Hardly a day goes by without President Donald Trump attacking some part of the mainstream media for what he calls fake news. These attacks, usually in the form of early-morning tweets, are in turn much discussed in the media throughout the day especially on cable news. Some days, it seems as if Trump’s tweets are all that is discussed.
But there is another, quieter campaign being waged by members of the Trump administration. And this one is radically changing the media landscape and our information ecosystem as it wipes out decades of congressionally mandated regulatory controls intended to protect consumers.
As dangerous to democracy as Trump’s overt attacks on the press are, this second front is the one that threatens to choke off the free flow of information crucial to a functioning democracy. From loosening ownership limits in local TV, to rolling back net neutrality, Team Trump is making the media world safe for a few giant conglomerates to control the kind of information citizens have access to, while at the same time pumping disinformation, propaganda and lies out of the White House. The potential is enormous for confused citizens who do not know where to turn for the kind of trustworthy, verified information needed to make sound choices about their lives.
What’s is most shocking is how much structural change has already been wrought in less than a year since Trump’s inauguration.
Ajit Pai, who was elevated to chair of a now Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission by Trump, has been the White House’s tip of the spear on media change in 2017. This past week, he landed another major blow to media as we have known it when the FCC ended net neutrality on a straight party-line vote of 3-2 on Thursday.
Net neutrality isn’t the most inherently exciting topic.
“The only two words in the English language more boring than ‘net neutrality’ are 'featuring Sting, '” is the way comedian John Oliver put it on an episode of his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” (I think he’s being unfair to Sting. I kind of liked “The Last Ship.”)
But Oliver has shown with several deft analyses of Pai’s actions as head of the FCC that he understands better than most that the loss of net neutrality is no laughing matter.
Net neutrality demands that all content and traffic be conveyed equally on the internet. Those rules were put in place by the FCC in 2015 at the behest of the Obama administration, and the public seems to like them.
A University of Maryland poll released Tuesday found 83 percent of respondents opposed to the repeal of net neutrality rules. And that is after they were given arguments on both sides of the issue, which were vetted by experts. Is there anything in the world of media that 83 percent of Americans agree on?
The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.
“A decision to repeal net neutrality would be tacking against strong headwinds of public opinion blowing in the opposite direction,” Steven Kull, program director of the program, said in a statement.
Thursday’s FCC decision will allow giant internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon, for whom Pai once worked, to control cost of content and pace of traffic, slowing or blocking some content providers, allowing fast lanes for others. For example, Comcast, which owns NBC, can now move an on-demand stream of an NBC show to you faster, while delaying or providing less broadband space for a series from a competitor like CBS or a film from Netflix.
How long can you look at that little wheel in the middle of your screen spinning and spinning but not actually loading the desired film before you give up?
Like cable companies, internet service providers can now use the distribution pipelines they control to drive you to their content while restricting that of competitors. Or, they can charge content providers like Netflix more for the ability to provide their customers faster download speeds.
Big companies like Netflix will probably pay for faster delivery, but what about those who can’t afford the toll?
Companies like Comcast and Verizon can now all but slow some content by smaller producers — like, say, a small website that features media reporting and analysis critical of them. I wonder how long it will take in coming moths for progressive platforms that are often critical of corporate media, such as “Media Matters” or “Democracy Now,” to load on my computer.
With their new control, internet service providers can also charge consumers more for access to the fast lanes on their toll roads, setting up a tiered structure where your “free” access to the web will get you to none of the premium content you want in a timely fashion.
Sound familiar — like the cable service you are now paying $200 a month for with all sorts of fees? Not surprising, since the internet service providers who will benefit most from Pai’s actions are the same companies sending you those cable bills. If you want to get a sense of how you are going to like the brave new world of the internet without net neutrality, ask yourself how happy you were the last time you called Verizon ort Comcast about service or your cable bill.
An FCC spokesperson responded to Sun requests for comment with an email that quoted a statement the agency issued in response to the University of Maryland study.
“This is a biased survey that, among other things, makes no mention of the role that the Federal Trade Commission will play in policing anticompetitive or unfair conduct by Internet service providers. Earlier polling by Democratic pollster Peter Hart showed that most Americans believe that utility-style regulation of the Internet is harmful, and this is the regulation that the Restoring Internet Freedom order will eliminate.”
The spokesperson’s email did not respond to another question I asked in my phone message about Pai allegedly joking at a public dinner about being a puppet for Verizon.
As to the Hart poll in 2015, one of its key findings is that only one out of four adults even knew what “net neutrality” meant. Starting from that premise, their opinions about regulation might not be that informed.
As for the Federal Trade Commission, it would likely only act after the fact — not lay out and enforce specific guidelines as the FCC had historically done with insistence since the Communications Act of 1934 that broadcasters operate “In the public interest.” Its expertise is in deceptive advertising and business practices, not media monitoring.
As criticism of his proposed rollback mounted in recent months, Pai has made himself available to Fox News to talk about net neutrality.
On “Fox & Friends” last month, Pai said what the internet needs is “light touch, market-based regulation, not micromanagement from Washington, D.C.”
But it is more like no-touch as Pai looks to be systematically dismantling FCC regulatory powers granted by Congress in the Communications Act, which grew out of a belief that government was the only entity large and powerful enough to effectively police media corporations — and the FCC, with the power to grant and revoke broadcast licenses, was the agency to do it.
Moves like the one made Thursday can have huge consequences. In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which for 38 years required broadcasters to cover controversial issues of public importance in a balanced way by offering contrasting viewpoints on those issues. That political move paved the way for the premiere in national syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in 1988 a media force that played key roles in making us such a divided nation today.
Pai is working out of the same deregulation playbook not only as he rolls back net neutrality on the internet, but also wipes out rules designed to assure diversity and community-based ownership in local television.
Since assuming the chairmanship under Trump, he has led the FCC in repealing rules aimed at creating diversity and localism in station ownership. Prior to the changes, no one company could own stations reaching more than 39 percent of U.S. households. If Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media is approved it will reach an estimated 72 percent.
There is a depressing pattern to American communication history the past 150 years. Each time a new communications technology comes along, it is heralded for its ability to connect us in new and wonderful ways — promising even greater democracy. Remember how radio was going to do that, then TV and then cable? All kinds of new cable channels were promised. But before long, a few giant companies wound up owning the wires that brought those channels into our homes through monopoly deals with local governments.
Stretching all the way back to the telegraph and telephone, the pattern finds entrepreneurs and early inventors bought or squeezed out by corporate monopolies that start colonizing and controlling access. And suddenly, it’s all about profits, not democracy. Service declines; rates rise.
The internet was supposed to be the one communications technology that didn’t fit that sad pattern.
Thursday in a room at FCC headquarters in Washington, it joined the list. Let’s hear it for the FCC and the American way.