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2011-04-08

At National Conference for Media Reform, a Roundtable on Journalism, Broadband and Broadcast Amidst Cutbacks and Consolidation

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Democracy Now! broadcasts from the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, where more than 2,000 media activists, journalists, academics and lawmakers have gathered during a time of massive cutbacks in the news industry and increasing concentration of media ownership. Comcast merged with NBC in January, and last month AT&T announced plans to purchase T-Mobile, a deal that could leave the country with just three wireless carriers. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission faces increasing criticism for its lack of progress on expanding the nation’s broadband system. We host a media roundtable with Craig Aaron, incoming president of media advocacy group Free Press; Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative; and Malkia Cyril, the executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the National Conference on Media Reform here in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Seaport. There are hundreds of people in the audience for this global broadcast. And it’s great to be with Juan, who yesterday in New York won, for the second time, the George Polk Award for his remarkable reporting about corruption in New York City. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Hi, and welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world and to all of you here in the audience watching this broadcast from the National Conference on Media Reform.

Over 2,000 media activists, journalists and academics and lawmakers are gathering here for the next three days to discuss ways to improve our nation’s media system. The conference comes at a time of massive cutbacks in the news industry and increasing concentration of media ownership.

Just last month, AT&T announced plans to purchase T-Mobile for $39 billion. If the deal is approved, it would leave the country with just three wireless carriers. Republican lawmakers are threatening to cut off federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund NPR, PBS and many community media outlets.

In the newspaper industry, the New York Times has just introduced a new internet paywall in an attempt to generate more revenue from online readers.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is coming under increasing criticism for moving slowly on a number of key initiatives, including expanding the nation’s broadband system.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about these and other issues, we’re joined by three guests here in Boston at the National Conference on Media Reform.

Craig Aaron is the incoming president of the media advocacy group Free Press, the organizers of the National Conference on Media Reform, or NCMR. He’s currently serving as managing director of the organization.

Sascha Meinrath is also with us. He’s director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, working primarily on community wireless networks, municipal broadband and telecommunications policy.

And we’re joined by Malkia Cyril, the executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! here at the World Trade Center at the Seaport in Boston. Craig, let’s begin with you. Talk about just the significance of this gathering of thousands of people talking about media reform and media democracy. What does that mean?

CRAIG AARON: Well, you know, I think it really is a remarkable event, Amy. I’m so glad you are both able to be here with us for it, because it brings together thousands and thousands of media activists who maybe in their town or community are the only ones who are being outspoken about what’s happening to the media, or they’re working in small groups, and they have the opportunity here in Boston to see what people are doing across the country. So, bringing everybody together at a gathering like this is a real opportunity to reenergize the movement and to begin to come up with the new strategies and stronger alliances that are going to allow us to reverse many of the things that Juan described, whether it’s attacks on the free and open internet or whether it is the relentless attacks on funding for public media. How are we going to answer questions about the future of journalism? That’s all what we’re going to be exploring this weekend, as well as just having the opportunity for all of us to get together, get to know one another a little bit better, and leave with a little bit more energy for the fight ahead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Craig, as someone who’s worked for decades in both the corporate or mainstream media, as well as the alternative media, I see two worlds. On the one hand, in the corporate media, everyone seems to be in despair about the decline of the media. On the other hand, you see this upsurge of new media. Is it a time of despair or is it a time of hope for those who want to see a journalism and a media system that promotes and helps to develop our democracy?

CRAIG AARON: Well, of course, it’s both. And out of the crisis in the mainstream media that we’ve seen also comes opportunity. And so, I think we do have the opportunity to imagine a different media system, to imagine a media system that looks more like the one we all want, covering our local communities. But we have to figure out how to bridge that gap.

We have lots of new interesting experiments. We have lots of amazing things happening at the community level. But we also have a crisis in the information our communities are receiving. We’re seeing newspapers close. We’re seeing local television and radio reporters lose their jobs. We’re seeing people not covering what state government is doing, what city government is doing, what’s happening around the world. So, I think from a policy perspective — and for us it always comes back to those policy questions — it’s what can we put in place to ensure that communities are actually getting the news and information they need. Whether that comes from part of the old mainstream media or whether it’s something new and better, in the end, it’s all about how are we getting the news and information we need to hold our leaders accountable, whether those are government leaders or corporate leaders.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about those policy issues? Two years into the Obama administration, what did Free Press expect and what has it gotten so far in terms of this administration?

