Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A no-brainer for bipartisanship

By Michele Combs and Timothy Karr. Originally published at The Hill

As he prepares to take on the role of House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has pledged to bring a new era of bipartisanship to Congress. "I think the best leaders are very good listeners," said Boehner in October. "Because if you are not listening, you cannot lead."

President Obama responded in kind: "Let's go ahead and start making some progress on the things that we do agree on," he said, "And we can continue to have a strong and healthy debate about those areas where we don't."

Here’s their best chance to listen and lead together: Republicans, Democrats and nearly every one across the political spectrum agree that opening our radio dial to more local voices is good for the country.

That’s why 86 Republicans and Democrats joined together to sponsor the Local Community Radio Act in the House, where it sailed through on a voice vote. And it’s why Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) joined with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) to introduce the act in the Senate.

Groups as different as Free Press and the Christian Coalition agree that passing the Local Community Radio Act should be a no-brainer. It would free up unused radio spectrum for hundreds and possibly thousands of new local stations. Known as Low Power FM (LPFM), these stations operate at 100 watts or less and broadcast just a few miles into local communities. They’re typically run by colleges, churches, schools and nonprofits to provide local information and perspectives not available elsewhere on the dial.

From saving lives during Hurricane Katrina to broadcasting local church services to homebound community members, these stations have more than demonstrated their importance to communities nationwide. Without them, so many of our small cities, towns and rural areas would not have a voice on the radio at all.

So what’s the problem? Last month, one senator, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), quietly placed a hold on the bill. Sen. Barrasso cited concerns that were similar to those raised by the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful lobby that represents the interest of commercial broadcasters. But the NAB’s objections are based on misplaced notions of signal interference that were debunked long ago following an exhaustive study of LPFM broadcasting.

Barrasso’s own constituents stand to benefit greatly from the legislation; opening the radio spectrum over Wyoming would create airspace for dozens of new stations from Cheyenne to Cody. The same is true in every other state with significant rural populations.

We can’t allow the obstinacy of a few to get in the way of legislation that promises to benefit so many.

The Local Community Radio Act has only an upside. Passing it would be a meaningful step toward bipartisanship at a time when our nation desperately needs to go beyond politics as usual to a place where we can all work together.

-- Michele Combs is the vice president of communications for the Christian Coalition of America. Timothy Karr is the campaign director for Free Press the national media reform group.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comcast Kumbaya

Comcast wants you to trust them -- to really, really trust them.

That's why the company's top lobbyist, David Cohen, convened what could best be described as a Kumbaya sing-along in Washington on Monday, to declare Net Neutrality an issue over which Washington needn't concern itself any longer.

"It's time to put this [Net Neutrality] debate behind us," he told an audience of D.C. insiders at the Brookings Institution. "Check the box and move on."

Now, don't think this means Comcast has changed its tune on the importance of the open Internet. It's still trying to kill Net Neutrality. It's just making a softer sell to convince Washington to forget about protecting the rights of Internet users.

"The courts, the FCC, and the Congress -- all valuable institutions filled with capable, conscientious people ... but few of them with the background to work out consensus on what are essentially complicated technical issues," Cohen said.

To whom, then, should we turn to look out for the public interest? Why, the industry itself. According to Cohen, "real self-regulation" with the assistance of an industry-formed advisory group is the answer.

Minding the Hen House

The advisory group Cohen has in mind, known as BITAG, was quickly cobbled together by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Microsoft, Intel and other major industry players in June 2010 -- just as the Federal Communications Commission was starting to craft rules to safeguard Internet users from an industry push to exert more control over Web content and applications.

Never mind that BITAG's list of charter members includes the biggest violators of Net Neutrality -- not least of all, Comcast.

To that end, Cohen skimmed over Comcast's covert campaign to block peer-to-peer users on its network -- for which it was sanctioned by the FCC.

Cohen would like us to forget that it was Comcast that was caught red-handed blocking lawful Internet traffic in 2007, and that then lied about what it was doing. It was Comcast that tried to evade scrutiny by obstructing public participation in an FCC hearing investigating its Internet blocking. And when the FCC forced the company to stop discriminating against its customers, without even levying a fine, it was Comcast that sued on a technicality to avoid any accountability.

But in an effort to whitewash its record of underhanded activity, Cohen claimed that the public reaction to this debacle taught the company a lesson about being better self-regulators.

"In retrospect," he said, "we made the wrong decision for the right reasons." Though those who were blocked from sharing barbershop quartet music and the King James Bible might remember things differently.

Bygones, said Cohen, who now claims Comcast was vindicated and can be trusted with the fate of your Internet -- and of NBC Universal, which it hopes to acquire.

Fear and Self-Loathing in Washington

"Unfortunately, the national debate around Net Neutrality and an 'open Internet' has been almost exclusively driven by lawyers," declared Cohen (who is a lawyer). In fact, Comcast hates lawyers so much that the company employs at least 100 of them from 30 different D.C. firms to lobby Washington to get its way.

All of Cohen's lip service about consensus would be more palatable if his company hadn't poured so much money into astroturf front groups and lobbyists determined to undermine all efforts to encourage fair competition and a level playing field online.

The only thing you can trust about Comcast is that it seeks to boost its bottom line and serve shareholders by any means possible. That's the nature of corporations. And naturally, the public shouldn't expect corporations like Comcast to look out for its best interests.

