Conflict and Compromise Await New Congress in Telecom, Media, Tech

A new era of American history begins when the 116th Congress convenes in January 2019 with one of the most partisan classes in modern history. Depending on which side of the aisle they sit, the members’ mission will be either to balance the ship of state or continue full steam ahead.

Conventional wisdom suggests there will be conflict. Optimists hope there will be compromise. The reality will be somewhere in between as the new Congress will have the opportunity to forge a unified path on things that matter to all Americans. With so many pressing policy issues facing the republic – immigration, healthcare, homeland security, and more – it is a stretch to think telecom, media, and technology (TMT) issues will top the agenda or lead the day.

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Keep Big Bird, Ditch the News: A Path Forward for PBS With Budget Cuts

As was the case a half-dozen years ago, PBS and NPR are again the subject of a contentious debate about their taxpayer funding, this time courtesy of President Trump. The problem with that debate, then and now, is that like so many policy disputes, the arguments employed oversimplify the facts and ignore the obvious. I wrote about this matter in 2011 in a piece published in the now-defunct app called The Daily. What follows is an update of that piece.

For years, Republicans and conservatives have accused NPR and PBS of ideological and political bias. Things came to a head in 2010 when NPR fired Juan Williams as a commentator for allegedly making anti-Muslim remarks, and NPR successfully solicited funding for local reporting from a foundation controlled by the uber liberal George Soros.

This perception of bias would be noteworthy enough even if these broadcasters were not financially supported by taxpayers, conditioned on explicit statutory language requiring objectivity and balance. Since, however, they are, the ubiquity and durability of this perception becomes very nearly miraculous. Surely it’s not easy to so thoroughly offend one of the two major parties that, in the House vote in 2011, virtually every Republican member voted to defund NPR » Read More


Maines is president of The Media Institute. The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors. The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on March 21, 2017.

The Truth Behind Google’s Copyright-Bills Hysteria

Though the final chapter in the legislative history of the copyright bills hasn’t yet been written, a couple things are obvious even now: The tech industry has demonstrated great political clout through the mobilization of its users and fan base; and the industry lobby, led by Google, will say and do pretty much anything to advance its commercial interests.

This provides the background for what happened within just a few days last week, as Congress was flooded with calls and mail, and petitions were signed by millions, in opposition to bills whose intent was to provide an effective way to combat content infringement on rogue websites abroad.

Didn’t matter that most fans of social media, file-sharing, blogs, and the like know next to nothing about communications policymaking, or even the details of the laws they were moved to oppose.  They know what they like, and dislike, and when manipulated into seeing the copyright bills as a threat they responded in great numbers.

None of which, of course, is to wonder why people feel more of a kinship with things like the social media than they do with the mainstream media.  The one-way and “one-to-the-many” aspects of the old media don’t empower people, or allow for their personal expression, in the manner of blogs or social media like Facebook and YouTube.

But the reason so many people were disposed to dislike the copyright bills, and their knowledge of what was actually in them, are two different things.  What moved them to act on their dislike was yet another.  For these parts of the story we have to look to the tech industry lobby, and Google most importantly.  It was Google that floated the canard that passage of the bills would forever change “the Internet as we’ve known it.”

The irony in Google’s claim was apparently lost on most of the media, tech and mainstream, which may explain why so few reporters pointed out that this alleged threat is word-for-word what the company said, 13 years ago, in opposition to another copyright bill (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), passage of which has since proven to be a positive boon to Internet companies.

It may also explain why so few reporters pointed out that Google’s claims about the copyright bills – as precursors to the regulation of the Internet – are not just over the top but hypocritical.  It was, after all, Google that successfully lobbied, with the active help of a majority of FCC Commissioners, for so-called “network neutrality” regulations, the precedent of which provides not for just speculative but “here and now” regulation of the Internet.

Still, if crass exaggeration and hypocrisy were all that Google displayed in this regard, one might be inclined just to dismiss it as boys being boys.  But it didn’t stop there.  Google, and other groups that should know better, also gave expression and currency to the bunkum that the copyright bills amounted to an assault on the First Amendment.

That this argument was utterly demolished by the country’s leading First Amendment expert, Floyd Abrams, didn’t give them a moment’s pause, with the upshot being that this nonsense was parroted by all sorts of people as a reason for rejection of the bills.

In August of last year, The Media Institute filed a white paper with the Federal Trade Commission titled “Google and the Media: How Google is Leveraging its Position in Search to Dominate the Media Economy.”  Among other things, the paper demonstrated the ways in which Google profits from copyright infringement; that indeed the use of other people’s content without their permission has been at the heart of the company’s business plan.

Though the paper didn’t recommend any particular remedy, it asked the FTC to intervene in a way that would prevent the media economy from being dominated by a single entity.  Google’s conduct regarding the copyright legislation shows that, far from pulling back, its interest in this kind of domination is growing apace.

                                  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This piece was first published in the Dallas Morning News on Jan. 25, 2012.

 

Idealists on the March

In yet another demonstration that the human race is not yet won, Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va.), no stranger to political funding controversies himself, will soon be headlining what its organizers call the "Rally Against Citizens United."

