How Media Monopolies Are Undermining Democracy and Threatening Net Neutrality
Robert Scheer: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Mark Lloyd, who has had a really interesting career both as a journalist working in electronic media, worked for NBC and CNN, won an Emmy for a documentary called Turning It Around: Urban Teens in Crisis. He knew something about kids in crisis, he grew up in Detroit, went to the University of Michigan, and his most recent book, “The Communications Crisis in America, and How to Fix It.” Mark is a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. So this communication crisis in America, is this another one of these pro-Trump, or following Trump or against Trump stories, or–?
Mark Lloyd: This was done before Trump. We anticipated that someone like Trump might be elected. But it is about the fact that most Americans are not able to get the information that they need to keep themselves safe, to make sure they know where to send their children to school, where to get the best medical care, or a wide variety of things about their financial well-being and other things important to them. And that people don’t get this information, which is often local, and they get lots of stuff.
RS: Give me some examples. I mean, it all sounds worthwhile enough; people should have–what are we talking about, really, though? Getting swindled on bank loans, or lousy schools, or–?
ML: Well, so one of the things that we focus on is what happened with Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Irene. And the fact that you had telecommunications, both the Internet services and the telephone services, that did not work properly to help warn people, to help them figure out where their loved ones were during the crisis. But in addition, the radio stations and the television stations often didn’t do a good job of warning people and letting them know what was going to happen, what time they needed to be able to get out of those environments. Or again, helping them locate their loved ones or figure out how to withstand the damage of this hurricane. Which we knew was coming. So there was no surprise here, but once again in the U.S. our priorities are to make sure that people are making money in communications, and not making sure that people are safe with the communication services that they use.
RS: So we’re not even talking about whether they’re being informed about trade with China or the war in Syria; we’re talking about actually material about what they need for their well-being.
ML: To stay alive. We’re talking about what information do you need to stay alive. And again, we’re not really doing a very good job providing that information, which is why it’s a crisis. This is not a silly thing, it’s not minimal, it’s not a little thing; this is about–and it’s not just how do you stay alive; how does your elderly mother stay alive? How do the people who are in hospitals stay alive? What do they need to know about what’s coming? Because we know with global warming, and I do believe we have global warming–
ML: –that we’re going to have increased environmental crisis in the U.S. and other countries, right? But do we have the communication system that we need to make sure that the towers stay up, that the lines actually work, that people actually get the information in their local communities to stay safe? I mean, that’s one of the basic things. There are a wide variety of things, again, including, as you suggested, financial information, healthcare information, educational information, how do you participate effectively in your community. And we are not necessarily getting that information. Because, again, local television stations, local radio stations are being bought out by large chains which are not concerned about providing service to the local community.
RS: OK, so let me take you to your area of expertise in working in this industry, both as a journalist and then you went, after a successful career as a broadcast television reporter, you went to law school–
RS: –and became a leading expert on communications law, went to work, well, partially by going to work for the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. And you know a great deal about rulemaking and regulation, and that all seems to be under attack now. And now we can turn some fire on the President Trump; he seems to have no respect at all for this kind of regulation, accountability, and so forth. And he’s appointed people who are quite critical of past efforts. When you were at the FCC, you tried to make the FCC, you tried to make television and radio more accountable. And what’s going on?
ML: So I was hired at the FCC to help the FCC figure out really what needed to be done to make sure that all Americans–all Americans–had access to broadband service; that all Americans had the participation or had the possibility of buying or owning a radio station or a television station; and what needed to be done to make sure that there was a diversity of ownership and a diversity of access to a wide variety of media. That’s why I was hired at the FCC. President Obama was concerned about that; Congress at the time was concerned about that. Things have changed. We had an election, elections have consequences; we have my former colleague [FCC Chairman] Ajit Pai, who was a deputy general counsel when I was an associate general counsel; ah–
RS: Is associate higher than deputy?
ML: No, deputies are higher. But we were roughly around, we had different levels of responsibility and different areas of responsibility. My responsibility was localism and diversity, and that’s what I was focused on. And I don’t know how you get media consolidation and media diversity at the same time. So this was the argument, and we began working on it.
RS: OK, let’s go through this debate, because this has been going on forever.