Public policy is designed for that role -- to make it profitable for corporations to behave in ways that don't harm the rest of us. The only thing that will keep Comcast honest is clear rules of the road and a real watchdog such as the FCC to enforce them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who Will Head MSNBC if Comcast Takes Over?

And Why That Poses an Even Bigger Threat to Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann is back, and for his many fans, including the 300,000 who petitioned MSNBC to reinstate him, it would seem a return to form.

But Olbermann's dispute with the brass at MSNBC may only serve as a prelude to more troubled times.

MSNBC's parent company, NBC Universal, is likely to be taken over by cable giant Comcast, should regulators sign off on the $30 billion deal. If history is any guide, this merger poses an even bigger threat to the future of MSNBC personalities like Olbermann and Rachel Maddow than the recent dustup that temporarily sidelined the host.

That's why tens of thousands have already urged the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice to stop the merger. They cite a multitude of reasons the takeover would bring them harm, including higher prices and fewer choices in programming and services. Indeed, such concentration of media power leads to a less vigilant news media, a muted marketplace of ideas and fewer consumer options at a time when are demanding more.

Add to this the dim but real prospect that MSNBC's new boss will be even less welcoming than the current one to commentators that rock the boat. Just consider the candidates in line to take over MSNBC:

Steve Burke, Comcast's Chief Operating Officer

According to The Street, Steve Burke will take NBC's CEO spot from Jeff Zucker should the merger be approved. In an e-mail to colleagues, Zucker said: "Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision."

That vision - in the hands of Burke - might not be to the liking of MSNBC's stable of talent. Burke has deep ties to the Republican Party. According to Public Citizen, Burke raised at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Prior to that, he served on the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under Bush, at a time when the administration was undermining scientific consensus on topics including climate change, stem-cell research, and even the relationship between corn syrup and rates of diabetes in children.

As a top science adviser to President Bush, did Burke condone administration efforts to bury scientific findings that challenged official policy? What would he do when comments or reporting by Olbermann or Maddow challenge Comcast's corporate dogma?

Peter A. Chernin, Former Second in Command at News Corp.

Peter Chernin was a major fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton, according to the New York Times, which also reports that he may be on the short list to take over NBC operations should Comcast get the nod.

For years, Chernin has co-owned a restaurant on Martha's Vinyard with Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts. More recently, he was tapped by Roberts to become a "special adviser" to Comcast on the potential merger.

Chernin's close ties to Clinton, Roberts and Rupert Murdoch indicate his biases may be more corporate than political. But it was during his tenure at Fox that the network looked the other way as many of its personalities actively -- and financially -- supported Republican candidates and Tea Party causes.

Chernin once asked Roberts whether he planned to interfere in editorial content at MSNBC -- a question that Roberts refused to answer.

Eileen Dolente, Senior Director, Comcast Multimedia Content Development

Odds are slim that Eileen Dolente would be picked to head MSNBC programming. But her record at Comcast offers a disturbing glimpse into the cable company's mindset regarding speech that interferes with business as usual.

As director of programming for Comcast's news division, CN8, Dolente fired host Barry Nolan. His crime? Nolan had protested a major award being given to Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly.

Nolan was "appalled" that an award would be given to O'Reilly. He dashed off e-mails stating that O'Reilly's "indiscretions, inaccuracies, and prejudices disqualify him for such a lofty honor."

Dolente was appalled that one of her hosts would share such an opinion, and within a week of the award ceremony, she showed Nolan the door. Documents filed in a subsequent lawsuit revealed that the mutual business interests of Comcast and News Corp., which employs O'Reilly, were a major factor in Nolan's firing.

What position would Comcast take should MSNBC personalities launch a similar attack on a valued business partner? If Dolente takes the helm, past may become prologue for MSNBC.

Monday, November 08, 2010

As the Firewall Crumbles

From time to time the editors at the Washington Post push out an opinion that doesn’t quite pass its own smell test.

As a business, the Washington Post Company owns properties that extend well beyond the newspaper itself. As a prominent newspaper, the Post claims to have built a firewall that protects its editors and their decision making from the interests of this larger entity.

But on occasion these interests ram up against the public’s right to know – and the editors' stated obligation to serve that right. And the results aren’t pretty.

September 28, 2009:
In print: The Washington Post editorial board complains that the FCC's push for Net Neutrality protections is "heavy handed" and “unneeded.”

The back story: The Washington Post Company owns Cable One, a cable and Internet firm active in 19 states which stands to benefit financially by breaking Net Neutrality and discriminating in favor of some online content and against other. The Post editorial fails to mention this conflict of interest.

The Post ombudsman: No comment.
August 22, 2010:
In print: The Washington Post editorial board opposes new rules on for-profit universities proposed by the Department of Education, writing that these rules "make no sense."

The back story: The Washington Post Company owns Kaplan Inc., Kaplan University and other for-profit schools of higher education that would benefit financially from fewer regulations of their “industry.”

The Post ombudsman: No comment.
October 25, 2010:
In print: The Washington Post editorial board writes that the merger of Comcast and NBC “should be allowed to proceed” and that regulators should “be skeptical of the critics' claims” that the deal represents higher prices, fewer choices and less access for consumers.

The back story: The Washington Post Company not only owns Cable One, but also six television stations, a long list of print publications, plus Slate.com, Foreign Policy and other online sites. The proposed Comcast-NBC merger could serve as a model for the Post Company’s future growth as a conglomerated media interest. While the editorial discloses the company’s ownership of Cable One, it failed to disclose how greatly its aggregated interests influence the Post’s position on this issue.

The Post ombudsman: No comment.