Communications Inequality Comes Home to Roost
By Mark Lloyd
The equal ability to share information of concern to the public is among the rights that form the bedrock of our nation. In deciding what to share and what to view, all members of the public need to be reasonably free from surveillance. And as important as international and national affairs are, we remain a country where a vast amount of power, and a vast amount of what needs to be discussed, resides in state and local governments. Local governance, and what we learn as citizens through communicating about and participating in it, is vital to our federal system. These pillars—information equality, freedom from surveillance and localism—constitute long-standing tenets of our republic.
The Republican Party is in the process of dismantling these democratic foundations. The GOP, now in control of the Federal Communications Commission, is proposing to roll back the rules protecting fair access to an open internet.
The Republican-controlled Congress and the president have already tossed aside privacy protections that help guard against government and corporate surveillance. The Republican chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is proposing to eliminate the requirement that local broadcasters actually operate in the communities they are licensed to serve.
There was a time, not so long ago, when few could tell the difference between Republican and Democratic policy experts regarding the confusing and seemingly technical considerations of communications policy. That time has passed. And it is time all of us wake up to the now deeply partisan nature of the legislators and regulators who determine who gets to speak to whom and at what cost.
This should not come as a surprise. If clean air and banking and energy regulation can become infected by the disease of right-wing lockstep, why would our communications policies be considered immune?
Signs of this increasing partisanship over communications policy go back to the Reagan years, when the Republican FCC Chairman Mark Fowler wondered why television should be treated any differently than toasters. There once was a requirement that local broadcasters ask a diverse group of local leaders what important issues should be covered in their community. The broadcasters were then required to report quarterly to the FCC how the station programming was addressing those issues.
The Reagan Republicans got rid of that stipulation in 1984. They also made it more difficult to challenge a broadcaster’s license while making it easier to get a license renewed and extending license terms. In the meantime, they stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and determined that the National Association of Broadcasters’ code of conduct was a violation of antitrust law. The U.S. has never recovered from this dramatic break from a bipartisan understanding of public interest law.
The early hope that cable TV would solve the “vast wasteland” of broadcast was revealed to be a cruel joke after a few years, but those hopes were soon replaced by even greater hopes for the new commercial internet. The current confused conflict over what some call net neutrality is only the most recent sign that partisanship has destroyed any realistic democratic hopes for the internet.
It remains to be seen whether Republican Party loyalist Pai will succeed in once again limiting FCC oversight of broadband, but he is sending a clear signal to internet service providers that they may do what they will and the nation’s guardian of the public interest will look the other way.
And no, the Democrats have not done a great job of advancing the public interest. It took far too long for Democrats to step up and reverse the lie that advanced telecommunications services (i.e., “broadband”) were really not telecommunications services, while they did little to break the monopolies of the internet service providers. Democrats, going back to Carter and Clinton, have allowed the increasing consolidation of broadcasting. And they have watched silently as public media was starved into near irrelevance.
While the elite are worried about slow internet service, red-state Americans remain stuck in media deserts with little information about what their local elected leaders are doing, and blue-state Americans are saturated with commercials and crime stories. All of us are overwhelmed by the angry rhetoric and lies from newspapers, radio, TV, cable, online sources and social media dominated by the right.The result of our communications policies is that a third of Americans failed to understand during the election that the right-wing rhetoric about Obamacare was also about the Affordable Care Act upon which they had come to depend. The result of our communications policies is that too many Americans doubt the scientific consensus that climate change is real and believe that the undocumented workers the farm factories rely upon to pick our food are dangerous criminals. The result of our communications policies is a lack of trust in journalism and a vulnerability to fake news. The Republican attack on public interest laws, laws meant to reduce communications inequality, has made the U.S. more vulnerable to uninformed tribalism and successful disinformation campaigns.
The structural problems of communications inequality have come home to roost in the election of Trump, a reality TV star and Twitter junkie. He speaks with the same incoherence and knows as much about foreign affairs and the lives of “the blacks” and the “bad hombres” as those who speak on the 11 o’clock news. He is the inevitable result of Democratic incompetence and Republican-driven communications policies going back to Ronnie Reagan.
So what is to be done?
Sure, go ahead and send letters to the FCC and your members of Congress. Go ahead and protest at the FCC headquarters. In the meantime, public interest lawyers must challenge all the rules pushed through under the reckless Pai administration. Perhaps that will stall implementation of those rules long enough to have an election in which citizens are clear they are voting against media consolidation and for an open internet.
Go ahead and march in the street shouting at the top of your lungs and carrying signs mocking Pai. But Democratic congressional candidates must make it clear that they think all Americans should have access to Big Bird on public television, and to information that might keep them safe when the next hurricane hits. Go ahead and make noise, and keep it up. Perhaps that will help people stay focused so that in 2018 they can elect a Congress that will enact budgetary restrictions and hamstring whatever Pai is able to rush through until he is permanently replaced. Perhaps the Donald and his handlers at Breitbart will finally get the Democrats to wake up and really address the structural issues of communications inequality in our nation.
Mark Lloyd is a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is a lawyer, a public policy advocate and an Emmy award-winning journalist, as well as the former associate general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission.Your support matters…
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