CRAIG AARON: Well, there’s no question — you know, we last gathered for the National Conference for Media Reform three years ago, in 2008, and there was so much energy and excitement in the air. You know, people thought a big change was coming. Washington doesn’t change that easily. So I think there’s no question that there is some disappointment in what we’ve seen from the Obama administration. We saw them promising to take a backseat to no one on all of the issues we care about, whether it was net neutrality, media diversity. They haven’t delivered on all of those promises. In some cases, they’ve gone in the opposite direction. So, there are a lot of challenges ahead.

But I think, now, we have our eyes open, and we know what we’re dealing with. We can recognize all of the problems with the corruption in Washington and the powerful telecom and media lobbies. But there’s also energy for organizing in response to that. So, no question, Obama administration, at this point, has not delivered on all of the promises they said they were going to deliver. It doesn’t mean nothing happened. We had some very important victories on billions of dollars to expand broadband, low-power FM, really important things. At the same time, they have taken steps backward on important issues like net neutrality, making sure we have the free and open internet. And there’s a lot of issues coming up, you know, big mergers — Comcast-NBC, AT&T-Mobile — where we have good reason to be very concerned about the direction the Obama administration is heading.

AMY GOODMAN: Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, I saw you years ago in Champaign-Urbana, when — it was remarkable — Indymedia took over the post office, bought the post office as a facility for everyone to be able to have access to the internet. Describe what happened then, before we talk about the big national issues.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Sure. Well, this grew out of a lot of the global justice movement organizing that was happening around the turn of the millennium. And within this local community, within Urbana-Champaign, we really felt that it was important that we have a permanent space for arts and cultural fare, but also for media production, for a low-power FM radio station, for an arts gallery and artist studios. And we quickly realized that the only way to do that was really to become our own owner of a piece of property.

And within Urbana-Champaign, we had this kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the downtown post office was looking to get rid of a 30,000-square-foot building. We felt we could fill a 30,000-square-foot building with vibrant community media. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So, today, the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is a thriving organization, that is sort of its own community multimedia conglomerate inside the heartland of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that was remarkable. Now talk about what’s happening as you move to Washington, D.C. to deal with national policy. You’re extremely critical of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission.

SASCHA MEINRATH: That’s right. I mean, we’re looking at a crisis here in the United States. Ten years ago, when it came to broadband connectivity, the United States was at the head of the class. We were leading the globe in terms of broadband pricing, in terms of broadband speeds, in terms of the places where it was available. In a single decade, we’ve gone from first internationally to somewhere around 15th to 25th. And what we’re looking at over 10 years, the data is overwhelming. This is a massive market failure perpetuated against the U.S. populace. I mean, we’re paying now more prices for slower speeds in fewer places than a growing list of other countries around the globe.

And so, when the Obama administration came in, it came in saying, "We’re going to fix this. We’re going to bring you change." We’re now two years in, and we haven’t seen any effective mechanism to change this. Instead, what we’ve seen are these communities self-organizing, the digital justice coalitions in Philadelphia and in Detroit and local community organizations working to build alternatives, often against extremely bizarre odds, rules and regulations, state laws that make it illegal, for example, to actually build your own network, even if nobody else is providing you connectivity. And these are the kinds of battles that — we’re holding in many ways the Obama administration to the exact same metrics of success that we would have previous administrations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s the cause of that market failure? Because, on the one hand, you hear the telecom companies and the mobile service providers talking about that they want to provide universal coverage, but that they need less regulation to be able to do that. So, why is it that people are paying more, as you say, for less broadband capacity and at slower speeds?