RS: You know, the Founding Fathers, whatever their other failings, recognized in our Constitution that communications, whether through speech or press or assembly, was absolutely essential to the functioning of democracy. And with it, an informed public; otherwise it’s a charade, it’s you know, women in Iraq holding up their purple stained fingers but not knowing anything other than what the Ayatollah wants them to know. And so this was really a challenge, and as has been pointed out by you–I’ve read your work–more eloquently, really, than almost anyone else, that in the Constitution itself, not just the Amendments, the Post Office is enshrined. And the Post Office is enshrined as the major means of communication and informing the public.
ML: At the time, a revolutionary way of making sure that all members of the public, whether they were citizens or not, had the ability to communicate with each other about what the government, their government, should be doing. Again, this was revolutionary; there was no other country that did anything close to this in the late 1700s. And that really formed our democracy.
RS: As a USC professor, could you tell us which clause we’re talking about?
ML: Well, so, in Article One of the Constitution that sets out the powers of Congress, it says the Congress shall establish a Post Office and post roads. And the Post Office Act of 1792, this is all getting maybe more technical than you want, but–
RS: No, no, but people should know. After beating the Brits and making a revolution, right up there in the main document–we always talk a lot about the Bill of Rights, but–
ML: The Amendments, that’s right. Again, and this is in the Constitution, not the Amendments to the Constitution, but in the Constitution. And again, this was revolutionary, what the founders did; it was a way to hold these conflicting, fighting, very different former colonies together, their ability to communicate. And what’s important to understand is that the Founders understood this is a popular government; in their words, this was not this government over there, but we were the government; that the people were the government, and that if we were to figure out how to rule ourselves, we had to be able to communicate with each other whether we were in Virginia or Vermont or Rhode Island or wherever we were. As a result of that, they created at the center of our government, the most important, the largest, the wealthiest [laughs], the most people–the Post Office. It was the largest part of our federal government through and past the Civil War. Again, it was revolutionary, what they did. And we’ve essentially destroyed it.
RS: So let’s get to the current situation. And one reason I wanted to do this podcast right now is you’ve written a couple of articles for Truthdig–I happen to be the editor–about what’s going on now under President Trump. And they concern two pressing contemporary issues that have these historical antecedents. One, what about ownership, what about control? In the age of the Internet, the issue of net neutrality comes up. And it’s been mystified, it’s been sidetracked; where do we stand on net neutrality? Because after all, right now when we talk about media, the medium we really have to talk about is the Internet; that’s where people even read the old legacy press magazines and so forth. So net neutrality is critical; are we going to have, as I understand it, in net neutrality, a level highway that we can all enter with our different cars and see which one wins the race or has appeal to people? And the other article that I thought was particularly strong that you wrote was about opening the door to even greater concentration of ownership. Could you take us through your point on those two?
ML: OK. So first of all, net neutrality. The challenge with net neutrality is less about what the FCC calls open Internet rules–so does everyone have access, are the rules open and transparent, are the Internet service providers being fair to all the people who want to get on the Internet. It’s less about that, which everyone says they agree about; it’s just whether the federal government has the power to enforce those rules, and whether the federal government has the power to punish the Internet service providers who actually violate those rules. Comcast and Verizon have violated the net neutrality rules in the past, and they said they agreed with them and then they violated them. Now, I understand why they violated them, because they want to manage their networks, right? The problem is, do we as the government, as the people making sure that these companies operate in the public interest, have the ability to enforce those rules? And that’s really what the battle is about.
RS: Well, the good guys bad guys is complicated here. I’m talking to Mark Lloyd, who’s one of the leading experts on communication, a professor at the University of Southern California in the School of Communication, wrote an important new book called “The Communication Crisis in America, and How to Fix It,” but was a broadcast journalist for many years and a lawyer for the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. It’s interesting; on the question of net neutrality, and then we’ll get to media concentration of ownership, some of the people who are favored–I know I go to the Webby Awards because Truthdig has won about five of them, and I was always surprised to find plenty of people in the Internet community, at Google or Apple or others, favor net neutrality and make a big show of it–
ML: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
RS: –so what is this conflict between those mega corporations and the carriers? How do you see the breakdown on net neutrality, and are we going to lose the battle? I’ll be very honest about it, I think it’s a very important battle, so I want to win it, because there couldn’t be a publication like Truthdig if there wasn’t net neutrality, or any of the other smaller, interesting publications, whether they’re of the right or left or what have you. Are we starting to lose that? Are we going to lose it under Donald Trump’s new FCC?
