Saturday, 25 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Freedom of Speech in the Digital Age

Tuesday, 12 November 2013 13:13 By Michael Winship, Moyers & Company | Radio Segment

Media

(Image <a href=" http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-147623615/stock-photo-protection-concept-pixelated-cctv-camera-icon-on-digital-background-empty-copyspace-for-card.html?src=L2vK4sz-ehzUY9VyvA_QEA-3-11" target="_blank"> via Shutterstock </a>)(Image via Shutterstock )Ten years ago, when Moyers & Company guests John Nichols and Robert McChesney appeared on the series Now with Bill Moyers, they protested the lack of public involvement in decisions concerning mass media. “There are a handful of very interested parties who are deeply engaged,” Nichols said then, “ who think about it every day, who hire lobbyists, who spend a great deal of money, not merely to lobby Congress, but also, to lobby the FCC.”

Those “interested parties” – many of them multinational monoliths – have aggressively acquired and consolidated newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations and networks, movie studios and other media companies on and off the Web, weakening community and the freedom of speech.

But the public has a louder voice now, and more influence, in part because there arose from that conversation with Bill Moyers a media reform movement founded by McChesney and Nichols with Josh Silver. Free Press has become a leading presence in the progressive community nationwide, bolstering a faltering democracy in its advocacy of diverse media ownership, press freedom and quality journalism, a reinvigorated public broadcasting and universal, affordable Internet access.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Free Press, I sat down with journalist and author Craig Aaron, who in 2011 became the organization’s president and CEO. You can listen to our audio conversation above, read the full transcript or skim the highlights below.

Thanks to John Light, who produced and edited this interview.


HIGHLIGHTS:

On the Link Between Media Consolidation and Election Spending

What we’re seeing this year, right now, is that it might be, by the time we’re done, the biggest year in history for the purchase of television stations, television station deals, which is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of stations changing hands right now, and there are a couple of factors at play. One is actually very closely tied to elections, and it’s that these stations, local television stations, still the number one news source for Americans, [are] vastly profitable, and largely because of election ads. If you’re in a swing state during an elections season, your local television broadcaster is making literally — or collectively, is making billions of dollars. Three billion dollars in the last election went into local television advertising. So it’s a market that a lot of investors and big companies are paying attention to.

On Media Coverage of Edward Snowden’s Disclosures

It’s the best and worst of the media… In some ways it’s been so amazing, because — I mean, there’s this Watergate level, really — almost — of disclosures. The amazing work being done by The Guardian and by The Washington Post, and now The New York Times and Der Spiegel. All of these folks really digging into this story and telling us things that the government don’t want us to know, so we’re seeing the best of what journalism can still be.

But overall, I think the debate has been a lot of like “What motivated Snowden?” and these sort of personal stories, not as much about the revelations. I think that a lot of the media has struggled to cover the complex nature of the story. So I think it’s been good and bad, but a lot of the problems that the media has are exacerbated in this.

But I’m more positive than negative, because I think that it’s shown just how important this kind of investigative journalism is. It’s shown just how important it is to have reporters out there working beats, developing sources. And it’s shown that somebody like Glenn Greenwald, you know, sort of in a quasi-official status with The Guardian, just how important the work someone like that can do. And I think that’s certainly a net positive for journalism, even if I wouldn’t hand out all gold stars on the coverage.

Recommendations for Fighting Government Surveillance

I would urge you — and this is something we’re going to be organizing at Free Press with some of our allies — to set up meetings with your members of Congress when they’re back in their districts. That made a huge difference. We came within seven votes of defunding these spying efforts in the House, with a bipartisan bill. Very close. Much closer than the leaders of either party expected. And that’s because when people went home they heard about this. Same thing happened with Syria and the potential bombing there. So that’s the number one thing you can do is get involved.

I think the other thing you can do is educate yourself. The Guardian just put out a great explainer, a great synopsis of everything that’s been going on here. You definitely need to be reading that, paying attention to the journalists who are doing this. I think in the longer term though, we’re going to have to do some local organizing. Press freedom is going to have to be an issue that matters for more than just journalists and journalism organizations. That’s on journalists, but it’s also on the public to get involved and get educated. So we’ll be rolling out a number of things over the next two or three months, ways for people to get engaged and involved, events that will be happening across the country.

On the Future of Public Media

Ultimately, if we’re going to have quality news and information in local communities across the country, not just covering the White House, not just covering niche issues, we’re going to have to invest in public and noncommercial media. And right now we spend a fraction of what the rest of the world spends, $1.50 per capita per year. A cup of coffee. England is spending $80 dollars per capita, the Scandinavian countries are spending $100 dollars per capita. And they’re getting good value for their money, much better journalism. I just don’t see a better way to put journalists back to work than public investment. And I’m afraid it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better, but I think it’s the only solution I’ve found to how you deal with this crisis in journalism. That doesn’t mean you get rid of the commercial media, but it means you need a counterweight and you need to invest.

TRANSCRIPT:

Winship: Hi, this is Michael Winship with Moyers & Company, and I’m talking to Craig Aaron, who is the president and CEO of Free Press. Craig, Free Press is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What do you think its greatest achievements have been so far?

Aaron: What I think we’re most proud of is taking these media and technology issues and making them issues that are talked about in the press, that are talked about sometimes by the president, and that, when we do our best work, are talked about around the kitchen table too. The things that stand out for me over the last 10 years have been our efforts to stop runaway media consolidation. We didn’t stop all of it, but we did stop the FCC repeatedly from gutting long-standing limits on how much one company can own in a given city. And we’ve beaten them in court twice, we’ve rallied the public again and again and again to hold the line. And they haven’t changed those rules. I would highlight the issue of Net neutrality, or network neutrality, which is the fundamental principle that makes it so when you go online you can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, download whatever you want. That’s an issue that we put into the national debate, got the president talking about, and did manage — flawed rules, but did manage to pass rules protecting the free and open Internet. I think that the passage of the local Community Radio Act, which created thousands of new community radio stations, would definitely be a highlight for us. And all the way up to the past few weeks, you know, we were part of a coalition that got 3,000 people to come out and protest against unchecked spying and surveillance in Washington, DC. Three thousand people coming out and saying that their freedoms were more important than the fear they’d been told was more important. So I see so many possibilities, so much potential.

I think, if we’re being honest though, even with all those great victories — and there are many more — we stopped the AT&T merger, we stopped the SOPA & PIPA Web censorship bills — we recognize that it isn’t enough yet. The media is not getting better for most people. Too many people still aren’t connected to the Internet. The free and open Internet is under attack. So we still have a lot of work to do. We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished, we’re very proud that we have 650,000 members across the country, but we recognize that this is a problem that goes even bigger. And it’s gotten us rethinking a little bit what we need to do. And I think we’re going to be talking a lot less about media reform, which was the original idea of Free Press, and a lot more about fighting for your rights to connect and communicate, and broadening these issues, connecting with other movements, and really focusing on organizing. We’ve found that you can’t skip steps when it comes to movement building.

We’ve been able to get a lot done. We’ve been able to meet a lot of people who care about the media and get them involved, but it’s really going to take a lot more. It’s going to take mobilizing millions and millions of people if we’re going to do the things we should be doing, if we’re going to end unchecked spying and surveillance, if we’re going to support quality local journalism, if we’re going to refuse to accept that we shouldn’t just let journalism disappear because a few big companies don’t think it’s as profitable as it used to be. These are the kind of large fights — you know, is our democracy going to function? Are the agencies that are supposed to oversee the media actually going to have the authority to do that? These are some really fundamental questions, and it’s going to take a bigger, broader outside effort to get to the right outcomes.

