Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Networks Sleep While Democracy Burns

Sometimes mainstream media reveal their failures in displays so stark that it makes the job of media critics too easy.

NBC, ABC and CBS frequently forget to serve their viewers, to be sure, but certain miscues are a special boon for bloggers and media reformers, who work tirelessly to show that the titans of the mainstream consistently miss the most important stories of our time.

Network coverage of the political conventions this week and next is a case in point, as American politics takes a back seat to mainstream media reality.

The "Big Three" have decided that democracy is bad for business, and are treating viewers to excited hormones (ABC's "High School Musical"), miniskirts (NBC's "Deal or No Deal") and bachelor hi-jinks (CBS's "Two and a Half Men") instead of Democratic and Republican convention coverage in Denver and Minneapolis.

Citizens v. Consumers

At PBS, where "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" still thinks of its audience as "citizens rather than consumers," the conventions will be covered from gavel to gavel. ABC, CBS and NBC are yielding little more than an hour of prime time on most convention nights.

This is the sad reality of a corporate media that prefer laugh-tracks and the bottom line to political discourse.

While the networks yuk it up with sitcoms and teen libido, the message they're sending the American public is that the most important political gatherings of the last four years don't merit the nation's full attention - and certainly matter less than the standard prime-time fare offered up on any other night.

Television and the Age of Apathy

The damage goes beyond that: In the era of television elections voter turnout has been stuck between 50 and 55 percent. Over the same period, many young voters (aged 18 to 24) have increasingly passed on voting altogether - there's been a steady decline in youth turnout, despite spikes during the 1992 and 2004 general elections.

Even when they tune in network news, the public is spoon-fed coverage that rarely reflects the viewing public's political interests.

NBC, ABC, CBS and their cable counterparts overwhelmingly portray the elections as a horse race pitting TV-ready personalities against one another. Obama is the inexperienced firebrand, McCain the seasoned, straight-talking maverick. This drama may play well on the small screen, but it accomplishes little towards informing voters about the candidates' political views.

According to MediaTenor research from the 2004 presidential elections, less than 5 percent of networks newscasts dealt with candidates' positions on policy issues, such as health care, education, the war in Iraq, the economy and employment -- even though American voters consistently rank these topics as the "most important issues for the government to address."

The same pattern can be seen on the news in 2008. Candidates are not being identified according to their stances on the issues, but by their posture of the day. As a result, too much coverage emphasizes immediacy and spin over substance and issues. Who's up in the latest polls? Who scored the latest zinger on the campaign trail?

In 2004: Worm Munching Trumps Obama

In the face of this critique, network executives have circled their news vans and lobbed criticism at the conventions themselves.

In 2004, NBC's then anchor Tom Brokaw called the conventions heavily scripted "infomercials" not worthy of news. That year, NBC fed viewers a prime-time diet of worm munching on "Fear Factor" instead of featuring the debut of rising political star Barack Obama, who took the stage in Boston, delivered an electrifying speech and launched his political prospects.

NBC was not alone. ABC and CBS also deemed that historic moment as "too scripted" for prime time.

To be fair, conventions are designed by the parties to spin their candidate before the media, but it's up to the networks to unpack the hype and deliver real political analysis and breaking news to their audience.

Turning their cameras on is a start.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Major Milestone in the Fight for an Open Internet

It's official. The Federal Communications Commission delivered its order on Wednesday lowering the hammer on Comcast for derailing Internet users' Web access and then pretending that the cable giant was doing nothing wrong.

The order, approved by a bipartisan FCC majority at the beginning of the month, demands that Comcast "must stop" its ongoing practice of blocking Internet content by year's end.

As I have written before, this action carries considerable weight.

It's the first time the FCC has gone to such lengths to assert users' right to an open Internet and Net Neutrality. And it sends a warning shot across the bow of other major ISPs that are flirting with the idea of blocking, filtering or degrading content, or favoring certain Web sites and services over others.

The FCC Delivers

"This order marks a major milestone in Internet policy," says Ben Scott, Free Press policy director. "For years, the FCC declared that it would take action against any Internet service provider caught violating the online rights guaranteed by the agency. The commission has delivered on that promise."

The order concludes the FCC's months-long investigation, which included two public hearings at Harvard and Stanford universities -- and more than 25,000 public comments.

"This clear legal precedent signals that the future of the Net Neutrality debate will be over how, not whether, to protect users' right to an open Internet," Scott says.

Comcast's Smokescreen

Comcast and its Astroturf allies swamped the FCC with filings that challenged the agency's authority and outright denied any wrongdoing. But the smackdown of Comcast's claims issued today makes clear that the agency is on solid legal footing, and Comcast clearly in the wrong.