ML: Well, there’s some of it that’s already been lost, but that’s not to say that it won’t be regained. We should not be naive about the notion that this has somehow become a partisan issue. It’s mystifying about why it’s been a partisan issue, but it is a partisan issue now. The challenge is that organizations like Google, like Netflix, like Facebook–they don’t really provide you with Internet service. What they provide you with is the entertainment, with the application that you need to search the Internet, with your ability to connect with your friends and things like that because you’re connected to an application. The Internet Service Providers–the Comcasts, the AT&Ts, the Verizons, those folks actually provide you with Internet service. That’s where the rubber meets the road. So Google, Facebook, these other companies–they don’t want to have to pay any more than they have to to have access to you. Perhaps more important, innovators, which Facebook at one time was, or Twitter was, an innovator–they would have to pay more than the old Facebook, than the old, you know, whatever it is, service that you get. So there is a, it’s a part of the challenge, is understanding what the Internet is, right?
RS: I love these splits in capitalism. So there is actually a group of very successful, in fact the most successful capitalists right now, that on a few issues have a very progressive point of view. One of them is keeping that Internet world free for opportunity, in a certain sense, to meet new, find new customers, find new people; the other is the surveillance state, which we don’t have time to go into a lot, but they’ve also been pretty good on keeping government out of spying. And it’s all right for them to spy on everyone and sell us stuff, but keeping government out, they’ve been good. And there was a split with the old-fashioned trunk carriers of information.
ML: Well, and one shouldn’t make any mistake; the fact that you’ve got these carriers that are carrying Google’s YouTube or carrying Netflix’s pictures, they don’t want to have to pay anything more than they’re already paying to get to you. So they would necessarily be in conflict with the Internet Service Provider. So that’s, that’s the divide.
RS: Right, there is a profit-making, mercenary interest–
ML: Absolutely, absolutely. Which is one of the reasons competition is so important.
RS: [omission] So let me raise the second question that your recent writing has dealt with. And that is the new push towards media concentration, the buying up of radio and television stations. And one example is the Los Angeles Times, which used to be family-owned under the Chandlers, was bought by the Tribune Company, the Chicago Tribune, but they had, Los Angeles Times already had television properties; Tribune had more; now they’ve split that company, once they came out of bankruptcy. And tell us about what’s going on with this new wave of media concentration. And again, is Trump responsible?
ML: No. Trump is not responsible. He is moving along a trend that has been going on, that certainly went on during the Obama time. Again, there’s nothing radically new here. The big challenge is that we have an FCC that is not really even looking at the impact of media consolidation on what it means to local communities, on what it means to whether or not folks in those local communities actually get the service that they need. So one of the things that I wrote about before, which is sort of obscure and sort of hard to figure out, is that there is this rule that local radio stations actually have to be in the local radio stations that they operate; it’s called the main control room. That these people who own this–
RS: In the local market.
ML: They have to be in that market or community, right? I use “community,” a lot of people sort of think of it as “market,” I think it’s a different thing altogether–but they have to be there. Part of what it is that this FCC, the Pai FCC, has suggested, is that they don’t really have to be there anymore. That they can operate at a distance, sort of pipe in programs from far away, you know, pipe in sales; which is really not local service anymore.
RS: See, people should understand, and we have to make it clear; local radio and television stations have to get a separate license. The networks don’t get licenses; they can own a certain number of these stations and so forth. And the whole licensing process is supposed to be one in which there is accountability. Because after all, if you have a local radio station it means no one else can broadcast on that signal. So the U.S. government is making a decision that you can have that spectrum space, right? And that’s giving you an advantage, in return for which they were expected to give news or be accountable to the community, or be representative of the community. And this was true including not just commercial–well, not only commercial educational licenses, that’s where public radio and television came from and so forth; that’s all sort of under assault now, in a really more invigorated way, isn’t it?