SASCHA MEINRATH: Well, what we have in the United States is a myth of competition. And we know — I mean, you look at any classic economic theory, and they’ll tell you, you know, in a noncompetitive market, you need more parameters for that market to operate, so that consumers, so that buyers don’t get screwed. So, in the United States, we have, for example, in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC says 96 percent of Americans have two or fewer wireline broadband subscribers. So you would think, in that reality, that the FCC acknowledges in the National Broadband Plan, that they’d say, "OK, we need some sort of competition policy. We need parameters to prevent this de facto duopoly from even exist — from continuing and perpetuating higher prices and slower speeds." Instead, competition policy is almost entirely ignored in the National Broadband Plan. In fact, the National Broadband Plan never uses the word "monopoly" or "duopoly." There’s a refusal to address the reality, to even name it. And as such, our policies are unbelievably inept in actually addressing these problems that exist. So, until that shift happens, until we have meaningful competition policy, until we set parameters for markets that are protective of consumers, we’re going to continue being in a space where, in essence, broadband providers run amok.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you have the situation, though, where basically the government’s line is, "Well, you’ve got a cable company, and then you’ve got a few cell companies that can provide you broadband, and that’s the competition," that they don’t actually see the necessity for having competition within wired broadband as well as robust or ample competition among the wireless broadband providers.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Let me drive this home. So, I was talking with an economist from OECD, which does a lot of analysis of how different countries compare with one another. He lives in a rural village in France. He gets 100 megabits, which is about 10 times the speed what we get, plus video, plus telephone — free telephone to 120 countries on earth, and he pays the equivalent of about $45 a month. It’s a tiny fraction for far better services in a rural village in France. And he’s like, "Yeah, we’re kind of upset because we only have about 10 to 12 different providers to choose from." I think that really drives home just how completely defunct our market is. And so, we need to address this. And until we do, this situation is going to continue, where we’re paying far more for far worse services than a growing list of other places around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Malkia Cyril, you’re the founder of the Center for Media Justice in the Bay Area. You have been focusing on net neutrality and what it means, especially for communities of color. I assume most people who are watching, listening right now around the globe, maybe don’t even know what that term means. It’s become a buzzword, and maybe that’s part of the problem. What does "network neutrality" mean? Why is it so important?

MALKIA CYRIL: Network neutrality refers to the set of policies that would prevent the discrimination by internet service providers to — it ensures that all content on the net is treated the same, all legal content. It prevents any blocking of any content.

But I want to say this: we have — you know, it’s interesting, people keep saying, you know, "You focus on net neutrality; let’s talk about that." At the Center for Media Justice, what we’re focused on is equity. And net neutrality and, you know, preventing our content from being blocked, from being censored in that way, it’s about equity, it’s about ensuring that online our rights are protected and that there’s some — there’s some rules in place that allow us to be treated fairly, no matter who we are, no matter how we enter the internet, whether from the mobile internet or from the fixed internet, you know, from a laptop or a cell phone, that we have the same right to enter and to play a fair game. And that’s what net neutrality is all about for us. It’s about making sure that no matter who you are and no matter how you enter the internet, that your rights online are protected.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Malkia, I want to ask you about the difference that’s been evolving among the major civil rights organizations in the country around some of these issues. Back in the ’70s, there were major protests across the country; I think between 1970 and 1973, there were 350 license challenges to television and radio stations across the country by community organizations who were demanding equity and better employment practices and better coverage. So the civil rights movement played a huge role in the ’70s in diversifying and democratizing our media system.

MALKIA CYRIL: That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now we’re in a situation where the major civil rights organizations seem to be siding on some of these issues with the telecom companies, whether it’s the NAACP, the Urban League, La Raza. They’re all basically backing on these issues of net neutrality what would appear to many progressives to be the wrong side. How did that happen, and what’s being done to counter that?

MALKIA CYRIL: You know, it’s interesting, because in the news, in the media, the issue has been a debate between the civil rights community and the public interest community. But what I think is really at issue is that it’s a debate between whether or not corporations will run our democracy and run our internet service or whether or not people will. I think that the question isn’t about whether civil rights groups have sided with corporations; it’s about whether or not corporations have a stranglehold on black and brown and other communities, and poor communities. And, you know, whether civil rights groups make a decision or decide that, in fact, trying to get a piece of the pie is the best option or trying to change the shape of the pie and ensure that we all get that equity, that’s a decision, I think, that we all have to participate in.