"The Communications Act has long established the federal agency's authority to promote the competition, consumer choice, and diverse information across all communications platforms," explains Marvin Ammori, Free Press' legal counsel, who authored the 2007 complaint against the cable giant.

In 2005, the agency unanimously adopted an Internet policy statement that "extended these rights to Internet users - including the right to access the lawful content, applications and services of their choice."

That statement served the basis for the Free Press complaint, which set the wheels of the FCC churning towards Wednesday's welcome result.

A Scathing Rebuke

The FCC was unconvinced by Comcast's attempts to evade accountability. The order finds that Comcast's repeated "verbal gymnastics" and attempts to muddy the issue of blocking were "unpersuasive and beside the point."

The commissioners were especially outraged by Comcast's lies and deception. When it first got caught blocking the Internet, the cable giant "misleadingly disclaimed any responsibility for its customers' problems," according to the FCC order, followed by "at best misdirection and obfuscation."

Contrary to the spin of Comcast's lawyers, the FCC can protect the rights of Internet users, and promote openness, free speech and competition on the Web.

ISPs Don't Own the Internet

"The Internet is a world-wide system that does not belong to any one operator," wrote David Reed, a pioneer in the design of the Internet's fundamental architecture. "The design of the Internet Protocols specifies clear limits on what operators can and cannot do... Happily, the FCC recognized and exposed Comcast's transgressions of those limits."

[Read what other Net luminaries are saying about the order.]

Still, the FCC cannot act without first receiving complaints from users. Cable and phone companies would now be wise to obey the order and resist their gatekeeper tendencies.

But the public also needs to continue to keep watch over the Internet, and to call for FCC action against abuse of our Internet rights.

Friday, August 01, 2008

TKO of Comcast Sets Stage for a Better Internet

They tried to shut us out. Their flacks and shills tried to discredit us. Their media lapdogs tried to attack us. But nothing could prevent a people-powered movement from stopping one of Washington's most powerful corporations.

Today the FCC delivered a technical knock-out to Comcast. In a landmark decision, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein approved an "enforcement order" that would require Comcast to stop interfering with the use of popular peer-to-peer applications by people on its network.

The FCC Hammers Comcast

Today's FCC move is precedent-setting. It sends a powerful message to phone and cable companies that blocking access to the Internet will not be tolerated.

It also gives the FCC (one still controlled by industry-friendly Republicans) the teeth to stop powerful companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from getting between you and what you want to do online.

And it wouldn't have happened without the strong public backlash against phone and cable companies and their gatekeeper ambitions. Activists, bloggers, consumer advocates and everyday people who love an open Internet took on entrenched corporate power and won -- defying every ounce of conventional wisdom in Washington.

The Comcast Mafia

Through its D.C. mafia, Comcast had been exerting intense political and financial pressure on the FCC's Martin, who in July had announced his intention to sanction Comcast for mucking with the Web.

But the Republican chairman stood his ground , alongside Democratic Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, and instilled some hope that, even in a divided city, the public's interest can win out over partisanship and corruption.

It also follows more than two years of intense organizing by a coalition of organizations dedicated to preserving the democracy of the Internet. During this time, more than 1.6 million people sacrificed time and energy to contact Congress and the FCC, speak out at town meetings, collect signatures on street corners and on campuses, and spread the gospel of an open Internet via blogs, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

A Movement Milestone

A people-powered movement for a free and open Internet is taking shape around issues of Net Neutrality, open access, online privacy and digital inclusion.

Today's FCC victory is a milestone for the movement, but the work of creating a more accessible, open and affordable Internet is really only just beginning.

Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are continuing to fight Net Neutrality using lobbyists, lawyers and campaign contributions. They're aligning with powerful forces in Washington to spy on their users without warrant - and then gain retroactive immunity via Washington. They're looking working with the Hollywood industry associations to sift through information we send and download online to impose a draconian copyright regime on the Web, They're quietly snooping for data about our private online choices to turn over to advertisers.

Telco Doublespeak

Inside the Beltway, Big Telco and Cable are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create special rules written in their favor.

For all of their talk of "deregulation" and "free markets," cable and telephone lobbyists work aggressively behind the scenes to force through regulations that protect their local monopolies and duopolies, stifle new entrants and competitive technologies in the marketplace, and increase their control over the content that travels over the Web.

It's only recently that the well-heeled phone and cable lobby have been beaten back by a well-organized public. We are coming together in increasing numbers to see that these special interests are not allowed to set Internet policy for the nation.

The Internet's true greatness lies in those of us who use its level playing field to challenge the status quo, create and share new innovation and ideas, take part in our democracy and connect with others around the world -- without permission from any gatekeepers.

As we continue to mobilize to save the Internet, Washington should start to follow the public's lead. Change may be on the horizon for American politics, and this recent FCC decision may have offered up our first glimpse.