ML: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, at least with the challenges that we had during the Obama administration and the Clinton administration, at least, there was an understanding that these stations, that all licensees had an obligation to operate in the public interest. Now, whether they did a great deal about that or not is often debatable and arguable, and there are many of us who felt they did not do enough, even including when I worked at the FCC. We did not do enough to make sure that local communities were actually getting the service from the people that they got, that got a license to serve them, right. So what’s happening now is not only that these rules are sort of vague and not really particularly well enforced; it’s that we have an administration that has sent signals to the broadcasters, to the telecommunications companies that provide Internet service, that these rules will not be enforced. And that’s the most important thing that Ajit Pai has done. So it’s not simply that we’ve got these rules, that we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do; there’s not even the threat. They’ve been sent a very clear signal: you can do what it is that you want to do if you have a license to operate, if you are a broad band provider, you can do whatever you want, we’re not going to enforce net neutrality, whether it’s determined to be legal or not legal. This FCC is not going to enforce it.
RS: But people should understand, if we don’t regulate–this is not an industry you can say, well, let’s just not regulate it. Because then you’ll have static, right? I can go and broadcast on someone else’s space, and you won’t hear anything, OK? So without the government or some agency saying you own that space, you’ll hear noise, right?
ML: Right. That’s right.
RS: OK. So there can’t be a question of do you regulate or not regulate; the question is what interests are you regulating in, right?
ML: That’s exactly right.
RS: Because these stations will be the first ones to scream if they got static coming out because someone, some pirate was coming in on them. So what would your old colleague–why is he doing this?
ML: So the argument is–let me see if I can present it as fairly as possible, right?
RS: Well, don’t try too hard. What is he really up to?
ML: No, this is–and I think he really believes that our country works best when the investors, when the entrepreneurs, when the people who spend the money to make these things happen, are able to operate without government interference.
RS: But let me ask you a question, OK. Somebody gets ahold of a station that had a license, a local license, whatever. And they say OK, I’m going to pipe in music from my Florida headquarters; I don’t care who lives there; and one way or another I’ll make a buck out of this. How can you justify saying they should retain the local license?
ML: Again, it’s called efficiency, right? It makes the most amount of money for the shareholders with the least amount of expense; it is the way capitalism operates. And we are a capitalist society, in that the first obligation that these broadcasters have is no longer keeping their license or serving local communities; the first obligation that the capitalist has is making money for the shareholders, for the investors in the company. And those investors in the company, if they’re not happy with what that company is doing, they take out their money; and what happens as a result of that is that you don’t get the service that you were expecting from your local radio or television station. So the logic is, if you want these capitalist operations–these radio stations and television stations–to work efficiently, effectively, then you need to make sure they work for the shareholders.
RS: But don’t they really make another argument, I think, that has more appeal, which is that the whole technology has changed? And so we used to talk about television, there were what, three networks, and yes, they could own all these different stations but you know, it was a limited game. And now we have great diversity, you know, right, through originally cable, now satellite, now the Internet, you can hear anything you want out there. So regulation is really a thing of the past.
ML: Yeah, that’s the other argument. So the other argument is like, why do you need to regulate? Because you’ve got access to everything that you want, anytime that you want.
RS: So what’s the answer to that?
ML: Well, that’s nonsense. So the fact of the matter is, there are significant portions of the United States where people rely, believe it or not, still on print newspapers. Where people rely, believe it or not, still on radio, still on broadcast television, not cable television. There are people who cannot afford cable television. There are people who cannot afford the Internet. There are people who have difficulty hearing and seeing, who need different means of communication. The notion that the Internet is the only thing is simply wrong. It is important to understand this is an extraordinarily diverse country with people who rely for, again, critical information in different languages, in different ways of being able to communicate effectively with each other, and sometimes that’s the Internet but sometimes it’s not. And if we are going to make sure that all those folks get the communication that they need, we need to actually increase diversity, not rely on one single way of communication. We need to diversify the way that we communicate so that we reach all Americans. Not some Americans, not just the Americans who can afford the Internet, but all Americans.
RS: OK, but let me ask you, Mark, and I think you’re a man of vision; but you ain’t getting any younger, right? How old are you now, what range?
ML: Well, I’m getting up there. I’m old enough to have a 30-year-old daugher. [Laughs]
RS: Oh, OK. And I’m much older than you are. And I know some younger people listening to this, and hopefully some are, or my students, our students at USC, they might respond that this is an old argument. We will find our news; we will find our sources. And to them I raise a different set of questions: I say, well, wait a minute; but why is Facebook so important? And to what degree can Facebook control the flow of information, or what is a Google search, or to what degree is Google ordering that? And then you get into a much trickier area of regulation. And I wonder whether fighting about some of these older FCC issues and station ownership is missing the point that the modern challenge is that the data miners, the people who can sell stuff without producing much content–Facebook, Google and so forth–they control the action. And they can actually sidestep even–you know, people think they’re getting news, they may be getting it from The New York Times, they don’t even know anymore, right? And what about this modern challenge, and how–and you know, FCC was put in business, what, in the thirties by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, goes back a long time. Who could regulate, who is regulating the modern, the Facebooks, the Googles, and so forth?