As a person of color, as a black woman, as a head of a nonprofit organization, it’s my job to interact and engage the civil rights community at large and say, "Are we choosing the best course forward for our communities?" And, you know, that’s a different conversation than saying, you know, "NAACP, you know, Urban League, you know, LULAC, are you siding with corporations or not?" That’s not my concern. My concern is, are you choosing the best course of action for black, brown, Latino, Asian communities, Native communities across this country, or is there a better option? Is there a way for us to work together, across the lines of difference, across the lines of race, to get the kind of equity we all deserve?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting here in Boston from the National Conference on Media Reform before a live audience that’s waking up early to be a part of this global broadcast. Craig Aaron and Malkia Cyril have been working very hard on this AT&T-T-Mobile merger. Craig, talk about what this is all about. Explain what’s happened.

CRAIG AARON: Well, we’ve been talking about monopoly, and that’s basically — or duopoly. That’s what’s forming in the wireless market. We’re looking at the second-biggest company, AT&T, trying to merge with the fourth-biggest company, which is T-Mobile, to create a new giant company. And if this merger were to go through, AT&T and Verizon would dominate 80 percent of the market for your wireless mobile phone. Completely unprecedented. You can look at any other major industry, and those levels of concentration aren’t there.

And what it’s going to mean for you, like a lot of these issues, you’re going to be paying more, you’re going to have fewer choices. If you want to take that phone that you own and take it to another carrier, you’re simply not going to have that option. So, what we’re looking at is we — there’s sort of been this myth of competition, and it’s been even worse in the wireless space, where, oh, you’ve got, you know, three or four or five choices. And as soon as they’re able to keep these rules like net neutrality from being applied to wireless phones, they start merging, they start concentrating.

As we all know, this wireless connectivity, that’s the future. That’s how so many of us are going to be getting on the internet, if we’re not already, is through those mobile devices. And if we only have those two choices, that is an immense amount of power in the hands of two giant companies that have said they want to discriminate, that haven’t hesitated to raise prices, that haven’t hesitated to spy on their users or open up the back end so that the government can do so. That’s what’s happened again and again, and yet here they are, coming to Washington, saying, "Oh, this deal is inevitable. You have to let it go through. This is the only thing we have to compete." And the people that lose in the end are going to be those individual subscribers, phone users. Everybody who hopes to be able to afford a wireless phone, afford an internet connection, it’s going to be that much harder if this deal is allowed.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does it look like it’s going?

CRAIG AARON: Well, it’s still very early, so this deal was just announced. I think it was met with a lot of criticism, and not just from media reform and media policy people. The Economist magazine trashed the deal. The New York Times trashed the deal as too much power in too few hands. But it will be up to the Justice Department and to the Federal Communications Commission. And we’ll see what they begin to do. There’s reason to be concerned. I mean, they just signed off on the mega Comcast-NBC merger, and that was a complicated one. It was vertical integration. It was about owning the content and the distribution. This one’s a little easier to understand: number two wants to buy number four to become number one, and not really leave you with any choices. So, it’s going to take, though, lots of public pressure on Congress, on the FCC. If we’re going to actually stop a deal like this, it’s going to have to come from the public, because if we just hope the regulators will figure out, if we leave it up to the lobbyists, this thing will get done faster than you can imagine.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about that sign-off on the Comcast-NBC merger? Because, obviously, this is a trend now. The cable companies — we saw, for instance, in New York City, Cablevision ended up buying Newsday. So, on a larger scale, then Comcast buys not only NBC, but NBC Universal, Telemundo, a huge corporation of content, as well as being the providers. The impact on the kind of news and information and entertainment the American people receive?

CRAIG AARON: Yeah, we’re all living it right now. This is the new face of media monopoly. I mean, when Ben Bagdikian wrote his famous book, there were 50 companies that probably controlled most of what we watch, see, hear and read every day. Now maybe we’re down to five or six — and they’re all trying to merge with each other. So there’s this day coming soon where you could have, you know, Comcast, AT&T, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, you know, all lined up together under one giant corporate umbrella, and what you end up with is watered-down content. You end up with no competition in local markets to see what’s out there happening on the news. You end up with the same cookie-cutter content from coast to coast.

We saw this happen, for example, in radio back in the '90s. You used to be able to drive across the country; everywhere you'd go, you’d hear a local accent, you’d hear local music, you would hear local personalities. That went away because of these policy decisions.

