viewer tastes by cataloguing their VOD choices in centralized databanks. In turn, the cable industry can repackage this viewer data and sell it to advertisers that are eager to fine-tune their product pitches to “high-probability” consumers. And since traditional advertising -- in the form of the 30-second spots – is on the wane, advertisers will infiltrate their products throughout the programs themselves as they devise more intrusive methods to hit their targets.

From the industry’s perspective, this technology will make ads more relevant to the lives and needs of their viewing customers. A recent New York Times article casts a rosy light on the new technology: “Instead of commercials being an annoyance, they become information a viewer needs, perhaps even craves.”

But privacy concerns loom large as advertisers could collect more information about each viewer’s tastes than the viewer might want to reveal. The cable industry promises to safeguard this consumer data behind impenetrable firewalls. Recent cases of mass identity theft at credit companies such as Choicepoint and Bank of America demonstrate that these systems are vulnerable to attack.

This danger won’t stop the industry from pushing forward a viewer identifying technology that would place cable firmly at the center of the billion-dollar business model for the future of all television.

But as the cable executives in San Francisco meet, greet and plot out more inventive ways to win American hearts, minds and pocketbooks, know that your personal data has become their Holy Grail.