ML: We have very good reason to be concerned about the Googles and the Facebooks, social media, Internet regulation, whether it’s privacy, whether it’s access and open Internet rules, whether they are young people or whether they are sophisticated Internet users like you–people should be concerned about what’s happening with the Internet. There is–and I share that concern. There are many of us who have great hopes that the Internet is going to solve many of our problems, right? I frankly don’t have a great deal of challenge in talking to young people about the fact that they probably have uncles and aunts and maybe even grandparents and others that rely on something that’s not on Facebook, that rely on information that doesn’t come from the Internet. And they can see that, if they care about their parents, if they care about their aunts and uncles, they understand that we should care. So that’s not the big challenge. The big challenge is, we tend to focus on one dominant media at a time. We did this in the 1960s and 1970s regarding television. You know, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was originally the Corporation for Public Television? There wasn’t even a provision for radio. Because the dominant media at the time, what people thought was the most important thing, the only thing to be concerned about–was television. That’s not right. The fact of the matter is, we need to make sure that all of these forms of communication–if we care about diversity–that they operate successfully. Now, one of the things that’s unusual–and I’m an old broadcaster; I still love broadcasting. Free, over-the-air radio; free, over-the-air television is really not at all like having to pay for a $600 smartphone, having to pay for regular Internet feed, having to pay for cable service. Free, over-the-air broadcasting is invaluable. It is, in many ways, what made modern America; the ability, whether it’s music or news or what it is, to find out what it is that your neighbors are concerned about, what’s being talked about at the national level and at the international level. This is what made our modern country: the ability to share in the hearings over Watergate, the ability to find out how other people were mourning the death of John Kennedy; these are extraordinarily important events that we could share as a nation together. Where there was the attack on 9/11 on the World Trade Center, people went to television. Free, over-the-air television, right? This is extraordinarily important, and “free” is important; there are still millions of people in America that rely on this free, over-the-air service. That’s what is at risk. Now, again, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about the Internet; it’s just, we have to be concerned about all of it.
RS: You’ve been involved with public broadcasting, public television–
ML: And that’s how we fix it.
RS: –and–OK, that may be how you fix it, but the fact is, public television and radio are increasingly relying on a form of advertising, sponsorship, wealthier people who can influence the direction of these stations who contribute, and so forth. And you know, what’s your answer? Is there still the idea, get behind public radio and television, or–?
ML: Listen, if we can get behind building bombs; if we can get behind making sure that we’re surveilling all of America; if we can build gigantic machines that make sure that immigrants don’t come into this country; we should be able to find the ability to support a strong, robust, public media. That’s not just television or radio, but that’s also the Internet, that people can access, that they can learn on, that they can participate in. We have the money as a country to do that; we don’t do it. And if we can do it, imagine doing that–that solves the emergency communication problem. Immediately. Public broadcasters, radio, television, whether they work on the Internet, however they work, they actually operate in every community and they can solve the problem if there’s a tsunami, if there is a firestorm, if there is a hurricane, if there is a tornado. There’s something happening and your public broadcasting has the ability to communicate, but they need the money to do it. We as a federal government, as a country, we–this is an extraordinarily wealthy country. We need to make sure that those local public radio stations, those local public television stations, have enough money and are mandated to provide news, weather, discussions of important issues like how to avoid something terrible that happens in your community, and how to prepare yourself for that. There is enough money to make sure that that system is in place. That’s how we fix the communications crisis in America.
RS: That’s a good point on which to conclude this. And let me thank the poorly paid people who helped us do this. Our producers have been Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney, Kat Yore and Mario Diaz are the engineers at KCRW, and with a special thanks to Darin Peck here at Sports Byline in San Francisco, where he has to get us out of the studio so they can cover the Cavs and the Warriors. And thanks again for coming.
ML: Thank you.
RS: My guest has been Mark Lloyd.
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