Now we’re playing on a much larger field, and these companies want to control your entire experience, which is going to come through the internet. That will be your TV, your radio, your phone, how you actually communicate with your friends and family. They want that all under that one corporate umbrella, where they can decide which websites work, which get the best kind of service, and find lots and lots of ways to charge you a lot more money.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, but Sascha Meinrath, Sharif Abdel Kouddous is flying here from Seattle, where he’s giving a talk, and he’s going to speak here tomorrow, our senior producer who’s headed back to Egypt to cover what’s happening there. But you were involved in the Egypt uprising, as well, from this side of the world.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Yes. So, interesting fact is that the global justice movement, as it really took off in the late '90s and the 2000s, part of what was being done here was not just a new media creation, new information dissemination, but creating networks of communication that could withstand surveillance and attempts to shut them down. Ten years on, these newer generations of those same technologies and ideas are being held up, in fact, by the State Department as part of their internet freedom agenda, as a way to empower protesters outside of the United States, revolutionaries outside of the United States, to cast off the yoke of oppression. And so, what I view it as is just a continuation. It's the next logical step in a global movement to empower individuals to have control over their own communications mediums and their own information dissemination.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were you able to do, specifically, in terms of the Egyptian uprising?

SASCHA MEINRATH: So we’ve been working on a number of technologies to develop distributed communication systems, so that you can turn cell phones, for example, into a medium that doesn’t need to go through a cell tower, a central location, but communicate in a peer-to-peer manner, directly with one another. And so, you can imagine if you daisy-chain a lot of these together, you can actually have an entire network built out of the already existing hardware that doesn’t need a central authority.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, FCC Chair Genachowski, he came in as a huge defender of net neutrality.

SASCHA MEINRATH: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened?

SASCHA MEINRATH: He blinked. It’s very clear, he blinked. He came to Brookings Institute, gave a speech saying that he’s going to do network neutrality, and then the major companies came in to say that they shouldn’t do that and that it would be a horrible thing for them to do that, and then he started backing off. And he didn’t stop backing off. He’s continuing to back off. I think it’s indicative of a place where the rhetoric and the action are completely discrepant. We have a rhetoric of working with communities, of supporting local communities, of supporting media diversity, of supporting a lot of things. But when you actually look at what’s been implemented, you see that, in fact, none of this is actually happening. It’s so many different communities, constituencies, are being really harmed by both the actions of that the FCC has made to hurt them and the inactions to address systematic problems that have been here for a generation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and in terms of the inaction, by dragging out processes of making decisions, it also then makes the playing field no longer level, because the companies hire all of these full-time lobbyists, whereas the citizen groups, if you drag a process out or a regulatory process or a legal process out for years and years, the citizen groups don’t have the resources, do they, to be able to continue on a day-to-day basis to do the battles in Washington to achieve some kind of final policy decision?

SASCHA MEINRATH: Right. Well, let me leave you with this example, which is that in the National Broadband Plan they set a goal for where America is going to be in 2020, right, a moment where you can be visionary and bold. And they set a broadband speed goal of four megabits by one megabit, which — four units by one unit. To put this into context internationally, this goal for 2020 puts us dead last of every country that’s come out with a national broadband plan. Our goal in 2020 is not to be middle of the pack; it’s actually to be last.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question to Malkia Cyril. President Obama was a community organizer. He responds to pressure. Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand." You are a part of the Media Action Grassroots Network. This is the beginning, this broadcast of Democracy Now!, of this three-day conference of thousands of people around media democracy. How are you organizing?

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, we’re organizing state to state and city to city. We believe that while — you know, we believe in what Obama said during his campaign: change doesn’t happen in Washington, it comes to Washington. And we believe that it’s our job across the country to recognize the power and responsibility of local communities all around this country to bring pressure to bear not only in Washington, not only on the federal administration, but also in the municipalities and on our state and legislative bodies, because we understand that the federal rules that are being debated in D.C. are actually being debated in every part of this country. And in fact, the cities and the states is where some of these ideas are won and lost. And so, that’s where we’re going to concentrate our energy. We’re going to build from city to city, state to state, and bring our concerns to the President and to the FCC.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Malkia Cyril is executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice. Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation Open Technology Initiative. And Craig Aaron, the incoming president and CEO of Free Press, freepress.net, has organized this National Conference on Media Reform that is taking place here at the Seaport, the World Trade Center in Boston, Massachusetts. We’re broadcasting before a live audience. When we come back, what happened to Glenn Beck on Fox? Stay with us.

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