Thursday, August 10, 2006

"Et tu NPR?"

Take a look -- or listen -- to NPR's "Morning Edition" story this morning (August 10) regarding the phone companies' lobbying of Congress to permit their entry into cable television. It's about the last story in the first hour of the two-hour program. (The list of morning stories is represented to be available about 7:30 a.m. CT, with audio of those stories about 9:00 CT. The Web site is Look for "Morning Edition," and then the story.) [Added 8:00 CT: See "Telephone Companies Fight Cable Franchise Law,"]

You tell me, but to my ear it sounded like a very one-sided presentation ("repeating not reporting") of the phone companies' propaganda. Yes, there were brief clips from a Consumer Reports' spokesperson, and someone from the Montgomery County, Maryland, cable regulatory body. But the preponderant emphasis throughout was on a Verizon spokesperson's complaints about how difficult it would be for them to get franchises from each community.

There is no opposition from business to either federal or local regulation that is grounded in ideology. The opposition is to whichever is most effective.

In the early days of cable, the industry found it relatively easy to bamboozle and bribe local city council members into grantiing long-term franchises with very few requirements or protections for local customers. The locals didn't know much about cable -- either its potential for local communties (such as local cable access channels) or its potential for overreaching and abuses. At that point in time the cable industry thought local regulation a dandy idea. Just keep the FCC out of it.

As the local communties got more savvy, and started a bidding process to exact ever more from those seeking the very lucrative local franchises, the idea of FCC regulation looked more and more attractive to the industry. They asked for and got it -- but weren't able to negotiate a total elimination of local control.

That's the game the phone companies are attempting today with Congress and the FCC. It's understandable. If you have to be regulated, who wouldn't opt for "regulation" by today's do-nothing FCC?

But the big story here is not the inconvenience to the telephone companies of local franchising, or the joys felt by the interviewed home owners over their HDTV reception -- as if HDTV is only available to those with telephone-company-provided television!

The big story is, once again, the role of campaign contributions and heavy lobbying, the willingness of members of Congress to roll over, not only the interests of their constituents but the very city governments that make up their districts.

And, once again, we're the ones who will be paying the bills -- the 1000-to-1 to 2000-to-1 return that campaign contributors get for their money* -- just like we are now paying for pharmaceuticals and gas.

Nor is the money all that we'll lose. With the loss of local franchises goes the local franchise fees paid by the companies to support city employees who hear our complaints and negotiate with company representatives, and who oversee, monitor and audit company performance. Gone are the local access channels for, in Iowa City, the University, Kirkwood, School District, Local Government, Public Library, and the general public. Gone are the requirements that the entire community be wired -- rather than companies favoring the wealthiest sections of town.

How about telling us that story NPR, you who were established to provide a "non-commercial" alternative to commercial media and a political process controlled by big money?
* For the documentation on the "1000-to-1" assertion, see Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996.


Nicolai Brown said...

Hey Nick,

I'm not sure I follow a statement in your post -- could you help me out?

And, once again, we're the ones who will be paying the bills -- the 1000-to-1 to 2000-to-1 return that campaign contributors get for their money* -- just like we are now paying for pharmaceuticals and gas.

What bills are you talking about -- those demanded by government-backed media monopolies?

Nicolai said...

Okay, after reading it again several times, I finally noticed *.

Nick said...

Nicolai: Yeah, you got it. There are many ways that campaign contributors can get their 1000:1 or 2000:1 return on their "investment." Some don't even require the use of taxpayers' money. For example, when Bush slapped a tariff on imported steel (in violation of WTO) it raised the price of steel for the auto industry and other buyers (and steel company profits along with it), but transferred no taxes.

In the case of phone companies in the cable TV business we also "pay" in the form of loss of local access TV channels, and the poor pay in not having access to cable at all, etc. So just as government can enrich the campaign contributors without using taxes, so we can pay in ways other than out-of-pocket financial. -- Nick