Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller
Earlier this year, Obama Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed relaxing media ownership rules to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. It’s not something you’ll see discussed much, because Republicans like the fact that Murdoch is going to get more power, while Democrats don’t want to admit that Obama is helping the person framed as their arch-nemesis. This is part of a larger pattern – media consolidation is one of the many structural problems that Obama promised to deal with. And indeed, this is the real arena where the battle over free speech is being fought. Corporate control over our communications infrastructure is the free speech question of our time.
Backed by tech billionaires and consumer advocates in 2008, Obama argued for a dramatic restructuring of communications policy (versus Hillary Clinton, whose advisors were traditional telecom lobbyists). Candidate Obama made the right noises, from a strong stance on net neutrality to opposition to media consolidation to expanded broadband access. In this case, there were billionaires who valued the right policies, not just do gooders. For instance, here’s a little noted part of Democratic Party platform from 2008.
We will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.
Of course, as is consistent with Obama’s main policy arc, after winning, Obama neutralized the reform groups and quickly reverted to a model of policymaking that is slightly more pro-corporate than Bush’s. He appointed Genachowski, a law school classmate known as an intellectual and moral lightweight, to run the FCC, and ensured that Larry Summers in the White House would sideline any attempts to fight against media and telecom barons. Here’s the predictable outcome, in a Free Press filing.
There has been “a nearly 20 percent decline in the level of minority ownership since 2006, and a net loss of six minority-owned stations since the Commission last collected data in October 2011. In a nation where African Americans comprise 13 percent of the population, there are only 5 African American-owned full-power commercial TV stations, just 0.4 percent of the total. This is a 76 percent decline in just 6 years.
In other words, the record of the Obama administration and corporate free speech is terrible, with one significant exception, when the administration blocked the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. This horrific record is largely because of the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, a man who has managed to take a position renowned for corruption and somehow manage to make his predecessors look noble. Not only is he roundly despised by most consumer advocates, who consider him the worst FCC Chairman in history, but he’s also thought of as weak, stupid, and feckless by the corporate sector. Mostly Genachowski panders to the telecom giants, which would normally gain him adherents in that group. But his weakness and lack of attention or understanding of the details of his job overshadows what would normally be a standard DC model of operating. For example, Genachowski made moves to block the AT&T and T-Mobile merger, but only after the Department of Justice did. Nobody respects that, not the AT&T lobbyists or the consumer advocates.
Bush’s last FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was a power hungry autocrat, but he was competent and would enact policies to punish his corporate enemies. That’s why the Bush administration FCC ruled against Comcast when that company tried to violate the principle of net neutrality on its network. By contrast, Genachowski’s FCC, with a mandate to expand broadband, has implemented toothless regulations on net neutrality while America’s offerings of broadband continue to get slower and more expensive than those elsewhere in the world. Martin wanted to govern, Genachowski wants to be liked. That such a loser is in such a powerful position is why media consolidation continues apace, and why the Obama administration is effectively pushing for Rupert Murdoch to own the major newspapers in LA and Chicago.
On a more fundamental level, media consolidation and free speech are indistinguishable problems, and liberals have avoided the intellectual conundrum this presents. For while there are periodic flare-ups of the debate free speech rights, very rarely does anyone take the time to analyze the economics of speech. The controversy about Eric Loomis, a professor who spoke out obnoxiously and aggressively against the NRA and then had his academic career threatened as a result, is the latest round in kicking up a free speech debate. But this controversy is far less consequential than questions of how the corporate sector uses free speech rights. The first amendment is not actually an affirmative right to speak. It is written as the government’s inability to make any laws restricting the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, or to petition one’s government. Obviously the government makes rules all the time on the first amendment – that’s what a permit for a march, parade, or protest is. And it makes rules on speech on a regular basis, it just so happens that these are rules about who owns and runs the telecommunications and cable industries.
In fact, questions of free speech are questions more about the design principles of our system of communications, not censorship. This paper by first amendment expert Marvin Ammori has all the gory legal details. But basically, the knotty problem comes in this example – Verizon claims that it has a first amendment right to censor the internet accessed by its customers. The argument is, the government can’t tell Verizon to let your emails go through, since that would be the government making a law restricting Verizon’s editorial freedom of speech on its network. The corporate right to free speech cannot be ignored when discussing free speech as a right – corrupt ratings agencies central to the financial crisis defended themselves on first amendment grounds, and Fox News has claimed the right to distort the news. Telecoms have blocked text messages from abortion rights groups due to their “unsavory” nature and cable networks have blocked political ads criticizing those very networks.
The First Amendment is a noble statement of principle, but when inverted to serve corporate interests it is also very profitable for liberal legal types like Floyd Abrams. Abrams defended the New York Times and the leak of the Pentagon Papers, is an ACLU legend, and now works for the ratings agencies and Mitch McConnell. His greed and intellectual perversion is evident. In this revealing profile in the New York Times, Abrams said, “People sometimes have views of what side of issues I should be on that have little to do with reality.” But, he says. “I don’t spend my life simply working for the A.C.L.U.” Indeed, he doesn’t, and how convenient for him that corporate power and personal profit sync so nicely with the principle of free speech that allowed the ratings agencies to lie us into a financial crisis without consequence.
Corporate control over our communications infrastructure is the free speech question of our time. When Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder refuses to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s company for bribery in the phone hacking scandal, and Obama’s FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski works to help Rupert Murdoch’s company buy more media assets, and the number of broadcast media outlets owned by minorities continues to decline, it’s clear we have a free speech problem. But it has nothing to do with a comment on twitter or burning flags.