Winship: You mentioned media consolidation, and Free Press issued a report last month called Cease to Resist: How the FCC’s Failure to Enforce Its Rules Created a New Wave of Media Consolidation. And the premise of that report is that there have been all these other acquisitions and consolidations that the public isn’t as aware of, because things like the ABC/Disney deal and things like that were such big splashes, but these deals have not been.

Aaron: What we’re seeing this year, right now, is that it might be, by the time we’re done, the biggest year in history for the purchase of television stations, television station deals, which is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of stations changing hands right now, and there are a couple of factors at play. One is actually very closely tied to elections, and it’s that these stations, local television stations, still the number one news source for Americans, [are] vastly profitable, and largely because of election ads. If you’re in a swing state during an elections season, your local television broadcaster is making literally — or collectively, is making billions of dollars. Three billion dollars in the last election went into local television advertising. So it’s a market that a lot of investors and big companies are paying attention to.

There’s also, I think, a belief in the industry that only a few big guys are going to survive, so they’re moving very aggressively to concentrate and consolidate. And so companies like Sinclair Broadcasting most notably have been using shell companies, so they essentially — they have this small number, four or five different companies that they do business with, that are effectively subsidiaries of Sinclair, that go in and become the license holders of stations, who then sign agreements with Sinclair to operate the local news. So what you end up with in many, many communities is one company, like Sinclair, controlling two or three newscasts. So on election night, you can change the channel, for example, and you’ll just see the same anchors sitting there. Maybe they bother to change the logo, maybe they don’t. And these are the public airwaves. These are incredibly valuable resources, but you just — you have this what we call covert consolidation. And because the FCC has failed to crack down on this — it’s very clear this is against their rules, and what should be happening is any ownership should be attributed to the parent company. But because they haven’t cracked, because they haven’t acted, these guys have gotten bold, and so you see a company like Sinclair go from 50 stations to, if they get all their deals approved, it will be 160 stations all across the country, reaching almost 40 percent of the national audience. And the FCC has had their head in the sand. They’ve looked the other way and allowed these deals to go through.

Now, we’re challenging a bunch of them. We’re challenging the most recent Sinclair deals, which is going to put them in markets including Washington, DC, they’re the big ABC station. WJLA is one of the stations. When these same companies go to the Securities and Exchange Commission and when they talk to their investors, they’re very clear that these are just subsidiaries, that these are completely 100 percent controlled companies by the parent company, yet when they go to the FCC, they act like they’re completely separate and they’ve barely met.

Winship: Right. And the profits that they’re making, the enormous amount of money that they’re now making with all these acquisitions and so forth, they’re not going into things like local news —

Aaron: No, that’s the really big part of the story is that despite making all this money — I mean, $3 billion in election advertising, all the independent groups, they’re not using that to hire more reporters. They’re using it to do more acquisitions. In fact, what we saw happen during the last election is that we saw them sometimes adding time to their newscast, but not to do more news, just to pack in more ads, because that was the most valuable advertising time. You saw them in some newscasts trimming back parts of the newscast so they could fit in more ads and so that, you know, our political discourse has been totally pushed into this realm of negative advertising.

That’s not a completely new story, but it’s absolutely intertwined with what these companies are doing. So they’re making record profits and it’s not being put into the news product at all. And a lot of people in a lot of places are finding out that when Sinclair comes to town, suddenly you get some reporting from Baltimore and you get conservative commentaries that they insist you run. So our phones are starting to ring off the hook with whistleblowers at these stations saying, “Oh, my gosh, we heard it was bad, but we didn’t realize they were going to do all this.”

Winship: Sinclair was the company that a few years ago, 2004 I think it was, refused to run the Nightline that listed all the [American] deaths in Iraq.

Aaron: That’s right. They refused to run the Nightline and then the turned around and they put on the air an abbreviated version of Stolen Honor, which was the Swift Boat movie against John Kerry, which they ran right before the election. They’ve gotten a little more subtle, but even in the 2012 election, the last presidential election, Sinclair forced a bunch of its local affiliates to run the same scripted political programming on the eve of the election. So the local anchors read the scripts, but all the packages were provided by the parent company, and it was there to, you know, discuss the issues of the election, and the issues were Obamacare — which admittedly was an issue in the election, but it wasn’t the only issue in the election. They had a section on foreign policy, which was completely about Benghazi, you know, as if that was the only thing being debated in the last presidential election when it comes to foreign policy.

So, you know, the problem isn’t that Sinclair shouldn’t be able to own a television station and put things out there and represent their political views. The problem becomes when they own all the television stations or when there’s just a handful of companies. And we’re getting to the point where less than 10 companies will own the vast majority of network-affiliated stations in the country, I think that people would really like to have local ownership, you know, be able to see the management down using the local restaurants, actually have people with ties to their community, because they rely on local news, both print/Web and especially broadcast. It’s still the number one source of news of information, and yet it’s increasingly not providing very much of that news and information.

Winship: Which makes it very corrosive of community and diversity.

Aaron: Diversity is an issue unto itself. All of the African-American owners of television stations put together own five stations. Three owners, five stations. So that’s what African-Americans in this country get in terms of television station ownership. That doesn’t seem right. You know, the numbers for the Latino community aren’t much better. Women only own five percent of the nation’s television stations, despite of course being half, or maybe even a little more than half of the population.

Winship: You also mentioned Net neutrality, and there was an article this week in Wired that was headlined “We’re About to Lose Net Neutrality and the Internet as We Know It.”

Aaron: Well it doesn’t have to be that way. So that was an article written by my former colleague, Marvin Ammori, who argued the big Net neutrality case that we were involved in a couple years ago, when he was still at Free Press. Net neutrality is very much in danger. So what’s happened is that the FCC did make Net neutrality rules, in late 2010, after a long fight. They were really inadequate. They were not as strong as they should have been or could have been. They made some very poor choices in how they constructed the rules that exposed them to being sued. And that’s just what Verizon did. So without perhaps going over the entire history of the Net neutrality court case, but basically, it comes down to — the case that’s being argued now comes down to, does the FCC have the authority to make these rules?

And the reason that’s even a question is because during the Bush administration, the FCC changed how the Internet, how broadband is treated under the law. So it used to be very commonly understood it was a telecommunications service. It came over a wire into your house. Originally, back in the days of dialup and DSL, it was the phone company’s wire. These were always treated as telecommunications services.

When the cable companies got into the broadband business they didn’t like that, because the phone companies had to share those wires. They had to open them up to other competitors to offer their own services, they had to let you attach answering machines and all sorts of other crazy ideas like that that made your life better and lowered prices. Cable didn’t like that, so they got the FCC to change the rules. It went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said, basically, “Hey FCC, it’s up to you.” Then the phone companies said, “Well, if the cable guys don’t have to play by these rules, we don’t want to either.” And the FCC said, “Okay, you don’t have to.” So suddenly, the broadband Internet, which had always been treated under one part of the law, was moved to another part of the law that essentially regulated websites and things like that — very, very little, almost no regulation, because these are content things. And then the FCC said, “Don’t worry, we can still make rules. We have this thing called ancillary authority.” A couple of years ago, when Comcast was caught blocking the Internet, interfering with people’s file sharing, we filed a complaint with the FCC, the FCC investigated and they found —

Winship: This is the BitTorrent —

Aaron: BitTorrent, exactly — found that Comcast, indeed, had been blocking the Internet and sanctioned them. Comcast sued, saying the FCC lacked the authority, and the courts agreed with them. They said they didn’t have the rules. Now, the FCC at that time didn’t have Net neutrality rules on the book. Now they’ve made Net neutrality rules. Here comes Verizon — they watered them down to try to win Verizon over, but Verizon thought they’d take their chances in court. Now they [the FCC] face this very challenging court case with a very skeptical court that could throw out the FCC’s rules or water them down to the point where they’re unrecognizable.

That case is being decided right now. It could be decided by the end of the year, early next year. At that moment, Net neutrality could disappear. And, you know, there’s a lot of people out there who think, “Oh, Net neutrality, that’s something we were debating several years ago. Whatever happened with that?” Well —

Winship: Yeah, exactly.

Aaron: All of a sudden, if the FCC lacks this authority, your phone or cable company’s going to be able to decide which websites work and which don’t. They’re going to be able to speed up or slow down content based on who pays them a little extra, who pays them the most. Now, if you’re a big company, even if you’re Google, you’re probably going to be able to find your way to work around that. But if you’re Free Press, you’re not going to get offered that spot in the fast lane. Even if you have something really important to say, even if you have something to say that people want to know, they’re not going to be able to find it. They’re going to be able to interfere and discriminate against different kinds of Internet content.

There’s a lot at stake in this court decision if the FCC loses its authority to regulate the Internet. Suddenly there’s no one there. And the FCC hasn’t always been a great protector of the public, but that is their job. And if they don’t have it, there’s no one else waiting there. You’ll be at the mercy of whatever AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner wants you to do. So, as the Wired article outlined, that’s the real danger. A lot of the big Silicon Valley companies, maybe they’re going to sit this one out. They’re pretty big now. They’re in business with these guys, they’re all making cell phones together. So it’s going to be up to the rest of us to make some noise about this and really push this new chairman of the FCC, who just started this week, and ask him, you know, “Are you going to let the FCC’s authority disappear?”

Winship: How can we make noise?

Aaron: Well, first we have to get the court decision to happen. But I mean that’s something that Free Press is going to be very active in. So we’ll be going back to a lot of the groups that got involved in this fight the last time around, and a lot of new groups to talk about the importance of the free and open and uncensored Internet. And we’ve seen, when you tell people what’s at stake, when you tell them that this amazing thing could disappear, they really care about it. Millions of people got involved in the Net neutrality fight. Ten million people rallied against the SOPA/PIPA web censorship bills. You know, we’re getting close to a million people speaking out against NSA spying and surveillance. Will the regulators listen and pay attention?

I think they need to or we’re going to risk this amazing thing, the free and open Internet that’s been unrivaled as a place for democratic participation and economic innovation and free speech. We could lose that. These tools by themselves are not necessarily a good thing. They can be used for good things, free and open information; they can be used to do a lot of bad things. And if we lose Net neutrality, the really fundamental nature of the Internet will change. And that’s going to be the fight.

We will be sounding the alarm when it needs to be sounded over what’s happening. And a lot of things that need to happen before then is just people learning about this issue and talking to the regulators who are supposed to be in charge and really getting to understand do they want to have — are we going to really accept a world in which the Federal Communications Commission has no power to regulate or rein in bad corporate behavior on the most important communications network of the 21st century?

Winship: You mentioned that there’s a new FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler. What’s Free Press’ take on him?

Aaron: We were critical of the choice of Tom Wheeler, because we felt that there weren’t enough questions asked or answered about his background, and the fact is that Tom Wheeler, for a long time, was an industry lobbyist. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, he was the top cable lobbyist. More recently, he was the top lobbyist for the cell phone industry, mobile phone industry. And yet, here he was, a very big donor to President Obama, being put into this job. So we had questions, we were skeptical about what he would do. And we don’t think that the Senate asked enough tough questions about that.

But here we are; he’s got the job, he was unanimously approved. And what matters is what does he do in the big chair? And so I haven’t had the chance to sit down with the chairman yet, he just started on Monday, but I hope to do that soon.

And, you know, I see some signs that are encouraging. He’s already talking about competition. I think that’s the most important thing the FCC needs to be paying attention to, because we don’t have enough competition when it comes to broadband service, when it comes to Internet service. Free Press’ perspective is we’ll support you when you prove it. We’re not doing any balloon drops or parades for anybody until they pass good policy. And we’ll treat Chairman Wheeler just like we’ve treated his predecessors, which is when they do something that we think is not in the public interest, we make a lot of noise about it.

There are going to be a lot of really, really crucial decisions landing on Mr. Wheeler’s plate. His predecessor as chairman, Julius Genachowski, didn’t do a good job. He left a lot of things hanging. There are a lot of messes out there that Wheeler’s going to have to clean up. And we’re going to see very soon whether he’s willing to do that, whether he’s going to look out for the public interest, whether he’s actually going to go out and talk to the public, or whether, you know, unfortunately, we’ll see more business as usual at the FCC, or maybe an FCC that doesn’t even matter any more because of all the decisions they’ve made to give up their own authority and power.

Winship: Ted Cruz put a hold on the nomination for a while.

Aaron: Ninety-nine senators were ready to vote this thing through, but Ted Cruz had to make his personal point. And unfortunately, the issue that that was about was about transparency around election advertising. And very simply, what it has to do with is truth in advertising, and the FCC has some authority over what people need to do under Section 3.17 of the Communications Act and they could make some very minor tweaks that would result in a very, very valuable reform.

And what that reform would be is to actually tell people who’s behind independent ad expenditures. So when Puppies and Kittens Against Barak Obama puts an ad on the air, you could actually learn that, oh, that’s Karl Rove, or, you know, when Americans for America says you should vote for a pipeline, you can find out, oh, that’s an oil company. And it would apply to everybody, left, right and center. This seems to be a really common sense solution that would do something to rein in some of the worst aspects of Citizens United. So as a viewer, you could actually, during election season when you’re inundated with ads, have a little bit more information about who’s trying to influence you and sway you. I believe the FCC already has this authority. They just need to do a rule making. There’s a petition to do just that sitting in a desk drawer somewhere. Hopefully Tom Wheeler will find it while he’s unpacking. And they could move on this right now.

I think there’s nothing [that] frustrates the American people more than being inundated with these attack ads. It’s out of control, and this would be a simple way to give people more information. And I think it’s part of a larger thing. Some things the FCC have done right, they’ve finally made information publicly available about who’s buying ads. You can go online and pretty soon in every market in this country see who’s actually buying ads on your local television stations. But we could do a lot more to increase that transparency and accountability, and I think the FCC has a major role to play there.

Winship: Some said there was a certain irony in Cruz portraying himself as such a rebel and basically upholding the status quo in this case.

Aaron: Yeah, well, you know, if you have higher political ambitions, including higher political ambitions that might require millions or billions of dollars from shady groups, you’re not interested in disclosure. But I think the public is with us on this one and I think this would be an incredibly popular reform. You know, most people don’t know what the Federal Communications Commission does. They think — they know that it fined Janet Jackson the time that her shirt fell off at the Super Bowl, but that’s about it. Maybe they know about Howard Stern. But if you went out across the country and said, “I’m the chairman of the FCC and I’m going to clean up election ads and tell you who’s really behind them so they can’t hide behind lies and misinformation,” I think you’d be a very popular political figure.

Winship: Surveillance is one of the other things you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation. What has Free Press been doing on that?

Aaron: The core issues for us are Internet freedom and press freedom. And the revelations that have come out, starting with Edward Snowden and all the reporting that’s gone on, hits right at both of those issues. You know, the idea that anything you do on the Internet is being watched, that your phone calls metadata is being sucked up into super computers, and that the journalists who are trying to tell you about this are increasingly under attack, matter to us a lot.

And so we were part — within really hours after the Snowden revelations first came out in The Guardian, we got together with a number of close allies, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Demand Progress, and we formed a coalition called the Stop Watching Us coalition. And very quickly, half a million people signed a petition that we put up on that site, and we started comparing notes and getting involved in this unchecked spying and surveillance issue.

Right now, we’re looking at the legislation. There’s some very interesting legislation that’s moving in Congress, the USA Freedom Act, bipartisan legislation, Pat Leahy, Jim Sensenbrenner. We think it’s a pretty good bill. Now, the coalition hasn’t necessarily endorsed it, but Free Press has. We think it’s a good step toward reform, toward reining in spying and surveillance. We think there are millions and millions of people out there, and the polls support this finding, who are now saying, you know what, it’s gone too far, and we need to rein in the worst aspects of the Patriot Act, of the FISA Amendments Act. We need oversight and accountability, and right now, the committees that are supposed to do that, the intelligence committees, aren’t doing it.

We think you can’t be a group called Free Press and not care about what’s happening here. And we just think it intersects with all of these Internet freedom issues like Net neutrality. Certainly Net neutrality is no good alone if everything you do is being spied on by the government or by corporations. Certainly, if you care about a free and independent press, that’s under attack right now. The reporters who are doing the most serious reporting, national security reporting, they’re being prosecuted in some cases. They’re being spied on, the Associated Press being maybe the most prominent example. In some cases independent journalists are being jailed. And this is something I think anybody who cares about a free and independent media, free press, needs to be very concerned about this and where all these issues intersect.

Winship: How do you think the media has covered the story, not only of the leaks, but what’s been happening to the journalists reporting the leaks?

Aaron: Oh, you know, it’s like it’s the best and worst of the media. I mean, in some ways it’s been so amazing, because — I mean, there’s this Watergate level, really — almost — of disclosures. The amazing work being done by The Guardian and by The Washington Post, and now The New York Times and Der Spiegel. All of these folks really digging into this story and telling us things that the government don’t want us to know. So we’re seeing the best of what journalism can still be.

But overall, I think the debate has been a lot of like “What motivated Snowden?” and these sort of personal stories, not as much about the revelations. I think that a lot of the media has struggled to cover the complex nature of the story. So I think it’s been good and bad, but a lot of the problems that the media has are exacerbated in this.

But I’m more positive than negative, because I think that it’s shown just how important this kind of investigative journalism is. It’s shown just how important it is to have reporters out there working beats, developing sources. And it’s shown that somebody like Glenn Greenwald, you know, sort of in a quasi-official status with The Guardian, just how important the work someone like that can do. And I think that’s certainly a net positive for journalism, even if I wouldn’t hand out all gold stars on the coverage.

Winship: The US has been falling down in the rankings in terms of press freedoms and the Committee to Protect Journalists and people like that. Do you think this administration has been harsher to press freedoms than anybody in a while?

Aaron: I mean, you’d almost have to go back to Nixon —

Winship: Yeah —

Aaron: — and I don’t say that lightly.

Winship: No. Right.

Aaron: You know, that’s why we had the Church Committee and everything else that came out of that. But we need another Church Committee, because this administration, the Obama Administration, has done more prosecutions of journalists than any prior administration combined, I believe. They’ve gone after journalists, they’ve been incredibly aggressive in going after whistleblowers. I think it’s shameful what they’ve done. You saw the spying on the Associated Press and all of their phone records, the closing off of information. I mean, this was an administration that promised they were going to be the most transparent ever. And yet, for journalists and journalism, at a moment of where, let us not forget, journalism is weakened by years of consolidation and media concentration and there aren’t as many reporters out there, that this administration’s record is among, if not the worst, of any administration we’ve had before. It pains me to say that, but it’s absolutely true.

Winship: Well, you mentioned the Stop Watching Us campaign, and not to put you on the spot, but what are the sort of things that our audience — if you could list five things that our audience could do.

Aaron: Sure. I would urge you — and this is something we’re going to be organizing at Free Press with some of our allies — to set up meetings with your members of Congress when they’re back in their districts. That made a huge difference. We came within seven votes of defunding these spying efforts in the House, with a bipartisan bill. Very close. Much closer than the leaders of either party expected. And that’s because when people went home they heard about this. Same thing happened with Syria and the potential bombing there. So that’s the number one thing you can do is get involved.

I think the other thing you can do is educate yourself. The Guardian just put out a great explainer, a great synopsis of everything that’s been going on here. You definitely need to be reading that, paying attention to the journalists who are doing this. I think in the longer term though, we’re going to have to do some local organizing. Press freedom is going to have to be an issue that matters for more than just journalists and journalism organizations. That’s on journalists, but it’s also on the public to get involved and get educated. So we’ll be rolling out a number of things over the next two or three months, ways for people to get engaged and involved, events that will be happening across the country.

Winship: What about public media? Do you think it still has a future in this country?

Aaron: I really do. Sometimes I feel like I’m the last believer in public media. But I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think that commercial journalism is coming back at anything like it was. I’m sure there will be new experiments and new models, and maybe a few more billionaires will come out of the woodwork, and I hope they do, to support journalism. But ultimately, if we’re going to have quality news and information in local communities across the country, not just covering the White House, not just covering niche issues, we’re going to have to invest in public and noncommercial media.

And right now we spend a fraction of what the rest of the world spends, $1.50 per capita per year. A cup of coffee. England is spending $80 dollars per capita, the Scandinavian countries are spending $100 dollars per capita. And they’re getting good value for their money, much better journalism. I just don’t see a better way to put journalists back to work than public investment. And I’m afraid it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better, but I think it’s the only solution I’ve found to how you deal with this crisis in journalism. That doesn’t mean you get rid of the commercial media, but it means you need a counterweight and you need to invest.

And I think, unfortunately, from my perspective, a lot of the public media institutions, who to be fair, have been kicked in the teeth for years, have had to beg for scraps for years from the government, but when they’re not under attack, when the Republicans aren’t threatening to come after Big Bird, when Mitt Romney’s not threatening to put ads on Big Bird, they’d prefer the rest of us not really talk about public media at all in a political context. And I think that’s a mistake.

I think the constituency exists. I think we have to direct them toward just not cutting the funding, but increasing the funding. If you spent — instead of $1.50, if we spent $5 dollars a year on public media, we could put 10,000 journalists back to work tomorrow. We could build newsrooms in almost every sizable community. Web, radio, TV, you know, all those lines are blurring. We could invest in that on top of the existing public media structure. We could invest in these great community radio stations that are coming online. But we haven’t done it yet. I still think that’s the right answer. I think it’s going to take public media makers themselves to join the fight, urging their listeners, their audience, to get involved. And I think if it’s very doable if we focus on the politics. You actually have to get involved in the politics. And I actually think that’s true for all these media issues.

The biggest obstacle we face is political will and political imagination. It’s not that there aren’t good ideas. I can come up with ways, probably five or 10 different ways to create a $10 billion budget for public media, with money that we’re just spending on other stuff right now. You know, over time we could get public media out of the annual appropriations process. In fact, in many ways, that process is what keeps them on their knees.

Winship: Well, it’s been 10 years for Free Press and a lot of it’s been very tough, very hard fights. How do you keep, as they say, your base energized? How do you keep yourself energized, for that matter?

Aaron: I see ordinary people doing extraordinary things all the time. I think when we can have this combination of getting the facts, pulling out the inside information and mobilizing people at these very empowering moments, where they can make a difference, where they can stop a bad thing from happening, where they can push a good thing over the top. I find it to be incredibly motivating. And I think people everywhere are fed up and are waking up to this idea that this media isn’t just natural. It didn’t happen magically. We can actually play a role, we can actually do something about it. That keeps me excited and engaged.

And frankly, these issues are only getting bigger. The Internet is not getting less important. These revelations of unchecked spying and surveillance strike at the heart of, I think, our country, our moral fiber as a country. These are very, very big issues. And so what excites me is that I actually think we can do something about them. It’s going to take more people, it’s going to take more resources, it’s going to take more energy. But I think these are actually very, very winnable fights, if we concentrate on organizing, if we pick our moments and we continue to build momentum. So, you know, I just can’t wait to get to it.

Winship: Craig Aaron, thank you very much.

Aaron: Thanks for having me.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writer of the new weekly public affairs program, "Moyers & Company," airing on public television. Check local air times or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.


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Freedom of Speech in the Digital Age

Tuesday, 12 November 2013 13:13 By Michael Winship, Moyers & Company | Radio Segment

Media

(Image <a href=" http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-147623615/stock-photo-protection-concept-pixelated-cctv-camera-icon-on-digital-background-empty-copyspace-for-card.html?src=L2vK4sz-ehzUY9VyvA_QEA-3-11" target="_blank"> via Shutterstock </a>)(Image via Shutterstock )Ten years ago, when Moyers & Company guests John Nichols and Robert McChesney appeared on the series Now with Bill Moyers, they protested the lack of public involvement in decisions concerning mass media. “There are a handful of very interested parties who are deeply engaged,” Nichols said then, “ who think about it every day, who hire lobbyists, who spend a great deal of money, not merely to lobby Congress, but also, to lobby the FCC.”

Those “interested parties” – many of them multinational monoliths – have aggressively acquired and consolidated newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations and networks, movie studios and other media companies on and off the Web, weakening community and the freedom of speech.

But the public has a louder voice now, and more influence, in part because there arose from that conversation with Bill Moyers a media reform movement founded by McChesney and Nichols with Josh Silver. Free Press has become a leading presence in the progressive community nationwide, bolstering a faltering democracy in its advocacy of diverse media ownership, press freedom and quality journalism, a reinvigorated public broadcasting and universal, affordable Internet access.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Free Press, I sat down with journalist and author Craig Aaron, who in 2011 became the organization’s president and CEO. You can listen to our audio conversation above, read the full transcript or skim the highlights below.

Thanks to John Light, who produced and edited this interview.


HIGHLIGHTS:

On the Link Between Media Consolidation and Election Spending

What we’re seeing this year, right now, is that it might be, by the time we’re done, the biggest year in history for the purchase of television stations, television station deals, which is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of stations changing hands right now, and there are a couple of factors at play. One is actually very closely tied to elections, and it’s that these stations, local television stations, still the number one news source for Americans, [are] vastly profitable, and largely because of election ads. If you’re in a swing state during an elections season, your local television broadcaster is making literally — or collectively, is making billions of dollars. Three billion dollars in the last election went into local television advertising. So it’s a market that a lot of investors and big companies are paying attention to.

On Media Coverage of Edward Snowden’s Disclosures

It’s the best and worst of the media… In some ways it’s been so amazing, because — I mean, there’s this Watergate level, really — almost — of disclosures. The amazing work being done by The Guardian and by The Washington Post, and now The New York Times and Der Spiegel. All of these folks really digging into this story and telling us things that the government don’t want us to know, so we’re seeing the best of what journalism can still be.

But overall, I think the debate has been a lot of like “What motivated Snowden?” and these sort of personal stories, not as much about the revelations. I think that a lot of the media has struggled to cover the complex nature of the story. So I think it’s been good and bad, but a lot of the problems that the media has are exacerbated in this.

But I’m more positive than negative, because I think that it’s shown just how important this kind of investigative journalism is. It’s shown just how important it is to have reporters out there working beats, developing sources. And it’s shown that somebody like Glenn Greenwald, you know, sort of in a quasi-official status with The Guardian, just how important the work someone like that can do. And I think that’s certainly a net positive for journalism, even if I wouldn’t hand out all gold stars on the coverage.

Recommendations for Fighting Government Surveillance

I would urge you — and this is something we’re going to be organizing at Free Press with some of our allies — to set up meetings with your members of Congress when they’re back in their districts. That made a huge difference. We came within seven votes of defunding these spying efforts in the House, with a bipartisan bill. Very close. Much closer than the leaders of either party expected. And that’s because when people went home they heard about this. Same thing happened with Syria and the potential bombing there. So that’s the number one thing you can do is get involved.

I think the other thing you can do is educate yourself. The Guardian just put out a great explainer, a great synopsis of everything that’s been going on here. You definitely need to be reading that, paying attention to the journalists who are doing this. I think in the longer term though, we’re going to have to do some local organizing. Press freedom is going to have to be an issue that matters for more than just journalists and journalism organizations. That’s on journalists, but it’s also on the public to get involved and get educated. So we’ll be rolling out a number of things over the next two or three months, ways for people to get engaged and involved, events that will be happening across the country.

On the Future of Public Media

Ultimately, if we’re going to have quality news and information in local communities across the country, not just covering the White House, not just covering niche issues, we’re going to have to invest in public and noncommercial media. And right now we spend a fraction of what the rest of the world spends, $1.50 per capita per year. A cup of coffee. England is spending $80 dollars per capita, the Scandinavian countries are spending $100 dollars per capita. And they’re getting good value for their money, much better journalism. I just don’t see a better way to put journalists back to work than public investment. And I’m afraid it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better, but I think it’s the only solution I’ve found to how you deal with this crisis in journalism. That doesn’t mean you get rid of the commercial media, but it means you need a counterweight and you need to invest.

TRANSCRIPT:

Winship: Hi, this is Michael Winship with Moyers & Company, and I’m talking to Craig Aaron, who is the president and CEO of Free Press. Craig, Free Press is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What do you think its greatest achievements have been so far?

Aaron: What I think we’re most proud of is taking these media and technology issues and making them issues that are talked about in the press, that are talked about sometimes by the president, and that, when we do our best work, are talked about around the kitchen table too. The things that stand out for me over the last 10 years have been our efforts to stop runaway media consolidation. We didn’t stop all of it, but we did stop the FCC repeatedly from gutting long-standing limits on how much one company can own in a given city. And we’ve beaten them in court twice, we’ve rallied the public again and again and again to hold the line. And they haven’t changed those rules. I would highlight the issue of Net neutrality, or network neutrality, which is the fundamental principle that makes it so when you go online you can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, download whatever you want. That’s an issue that we put into the national debate, got the president talking about, and did manage — flawed rules, but did manage to pass rules protecting the free and open Internet. I think that the passage of the local Community Radio Act, which created thousands of new community radio stations, would definitely be a highlight for us. And all the way up to the past few weeks, you know, we were part of a coalition that got 3,000 people to come out and protest against unchecked spying and surveillance in Washington, DC. Three thousand people coming out and saying that their freedoms were more important than the fear they’d been told was more important. So I see so many possibilities, so much potential.

I think, if we’re being honest though, even with all those great victories — and there are many more — we stopped the AT&T merger, we stopped the SOPA & PIPA Web censorship bills — we recognize that it isn’t enough yet. The media is not getting better for most people. Too many people still aren’t connected to the Internet. The free and open Internet is under attack. So we still have a lot of work to do. We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished, we’re very proud that we have 650,000 members across the country, but we recognize that this is a problem that goes even bigger. And it’s gotten us rethinking a little bit what we need to do. And I think we’re going to be talking a lot less about media reform, which was the original idea of Free Press, and a lot more about fighting for your rights to connect and communicate, and broadening these issues, connecting with other movements, and really focusing on organizing. We’ve found that you can’t skip steps when it comes to movement building.

We’ve been able to get a lot done. We’ve been able to meet a lot of people who care about the media and get them involved, but it’s really going to take a lot more. It’s going to take mobilizing millions and millions of people if we’re going to do the things we should be doing, if we’re going to end unchecked spying and surveillance, if we’re going to support quality local journalism, if we’re going to refuse to accept that we shouldn’t just let journalism disappear because a few big companies don’t think it’s as profitable as it used to be. These are the kind of large fights — you know, is our democracy going to function? Are the agencies that are supposed to oversee the media actually going to have the authority to do that? These are some really fundamental questions, and it’s going to take a bigger, broader outside effort to get to the right outcomes.

Winship: You mentioned media consolidation, and Free Press issued a report last month called Cease to Resist: How the FCC’s Failure to Enforce Its Rules Created a New Wave of Media Consolidation. And the premise of that report is that there have been all these other acquisitions and consolidations that the public isn’t as aware of, because things like the ABC/Disney deal and things like that were such big splashes, but these deals have not been.

Aaron: What we’re seeing this year, right now, is that it might be, by the time we’re done, the biggest year in history for the purchase of television stations, television station deals, which is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of stations changing hands right now, and there are a couple of factors at play. One is actually very closely tied to elections, and it’s that these stations, local television stations, still the number one news source for Americans, [are] vastly profitable, and largely because of election ads. If you’re in a swing state during an elections season, your local television broadcaster is making literally — or collectively, is making billions of dollars. Three billion dollars in the last election went into local television advertising. So it’s a market that a lot of investors and big companies are paying attention to.

There’s also, I think, a belief in the industry that only a few big guys are going to survive, so they’re moving very aggressively to concentrate and consolidate. And so companies like Sinclair Broadcasting most notably have been using shell companies, so they essentially — they have this small number, four or five different companies that they do business with, that are effectively subsidiaries of Sinclair, that go in and become the license holders of stations, who then sign agreements with Sinclair to operate the local news. So what you end up with in many, many communities is one company, like Sinclair, controlling two or three newscasts. So on election night, you can change the channel, for example, and you’ll just see the same anchors sitting there. Maybe they bother to change the logo, maybe they don’t. And these are the public airwaves. These are incredibly valuable resources, but you just — you have this what we call covert consolidation. And because the FCC has failed to crack down on this — it’s very clear this is against their rules, and what should be happening is any ownership should be attributed to the parent company. But because they haven’t cracked, because they haven’t acted, these guys have gotten bold, and so you see a company like Sinclair go from 50 stations to, if they get all their deals approved, it will be 160 stations all across the country, reaching almost 40 percent of the national audience. And the FCC has had their head in the sand. They’ve looked the other way and allowed these deals to go through.

Now, we’re challenging a bunch of them. We’re challenging the most recent Sinclair deals, which is going to put them in markets including Washington, DC, they’re the big ABC station. WJLA is one of the stations. When these same companies go to the Securities and Exchange Commission and when they talk to their investors, they’re very clear that these are just subsidiaries, that these are completely 100 percent controlled companies by the parent company, yet when they go to the FCC, they act like they’re completely separate and they’ve barely met.

Winship: Right. And the profits that they’re making, the enormous amount of money that they’re now making with all these acquisitions and so forth, they’re not going into things like local news —

Aaron: No, that’s the really big part of the story is that despite making all this money — I mean, $3 billion in election advertising, all the independent groups, they’re not using that to hire more reporters. They’re using it to do more acquisitions. In fact, what we saw happen during the last election is that we saw them sometimes adding time to their newscast, but not to do more news, just to pack in more ads, because that was the most valuable advertising time. You saw them in some newscasts trimming back parts of the newscast so they could fit in more ads and so that, you know, our political discourse has been totally pushed into this realm of negative advertising.

That’s not a completely new story, but it’s absolutely intertwined with what these companies are doing. So they’re making record profits and it’s not being put into the news product at all. And a lot of people in a lot of places are finding out that when Sinclair comes to town, suddenly you get some reporting from Baltimore and you get conservative commentaries that they insist you run. So our phones are starting to ring off the hook with whistleblowers at these stations saying, “Oh, my gosh, we heard it was bad, but we didn’t realize they were going to do all this.”

Winship: Sinclair was the company that a few years ago, 2004 I think it was, refused to run the Nightline that listed all the [American] deaths in Iraq.

Aaron: That’s right. They refused to run the Nightline and then the turned around and they put on the air an abbreviated version of Stolen Honor, which was the Swift Boat movie against John Kerry, which they ran right before the election. They’ve gotten a little more subtle, but even in the 2012 election, the last presidential election, Sinclair forced a bunch of its local affiliates to run the same scripted political programming on the eve of the election. So the local anchors read the scripts, but all the packages were provided by the parent company, and it was there to, you know, discuss the issues of the election, and the issues were Obamacare — which admittedly was an issue in the election, but it wasn’t the only issue in the election. They had a section on foreign policy, which was completely about Benghazi, you know, as if that was the only thing being debated in the last presidential election when it comes to foreign policy.

So, you know, the problem isn’t that Sinclair shouldn’t be able to own a television station and put things out there and represent their political views. The problem becomes when they own all the television stations or when there’s just a handful of companies. And we’re getting to the point where less than 10 companies will own the vast majority of network-affiliated stations in the country, I think that people would really like to have local ownership, you know, be able to see the management down using the local restaurants, actually have people with ties to their community, because they rely on local news, both print/Web and especially broadcast. It’s still the number one source of news of information, and yet it’s increasingly not providing very much of that news and information.

Winship: Which makes it very corrosive of community and diversity.

Aaron: Diversity is an issue unto itself. All of the African-American owners of television stations put together own five stations. Three owners, five stations. So that’s what African-Americans in this country get in terms of television station ownership. That doesn’t seem right. You know, the numbers for the Latino community aren’t much better. Women only own five percent of the nation’s television stations, despite of course being half, or maybe even a little more than half of the population.

Winship: You also mentioned Net neutrality, and there was an article this week in Wired that was headlined “We’re About to Lose Net Neutrality and the Internet as We Know It.”

Aaron: Well it doesn’t have to be that way. So that was an article written by my former colleague, Marvin Ammori, who argued the big Net neutrality case that we were involved in a couple years ago, when he was still at Free Press. Net neutrality is very much in danger. So what’s happened is that the FCC did make Net neutrality rules, in late 2010, after a long fight. They were really inadequate. They were not as strong as they should have been or could have been. They made some very poor choices in how they constructed the rules that exposed them to being sued. And that’s just what Verizon did. So without perhaps going over the entire history of the Net neutrality court case, but basically, it comes down to — the case that’s being argued now comes down to, does the FCC have the authority to make these rules?

And the reason that’s even a question is because during the Bush administration, the FCC changed how the Internet, how broadband is treated under the law. So it used to be very commonly understood it was a telecommunications service. It came over a wire into your house. Originally, back in the days of dialup and DSL, it was the phone company’s wire. These were always treated as telecommunications services.

When the cable companies got into the broadband business they didn’t like that, because the phone companies had to share those wires. They had to open them up to other competitors to offer their own services, they had to let you attach answering machines and all sorts of other crazy ideas like that that made your life better and lowered prices. Cable didn’t like that, so they got the FCC to change the rules. It went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said, basically, “Hey FCC, it’s up to you.” Then the phone companies said, “Well, if the cable guys don’t have to play by these rules, we don’t want to either.” And the FCC said, “Okay, you don’t have to.” So suddenly, the broadband Internet, which had always been treated under one part of the law, was moved to another part of the law that essentially regulated websites and things like that — very, very little, almost no regulation, because these are content things. And then the FCC said, “Don’t worry, we can still make rules. We have this thing called ancillary authority.” A couple of years ago, when Comcast was caught blocking the Internet, interfering with people’s file sharing, we filed a complaint with the FCC, the FCC investigated and they found —

Winship: This is the BitTorrent —

Aaron: BitTorrent, exactly — found that Comcast, indeed, had been blocking the Internet and sanctioned them. Comcast sued, saying the FCC lacked the authority, and the courts agreed with them. They said they didn’t have the rules. Now, the FCC at that time didn’t have Net neutrality rules on the book. Now they’ve made Net neutrality rules. Here comes Verizon — they watered them down to try to win Verizon over, but Verizon thought they’d take their chances in court. Now they [the FCC] face this very challenging court case with a very skeptical court that could throw out the FCC’s rules or water them down to the point where they’re unrecognizable.

That case is being decided right now. It could be decided by the end of the year, early next year. At that moment, Net neutrality could disappear. And, you know, there’s a lot of people out there who think, “Oh, Net neutrality, that’s something we were debating several years ago. Whatever happened with that?” Well —

Winship: Yeah, exactly.

Aaron: All of a sudden, if the FCC lacks this authority, your phone or cable company’s going to be able to decide which websites work and which don’t. They’re going to be able to speed up or slow down content based on who pays them a little extra, who pays them the most. Now, if you’re a big company, even if you’re Google, you’re probably going to be able to find your way to work around that. But if you’re Free Press, you’re not going to get offered that spot in the fast lane. Even if you have something really important to say, even if you have something to say that people want to know, they’re not going to be able to find it. They’re going to be able to interfere and discriminate against different kinds of Internet content.

There’s a lot at stake in this court decision if the FCC loses its authority to regulate the Internet. Suddenly there’s no one there. And the FCC hasn’t always been a great protector of the public, but that is their job. And if they don’t have it, there’s no one else waiting there. You’ll be at the mercy of whatever AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner wants you to do. So, as the Wired article outlined, that’s the real danger. A lot of the big Silicon Valley companies, maybe they’re going to sit this one out. They’re pretty big now. They’re in business with these guys, they’re all making cell phones together. So it’s going to be up to the rest of us to make some noise about this and really push this new chairman of the FCC, who just started this week, and ask him, you know, “Are you going to let the FCC’s authority disappear?”

Winship: How can we make noise?

Aaron: Well, first we have to get the court decision to happen. But I mean that’s something that Free Press is going to be very active in. So we’ll be going back to a lot of the groups that got involved in this fight the last time around, and a lot of new groups to talk about the importance of the free and open and uncensored Internet. And we’ve seen, when you tell people what’s at stake, when you tell them that this amazing thing could disappear, they really care about it. Millions of people got involved in the Net neutrality fight. Ten million people rallied against the SOPA/PIPA web censorship bills. You know, we’re getting close to a million people speaking out against NSA spying and surveillance. Will the regulators listen and pay attention?

I think they need to or we’re going to risk this amazing thing, the free and open Internet that’s been unrivaled as a place for democratic participation and economic innovation and free speech. We could lose that. These tools by themselves are not necessarily a good thing. They can be used for good things, free and open information; they can be used to do a lot of bad things. And if we lose Net neutrality, the really fundamental nature of the Internet will change. And that’s going to be the fight.

We will be sounding the alarm when it needs to be sounded over what’s happening. And a lot of things that need to happen before then is just people learning about this issue and talking to the regulators who are supposed to be in charge and really getting to understand do they want to have — are we going to really accept a world in which the Federal Communications Commission has no power to regulate or rein in bad corporate behavior on the most important communications network of the 21st century?

Winship: You mentioned that there’s a new FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler. What’s Free Press’ take on him?

Aaron: We were critical of the choice of Tom Wheeler, because we felt that there weren’t enough questions asked or answered about his background, and the fact is that Tom Wheeler, for a long time, was an industry lobbyist. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, he was the top cable lobbyist. More recently, he was the top lobbyist for the cell phone industry, mobile phone industry. And yet, here he was, a very big donor to President Obama, being put into this job. So we had questions, we were skeptical about what he would do. And we don’t think that the Senate asked enough tough questions about that.

But here we are; he’s got the job, he was unanimously approved. And what matters is what does he do in the big chair? And so I haven’t had the chance to sit down with the chairman yet, he just started on Monday, but I hope to do that soon.

And, you know, I see some signs that are encouraging. He’s already talking about competition. I think that’s the most important thing the FCC needs to be paying attention to, because we don’t have enough competition when it comes to broadband service, when it comes to Internet service. Free Press’ perspective is we’ll support you when you prove it. We’re not doing any balloon drops or parades for anybody until they pass good policy. And we’ll treat Chairman Wheeler just like we’ve treated his predecessors, which is when they do something that we think is not in the public interest, we make a lot of noise about it.

There are going to be a lot of really, really crucial decisions landing on Mr. Wheeler’s plate. His predecessor as chairman, Julius Genachowski, didn’t do a good job. He left a lot of things hanging. There are a lot of messes out there that Wheeler’s going to have to clean up. And we’re going to see very soon whether he’s willing to do that, whether he’s going to look out for the public interest, whether he’s actually going to go out and talk to the public, or whether, you know, unfortunately, we’ll see more business as usual at the FCC, or maybe an FCC that doesn’t even matter any more because of all the decisions they’ve made to give up their own authority and power.

Winship: Ted Cruz put a hold on the nomination for a while.

Aaron: Ninety-nine senators were ready to vote this thing through, but Ted Cruz had to make his personal point. And unfortunately, the issue that that was about was about transparency around election advertising. And very simply, what it has to do with is truth in advertising, and the FCC has some authority over what people need to do under Section 3.17 of the Communications Act and they could make some very minor tweaks that would result in a very, very valuable reform.

And what that reform would be is to actually tell people who’s behind independent ad expenditures. So when Puppies and Kittens Against Barak Obama puts an ad on the air, you could actually learn that, oh, that’s Karl Rove, or, you know, when Americans for America says you should vote for a pipeline, you can find out, oh, that’s an oil company. And it would apply to everybody, left, right and center. This seems to be a really common sense solution that would do something to rein in some of the worst aspects of Citizens United. So as a viewer, you could actually, during election season when you’re inundated with ads, have a little bit more information about who’s trying to influence you and sway you. I believe the FCC already has this authority. They just need to do a rule making. There’s a petition to do just that sitting in a desk drawer somewhere. Hopefully Tom Wheeler will find it while he’s unpacking. And they could move on this right now.

I think there’s nothing [that] frustrates the American people more than being inundated with these attack ads. It’s out of control, and this would be a simple way to give people more information. And I think it’s part of a larger thing. Some things the FCC have done right, they’ve finally made information publicly available about who’s buying ads. You can go online and pretty soon in every market in this country see who’s actually buying ads on your local television stations. But we could do a lot more to increase that transparency and accountability, and I think the FCC has a major role to play there.

Winship: Some said there was a certain irony in Cruz portraying himself as such a rebel and basically upholding the status quo in this case.

Aaron: Yeah, well, you know, if you have higher political ambitions, including higher political ambitions that might require millions or billions of dollars from shady groups, you’re not interested in disclosure. But I think the public is with us on this one and I think this would be an incredibly popular reform. You know, most people don’t know what the Federal Communications Commission does. They think — they know that it fined Janet Jackson the time that her shirt fell off at the Super Bowl, but that’s about it. Maybe they know about Howard Stern. But if you went out across the country and said, “I’m the chairman of the FCC and I’m going to clean up election ads and tell you who’s really behind them so they can’t hide behind lies and misinformation,” I think you’d be a very popular political figure.

Winship: Surveillance is one of the other things you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation. What has Free Press been doing on that?

Aaron: The core issues for us are Internet freedom and press freedom. And the revelations that have come out, starting with Edward Snowden and all the reporting that’s gone on, hits right at both of those issues. You know, the idea that anything you do on the Internet is being watched, that your phone calls metadata is being sucked up into super computers, and that the journalists who are trying to tell you about this are increasingly under attack, matter to us a lot.

And so we were part — within really hours after the Snowden revelations first came out in The Guardian, we got together with a number of close allies, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Demand Progress, and we formed a coalition called the Stop Watching Us coalition. And very quickly, half a million people signed a petition that we put up on that site, and we started comparing notes and getting involved in this unchecked spying and surveillance issue.

Right now, we’re looking at the legislation. There’s some very interesting legislation that’s moving in Congress, the USA Freedom Act, bipartisan legislation, Pat Leahy, Jim Sensenbrenner. We think it’s a pretty good bill. Now, the coalition hasn’t necessarily endorsed it, but Free Press has. We think it’s a good step toward reform, toward reining in spying and surveillance. We think there are millions and millions of people out there, and the polls support this finding, who are now saying, you know what, it’s gone too far, and we need to rein in the worst aspects of the Patriot Act, of the FISA Amendments Act. We need oversight and accountability, and right now, the committees that are supposed to do that, the intelligence committees, aren’t doing it.

We think you can’t be a group called Free Press and not care about what’s happening here. And we just think it intersects with all of these Internet freedom issues like Net neutrality. Certainly Net neutrality is no good alone if everything you do is being spied on by the government or by corporations. Certainly, if you care about a free and independent press, that’s under attack right now. The reporters who are doing the most serious reporting, national security reporting, they’re being prosecuted in some cases. They’re being spied on, the Associated Press being maybe the most prominent example. In some cases independent journalists are being jailed. And this is something I think anybody who cares about a free and independent media, free press, needs to be very concerned about this and where all these issues intersect.

Winship: How do you think the media has covered the story, not only of the leaks, but what’s been happening to the journalists reporting the leaks?

Aaron: Oh, you know, it’s like it’s the best and worst of the media. I mean, in some ways it’s been so amazing, because — I mean, there’s this Watergate level, really — almost — of disclosures. The amazing work being done by The Guardian and by The Washington Post, and now The New York Times and Der Spiegel. All of these folks really digging into this story and telling us things that the government don’t want us to know. So we’re seeing the best of what journalism can still be.

But overall, I think the debate has been a lot of like “What motivated Snowden?” and these sort of personal stories, not as much about the revelations. I think that a lot of the media has struggled to cover the complex nature of the story. So I think it’s been good and bad, but a lot of the problems that the media has are exacerbated in this.

But I’m more positive than negative, because I think that it’s shown just how important this kind of investigative journalism is. It’s shown just how important it is to have reporters out there working beats, developing sources. And it’s shown that somebody like Glenn Greenwald, you know, sort of in a quasi-official status with The Guardian, just how important the work someone like that can do. And I think that’s certainly a net positive for journalism, even if I wouldn’t hand out all gold stars on the coverage.

Winship: The US has been falling down in the rankings in terms of press freedoms and the Committee to Protect Journalists and people like that. Do you think this administration has been harsher to press freedoms than anybody in a while?

Aaron: I mean, you’d almost have to go back to Nixon —

Winship: Yeah —

Aaron: — and I don’t say that lightly.

Winship: No. Right.

Aaron: You know, that’s why we had the Church Committee and everything else that came out of that. But we need another Church Committee, because this administration, the Obama Administration, has done more prosecutions of journalists than any prior administration combined, I believe. They’ve gone after journalists, they’ve been incredibly aggressive in going after whistleblowers. I think it’s shameful what they’ve done. You saw the spying on the Associated Press and all of their phone records, the closing off of information. I mean, this was an administration that promised they were going to be the most transparent ever. And yet, for journalists and journalism, at a moment of where, let us not forget, journalism is weakened by years of consolidation and media concentration and there aren’t as many reporters out there, that this administration’s record is among, if not the worst, of any administration we’ve had before. It pains me to say that, but it’s absolutely true.

Winship: Well, you mentioned the Stop Watching Us campaign, and not to put you on the spot, but what are the sort of things that our audience — if you could list five things that our audience could do.

Aaron: Sure. I would urge you — and this is something we’re going to be organizing at Free Press with some of our allies — to set up meetings with your members of Congress when they’re back in their districts. That made a huge difference. We came within seven votes of defunding these spying efforts in the House, with a bipartisan bill. Very close. Much closer than the leaders of either party expected. And that’s because when people went home they heard about this. Same thing happened with Syria and the potential bombing there. So that’s the number one thing you can do is get involved.

I think the other thing you can do is educate yourself. The Guardian just put out a great explainer, a great synopsis of everything that’s been going on here. You definitely need to be reading that, paying attention to the journalists who are doing this. I think in the longer term though, we’re going to have to do some local organizing. Press freedom is going to have to be an issue that matters for more than just journalists and journalism organizations. That’s on journalists, but it’s also on the public to get involved and get educated. So we’ll be rolling out a number of things over the next two or three months, ways for people to get engaged and involved, events that will be happening across the country.

Winship: What about public media? Do you think it still has a future in this country?

Aaron: I really do. Sometimes I feel like I’m the last believer in public media. But I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think that commercial journalism is coming back at anything like it was. I’m sure there will be new experiments and new models, and maybe a few more billionaires will come out of the woodwork, and I hope they do, to support journalism. But ultimately, if we’re going to have quality news and information in local communities across the country, not just covering the White House, not just covering niche issues, we’re going to have to invest in public and noncommercial media.

And right now we spend a fraction of what the rest of the world spends, $1.50 per capita per year. A cup of coffee. England is spending $80 dollars per capita, the Scandinavian countries are spending $100 dollars per capita. And they’re getting good value for their money, much better journalism. I just don’t see a better way to put journalists back to work than public investment. And I’m afraid it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better, but I think it’s the only solution I’ve found to how you deal with this crisis in journalism. That doesn’t mean you get rid of the commercial media, but it means you need a counterweight and you need to invest.

And I think, unfortunately, from my perspective, a lot of the public media institutions, who to be fair, have been kicked in the teeth for years, have had to beg for scraps for years from the government, but when they’re not under attack, when the Republicans aren’t threatening to come after Big Bird, when Mitt Romney’s not threatening to put ads on Big Bird, they’d prefer the rest of us not really talk about public media at all in a political context. And I think that’s a mistake.

I think the constituency exists. I think we have to direct them toward just not cutting the funding, but increasing the funding. If you spent — instead of $1.50, if we spent $5 dollars a year on public media, we could put 10,000 journalists back to work tomorrow. We could build newsrooms in almost every sizable community. Web, radio, TV, you know, all those lines are blurring. We could invest in that on top of the existing public media structure. We could invest in these great community radio stations that are coming online. But we haven’t done it yet. I still think that’s the right answer. I think it’s going to take public media makers themselves to join the fight, urging their listeners, their audience, to get involved. And I think if it’s very doable if we focus on the politics. You actually have to get involved in the politics. And I actually think that’s true for all these media issues.

The biggest obstacle we face is political will and political imagination. It’s not that there aren’t good ideas. I can come up with ways, probably five or 10 different ways to create a $10 billion budget for public media, with money that we’re just spending on other stuff right now. You know, over time we could get public media out of the annual appropriations process. In fact, in many ways, that process is what keeps them on their knees.

Winship: Well, it’s been 10 years for Free Press and a lot of it’s been very tough, very hard fights. How do you keep, as they say, your base energized? How do you keep yourself energized, for that matter?

Aaron: I see ordinary people doing extraordinary things all the time. I think when we can have this combination of getting the facts, pulling out the inside information and mobilizing people at these very empowering moments, where they can make a difference, where they can stop a bad thing from happening, where they can push a good thing over the top. I find it to be incredibly motivating. And I think people everywhere are fed up and are waking up to this idea that this media isn’t just natural. It didn’t happen magically. We can actually play a role, we can actually do something about it. That keeps me excited and engaged.

And frankly, these issues are only getting bigger. The Internet is not getting less important. These revelations of unchecked spying and surveillance strike at the heart of, I think, our country, our moral fiber as a country. These are very, very big issues. And so what excites me is that I actually think we can do something about them. It’s going to take more people, it’s going to take more resources, it’s going to take more energy. But I think these are actually very, very winnable fights, if we concentrate on organizing, if we pick our moments and we continue to build momentum. So, you know, I just can’t wait to get to it.

Winship: Craig Aaron, thank you very much.

Aaron: Thanks for having me.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writer of the new weekly public affairs program, "Moyers & Company," airing on public television. Check local air times or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.


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