Keep Internet Open

Right-wing broadcasters, who outnumber liberal/progressive talkers by more than 9 to 1, have been up in arms about the possibility that the Federal Communications Commission under Barack Obama might try to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which until the 1980s required the holders of broadcast licenses to provide some balance in the presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Ronald Reagan’s FCC in 1987 abolished the Fairness Doctrine and Reagan vetoed a bill to reimpose the doctrine.

We think changes in media technology have made the doctrine largely irrelevant but we still don’t understand why Senate Democrats knuckled under to Republican demagogues Feb. 25 to pass a measure that would prohibit the FCC from restoring the doctrine. The 87-11 vote was on an amendment to an unrelated bill giving the District of Columbia a voting member of Congress.

We’d rather see the Obama administration move toward promoting more diversity in radio and TV stations, including repeal of rules that allow media conglomerates to own multiple stations in a market and approval of community radio stations and low-power radio stations that operate at 100 watts or less.

We also think Congress should create a permanent, independent funding mechanism for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS and NPR, and change the governance structure to prevent partisan meddling by political appointees, as occurred under the Bush administration when the CPB chairman sought to meddle in programming.

We also believe the FCC should support public access cable TV channels against telecoms such as AT&T that community media groups accuse of relegating the nonprofit channels to second-class status, in violation of the 1984 Cable Act and FCC rulings and policies.

But the most revolutionary new outlet for public media is the Internet, as technology makes it possible for any website or blog to reach across the World Wide Web.

Progressive talkers have gotten a hostile reception in the executive suites of media conglomerates, as the liberal Air America network hovers around 60 stations nationwide, along with other syndicated talkers such as Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, and Stephanie Miller. In most of the country, including the liberal bastion of Austin, Texas, the only way you can listen to progressive talkers is over the Internet.

An estimated 33 million people age 12 or over listened to radio stations over the Internet during an average week in January 2008, Edison Media Research reported. That was around 13% of the total American population over 12. And the Internet audience is growing.

Michael Bassik, chief digital officer of Air America Media, said the Internet is creating a new era of talk radio, allowing listeners to “stream” programs online and, in many cases, download “podcasts” to replay shows they miss. They also can engage with talk show hosts and producers by email as well as by telephone.

More than 700,000 people listen to Air America programming via airamerica.com, which streams up to 1.5 million hours of content every month. That does not include streaming from affiliated radio stations that carry Air America shows.

Approximately 70% of US households have some Internet access, but Leichtman Research reported in March 2008 that only 57% of those homes had broadband access, which is needed for quality streaming.

We need a national broadband policy that keeps the Internet open under the principle of Net Neutrality and promotes more broadband Internet access, particularly in underserved areas, such as rural areas and low-income urban neighborhoods that phone and cable companies choose not to serve.

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas. Megan Tady of Free Press recently reported that 61% of rural homes across the country are not connected to high-speed Internet. “This isn’t just a statistic. It’s a daily reality for the millions of people who can’t go online to apply for jobs, attend classes, start home-based businesses, get news and information, and participate in the global economy,” she wrote.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the Stimulus Bill, allots $7.2 billion for expanding broadband connections to underserved areas. The US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service will get $2.5 billion to expand rural broadband services while $4.7 billion goes to the Commerce Department for assistance in expanding broadband access with the requirement that those Internet providers adhere to open Internet principles established by the FCC.

President Obama, whose campaign took advantage of the Internet, has pledged to “take a back seat to no one” in his commitment to Net Neutrality. His selection of Julius Genachowski as new chairman of the FCC has been hailed by Net Neutrality advocates. Genachowski, a former FCC legal counsel, anchored the drafting of Obama’s comprehensive media policy agenda that promotes fast and neutral Internet connections and more competitive choices for the consumer. “It is clear that he understands the importance of open networks and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition to a robust democracy and a healthy economy,” said Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge and SaveTheInternet.com. This will be important as Open Internet supporters face off against telecom interests who would like to become the gatekeepers on the Internet tollway.

Keep Health Reform Alive

President Obama deserves credit for getting interested parties together for his Health Care Summit March 5, even if the White House had to be pressed to invite Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), sponsor of HR 676 (the Medicare for All bill), and Dr. Oliver Fein, president of Physicians for a National Health Program, which supports Conyers’ single-payer bill.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, noted that Obama reached out to deficit hawks who disagree with him fundamentally on the budget, as well as insurance companies who want to preserve their role in the health system. The health insurance lobbyist promised to help pass health care reform this year. But sooner or later, Hickey predicted, the insurance industry will break with Obama, and he will have to assemble a majority in the Congress that supports his approach. Then he will need progressives to help him win.

One of the top priorities of the insurance lobby is to prevent the public from getting the option to buy into Medicare or a similar public insurance program.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has ruled out a single-payer solution, such as Conyers proposes. But Baucus has proposed creation of a public insurance plan similar to Obama’s that would compete with private insurers. The Commonwealth Fund recently reported that a public health insurance plan could offer premiums averaging 20% less than private insurance companies.

That’s the sort of competition insurance companies don’t want. At the close of the White House Summit, Obama asked Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, for his thoughts. Grassley said he would work for health reform but he added, “there’s a lot of us that feel that the public option, that the government is an unfair competitor and that we’re going to get an awful lot of crowd-out.” Other Republicans have taken to belittling “government-run” solutions.

Baucus also bears watching as he says he’d prefer funding health care reform by taxing workers’ health benefits rather than phasing out tax breaks for the richest Americans. Pray that Ted Kennedy can rise from his sickbed to pull this one out. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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