Subtitled the "Campaign To End Corporate Dominance of Our Democracy," the rally is cosponsored by Washington-area Democratic party groups, MoveOn, and the AFL-CIO.  So in other words, it’s a completely disinterested group of people, whose opinions about Citizens United are the result solely of idealism and objective cerebration – without even so much as an itsy bitsy teeny weeny hint of a political motive.

And it’s a good thing, too!  Because, you know, were people to subject a Supreme Court decision, decided on constitutional grounds, to rude political pressure it might seem to some like an assault on the independence of the judiciary itself.

Happy to report, literature distributed by the organizers makes ominous reference to the “increasing and pervasive corporate takeover of American politics,” a warning that, despite evidence of the precise opposite (see: Tea Party), consists of precisely that amount of ideological fanaticism that the times require.

So, thanks in advance to everyone involved for your selfless, not to say scholarly, contribution to our national discourse.  May an awakened nation be your reward.

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

A Unitary First Amendment – Redux

By guest blogger LAURENCE H. WINER, Professor of Law and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Technology, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

“[W]e don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of [government] bureaucrats.”  What an extraordinary statement for the Chief Justice of the United States to make when one considers the Supreme Court’s long history of allowing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) content-based regulation of broadcasting and other electronic media!

Chief Justice Roberts made this statement in last week’s oral argument of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Citizens United, involving “Hillary: The Movie,” is the little case that could – could just restore a strong measure of freedom of speech in the most critical of all contexts, namely political speech.

As described in an earlier post occasioned by the first round of oral argument in this case last spring, the narrow issue is the provision of the McCain-Feingold “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002” (BCRA) that bans the use of corporate funds for “electioneering communications” via broadcast, cable, or satellite close to an election.  In the earlier argument some members of the Court were astounded by the government’s contention that Congress also would have the constitutional power to similarly ban printed material, including books.
    
This apparently led those members of the Court who long have been troubled by limitations on political speech imposed in the guise of campaign finance reform to set re-briefing and rearguing for an unusual and extended one-day September session.  And, the Court broadened the issue for rehearing by asking the parties to discuss whether the Court should overrule not only that part of its 2003 opinion in McConnell v. F.E.C. upholding the specific BCRA provision, but also the Court’s 1990 opinion in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.  In Austin, over strong dissents, the Court upheld a state’s restrictions on independent expenditures from general corporate funds for ads supporting or opposing a candidate for state elective office.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s actions with respect to Citizens United prompted more than 40 amicus briefs with what the New York Times called “an array of strange bedfellows and uneasy alliances” and set the stage for high drama.  How far will the Court go in affirming the political free speech rights of corporations?  

Arguing briefly for Senator Mitch McConnell as amicus, Floyd Abrams reminded the Court that in New York Times v. Sullivan the Court eschewed available narrow grounds to resolve the case and instead issued a broad ruling to fully vindicate the vital First Amendment interests at stake.  And he told Justice Sotomayor that, similarly here, this is the way the Court would do more good than harm.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, making her debut appearance on behalf of the FEC, tried to reassure the Court that the government’s position on printed campaign speech had changed.  Don’t worry, she suggested, the FEC has never tried to ban a book, though when pressed she immediately stated a pamphlet might be different.  And this is when Chief Justice Roberts made his comment about not relying on FEC bureaucrats to protect the First Amendment.

But the Court has left countless First Amendment matters in the hands of the government bureaucrats at the FCC at least since Justice Frankfurter’s 1943 opinion in the seminal NBC v. U.S. case in which, in a single paragraph, he subordinated the First Amendment to the public interest standard of the Communications Act.  This later caused Professor Harry Kalven to comment that: “The passage catches a great judge at an unimpressive moment.”  

Over the years, the Court’s deference to the FCC has allowed all manner of infringements on free speech in the name of the amorphous public interest, from the now-defunct (but perhaps soon to be resurrected in some version) fairness doctrine, to the recent debacle over broadcast “indecency,” and maybe to a threatened similar campaign against violence in the media.

But members of the FCC, no less than of the FEC, have no expertise or competence in First Amendment matters.  This is not a comment on any present or former members as individuals; rather it is the basic recognition that the First Amendment disables any government bureaucrat from claiming or exercising any province over matters of free speech or free press.  “Congress shall make no law” is a straightforward “hands-off” policy for government bureaucrats.

During last week’s argument of Citizens United, Justice Breyer suggested to Ted Olson (representing Citizens United) that Congress had a compelling interest for the restrictions it enacted and thought it had narrowly tailored them.  So, the justice asked, should the Court really second-guess Congress?  Mr. Olson forthrightly replied, “You must always second-guess Congress when the First Amendment is in play.”  Exactly so, regardless of the medium of communication at issue, and a fortiori must courts stringently second-guess the FCC when it is infringing free speech, directly or indirectly, as it is wont to do all too frequently.

Whatever the ruling in Citizens United, we can only hope the chief justice’s words reverberate loudly the next time the FCC seeks to sustain an infringement on free speech or press in the name of the public interest.

Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod.