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2006-03-30

Report Exposes Telecom Industry’s Astroturf Lobbying Groups

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Common Cause on Tuesday released a new report exposing "Astroturf" lobbying groups and other allies created by the telecommunications industry to pressure lawmakers to enact industry-friendly policies as Congress debates critical issues worth billions of dollars to the industry. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chellie Pingree, who heads Common Cause. We wanted to ask you about a report you just put out. It’s called "Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing," and it’s about the telecom industry lobbying right now and their, what you call, front groups. Can you talk about it?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Yeah, you can find the full report on our website commoncause.org, and basically what we wanted to talk a little bit about was the lobbying activity that’s going on now as the reauthorization of the Telecom Act comes up. As you recall, the Telecom Act was put forward first in 1996, and consumers were told, 'Oh, this is going to be a great thing, we're going to have enhanced competition, much more variety, and your rates will go down for cable TV and other services.’ Well, I think everyone knows that a decade later, there’s far less competition, there’s more media consolidation, and people’s rates have increased 40% and 50%, without the promises that they were offered, so people are already disappointed, and industry sees this as an incredible opportunity for, you know, making a lot of money out there.

So, our report actually deals with this Astroturf lobbying. I mean, we’re all getting so familiar with it in any kind of, you know, big industry debate that goes on today, these front groups that make you think that, you know, they’re somehow on your side. One of them is called Consumers for Cable Choice, and they run a website called mycablenightmare.org. Well, actually they’re backed by Verizon and AT&T. And Verizon and AT&T and the cable companies, you know, they’re all at war with each other, because they really want to own the biggest share of this consumer market, and so they make you think that they’ve got these websites, they want to hear your stories, they lobby Congress, they get you to send in postcards. They do a whole variety of things.

And what we really just want to put forward is making sure people know where these groups get their money. They’re not Consumers Union. They’re not Common Cause. They’re not organizations that don’t take money from industry and really do lobby on behalf of the consumer, but they — a lot of these groups are think tanks that get funded by industry, put out reports that are clearly biased, and we just think in this very important debate, members of Congress need to know where this information is coming from, and when you see these ads in the newspaper or on TV, you realize that it’s really just somebody who is trying to make a buck off of you, not trying to make your world of how you access the media any better.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the groups, Freedom Works, has a familiar figure running it. Could you talk about that group, in particular?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Yeah, Dick Armey is very involved in that. He’s the chair, and, you know, they say they fight for lower taxes, less government and more economic freedom, but, in fact, they get a lot of contributions from Verizon, S.B.C., which is now AT&T, and they have a website or a campaign called "Choose Your Cable".

You know, again, it’s not unlike what happened during the Medicare debate, energy debates. You know, you hear about these groups, and they have these mom and apple pie names, and you think, 'Wow! You know, they're on my side.’ And people are — they’re angry about a lot of these things, and they want things to change. But you basically get duped most of the time by thinking that they’re working for you and, frankly, they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Dick Armey was the right-hand man of Newt Gingrich, former Congress member for many terms.

CHELLIE PINGREE: You know, not much changes here in Washington.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things some of these groups are doing is they’re attempting to enlist many minority organizations around the country and trying — the telecom industry trying to get many of the minority groups to line up against the cable industry. And I had an interesting conversation recently. I’m the former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and I was talking with a staff member there a couple of days ago, who told me that late last week the Association got a call from Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary, whose cold-calling organization is lining them up to support the telecoms and some legislation, and the staff member told Mr. McCurry, 'Oh, yes, we're familiar with this issue. We work very closely with Robert McChesney and the media democracy movement,’ whereupon he tells me that McCurry quickly became very cold and wanted to cut off the conversation immediately, as soon as he realized that this is one group that knew a little bit about what’s going on with media policy in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Juan, I find this very interesting, because when I was covering the White House, Mike McCurry was the press secretary for President Clinton, and the way these press briefings work every day, when Mike McCurry would come out — you know, it’s not a very fancy room, but the chairs are gold plated, the front row seats, that is. Each one has a little gold plate that says, "Wall Street Journal," "NBC," "ABC," and so when the President was going to hold a news conference, I was going to go and hopefully ask the President a question, they said, no, I would be able to go into an overflow room. I said, no, I didn’t want to watch the President on television, I wanted to ask him a question. They said, well, I would have to ask the White House reporters, the press corps, the head of it, and I said, so I’m going to ask, Pacifica is going to ask permission of General Electric, Viacom — right, General Electric owns NBC; Viacom, which at the time owned CBS; Cap Cities, which owned ABC at the time; Dow Jones, which owned the Wall Street Journal. But I find what’s interesting about this comment is that the former White House press secretary, Mike McCurry, is really lobbying for the further consolidation of the media, the very White House press corps that he — where he was supposed to be encouraging free press and free speech.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in terms of the — one of the big issues with the telecoms is this whole concern of theirs that they are now going into cable — providing cable service — Verizon calls it FiOS — where because their market is mature now for telephones and they’re not going to grow anymore on land lines, so they are trying to get the government to basically exempt them from having to go city-by-city, as the cable companies did, to win franchise approval from local governments. They want it all done at the national and the state level, and this is one of the things I think that Armey’s group is very involved in.

CHELLIE PINGREE: That’s true.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your response to that effort?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, again, you know, I mean, one of our concerns is that this is an inside-the-industry fight for, just as you said, a market share and an opportunity to make a lot more money. We haven’t seen in the past that any of these organizations, major corporations, have been on our side as consumers or as people who want more diversity in the media. So why would they be on our side now? And basically, what they’re doing is spending a tremendous amount of money in an internal kind of debate between these players in the telecom industry, trying to make you think that one of them is going to do what’s right for you, and I don’t think there’s any possible argument here that shows that there’s something that’s going to end up being better for consumers. It’s not been good in the past.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t it a little more than just a battle within the industry, because by the phone companies seeking to abrogate the rights of local municipalities to exact some sort of agreements with these cable providers, they’re in essence centralizing government control at the federal level over telecommunications and limiting the possibility of the public being able to hold these media companies accountable through their local municipal and state governments?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Oh, you’re absolutely right. This idea of having a federal franchise is clearly designed to take, again, a local voice out of it, and it’s true. One of the few voices that consumers and activists continue to have today is over cable contracts and how they’re negotiated, local cable councils, local access TV in some places, so you’re absolutely right. This is one of the last sort of holds that we have, and you’ve seen over the last, you know, two decades, citizens in our country have really lost control over the broadcast airwaves, over many of the rules that govern them, and I think the big giants clearly are just looking for more and more ways to continue to take that away from us.

AMY GOODMAN: And while the telecom industry and the cable industry are competing with each other, they do seem to agree on one thing, and that’s doing away with public access, and this is a big crisis in the country, because those are the locally negotiated franchises with cable companies in each municipality.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Absolutely. It’s one of the few ways we still have an ability to interact here. What you can see is, as technology gets more and more sophisticated, our fights continue to change. You know, we spend a lot of time fighting over the broadcast airwaves and lost a tremendous amount, and we should still say in those fights about media ownership and public interest obligation, but now it’s shifting into issues like this and issues around net neutrality, how information is going to start coming to us in the future and whether there will be, you know, holds on those kinds of free and open access. Frankly, these guys are very smart. They’re fighting us on all fronts, and there’s a lot of battles.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chellie Pingree, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

CHELLIE PINGREE: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Head of Common Cause.

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