If we take media seriously at all, much of our attention focuses on the message (Is it the truth? Does it resonate? Is it biased?) and on the messenger (Is she persuasive? Is he attractive?). Increasingly, we have become concerned about the impact of new media on old media (Will the Internet take the place of TV?). But there is a concern as old as the nation’s founding that still matters, but is too often obscured by these other questions: Who owns the media? More particularly, which interest, or faction as James Madison would say, owns the media?
The nation’s founders, particularly Madison, believed that it was important for the public, not merchants, to own and support the major media distribution mechanism of the day — the post office. Public ownership of media remains an important part of U.S. communications policy, but going back as far as the days of the robber barons and the trusts battling against Teddy Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis, corporations have sought to diminish public media.
While most of us rely on corporate media (the New York Times, Verizon, Comcast, NBC, etc=), publicly-owned media continues to struggle for the place the founders established for it. This struggle is illustrated by two seemingly different examples. One involves the future of public broadcasting; the other involves the efforts of the City of Philadelphia to provide its citizens with an alternative means of communication.
In introducing a bill to re-authorize the federal entity that supports public broadcasting (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or "CPB"), Senator John McCain said:
"An April 2004 General Accounting Office (GAO) report noted that 79 percent of the public television stations surveyed found that the amount of local programming they currently produce is not sufficient to meet local community needs. Eighty-five percent of the stations surveyed stated that they do not have adequate funds for local programming or that they would produce more local programming if they could obtain additional sources of funding."
And yet, according to a study presented by Fordham professor Phil Napoli in October 2004, public television stations carried three times (3.24 hours) the amount of public affairs programming as their corporate counterparts (1.06 hours).
McCain’s bill (S. 2645) would provide the non-profit CPB the authority to award grants for the production and acquisition of local programming. But Congress has not re-authorized the non-profit CPB since 1996, and no action is planned to pass McCain’s bill. In addition to the failure to update CPB’s authorization, public broadcasters face a small across the board cut for the next fiscal year. Unlike nearly every other industrial nation, public broadcasting in the U.S. remains the unwanted orphan of modern market-directed communications policy. The media most of us rely upon is owned by corporations.
The delivery systems for most media in the U.S. are also controlled by corporate interests. There has been a growing interest on the part of cities and towns to create their own telecommunications service. In part this has been driven by the ever-rising cost of cable and the failure of many cable companies to provide low-cost high-speed Internet access to many communities. As Sharon Gillett at MIT Sloan found in a study this year, municipalities are playing a significant role in deploying advanced telecommunications services. Over 620 municipal power companies now provide some sort of telecommunications service to the citizens and small businesses in their communities, and that number is growing.
Telecommunications corporations have been fighting against publicly-owned competitors since the expiration of the original Bell patents in the early 1900’s. A favorite technique has long been to convince the state legislature to limit the local municipality or public utility. This time they seek to limit the ability of cities to provide a wireless Internet service known as Wi-Fi.
The telecom industry argues that requiring them to compete with local government is unfair. In a report on this issue in the Wall Street Journal, Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe is quoted as saying: "If we put that money at risk, and here comes government to compete against us, with advantages that government has – not paying taxes, access to capital at good rates . . . that severely limits the opportunity and limits our interest in taking the risk." The American Public Power Association (APPA) disputes these concerns as simplistic and provides a detailed rebuttal in their document "Community Broadband: Separating Fact from Fiction". The APPA provides evidence that shows how corporations benefit from tax rules and access to financial markets, and also shows that where municipalities have provided competitive service, such as in Tacoma, Wash., consumer rates are lower and advanced telecommunications service is more available than it was before the private corporations had a public utility to compete with.
The ability of national corporations to influence state legislatures is an old story. One recent example took place in Philadelphia. Under intense pressure from Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic and NYNEX), the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation in November that forces municipalities to get the permission of the media corporations to compete with them and provide telecommunications services. This legislation would have scuttled the plans of the City of Philadelphia to offer Wi-Fi to its citizens… but unlike in the past media activists stepped in.
A Philadelphia-based media justice group, MediaTank led by Inja Coates, organized community forums and joined with national groups including Free Press to put a spotlight on Verizon, the Pennsylvania legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell. According to Coates, reporters from across the country and overseas were calling about an otherwise obscure legislative provision. Rarely are the actions of state legislatures subject to such scrutiny. On Nov. 30, Gov. Rendell signed the bill, but only after an agreement was reached between Verizon and the City of Philadelphia. While public pressure did not kill the legislation, it did help the City of Philadelphia move forward with its plans to provide Wi-Fi to its citizens.
The Philadelphia story is a clear sign that media activism works. It is however only a partial victory. The rest of Pennsylvania will have to contend with the fact that a handful of private telecommunications corporations control the media in their state.
Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.