Monday, March 14, 2005

It Almost Made Me Cry

I like Ken Ferree. No, I really, really like him. When he was head of the Mass Media Bureau at the FCC, I met with him and felt like I was talking to a “pal.” So I am thrilled that he is now Chief Operating Officer for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. The folks who dole out the money to PBS and community radio stations. Ken is personable, understands the importance of local media and seems to be an advocate for the public. The bad press about Mr. Ferree, I think, stems from who he was working for, Michael Powell. And that goes to the man-who-signs-your- check-syndrome. Ken could do no more than his boss, Mr. Powell, was willing to do for the public interest which is why I find this move to becoming COO for CPB so enlightening. Maybe I was right about this man after all, maybe he does have the public interest in mind.

Then there’s Charlie Firestone (Charles as he is known in proper circles) Executive Director of the Aspen Institutes’ Communications and Society Program. They just released a report calling for the cease of all regulation, that deregulation rhapsody so often sung by the industry. My heart fell. For whatever reason I thought that the Aspen Institute was supposed to be:

“…an international nonprofit dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue. Through seminars, policy programs, conferences and leadership development initiatives, the Institute and its international partners seek to promote nonpartisan inquiry and an appreciation for timeless values.”

I was truly convinced that the Aspen Institute attempted with integrity to find solutions to pressing problems. Bring a bunch of people together in a lovely atmosphere at the Wye River compound or in Aspen Colorado, and talk intellectually and honestly about the issues of the day and find real solutions. I was a part of an Aspen Institute about “voter education” and it was clear from the report that the mainstream media was not doing its job of public service as required by their licenses and it was up to PEG to fill in the blanks in media democracy at the local and maybe even state level. It was one of the things I did while executive director of the Alliance for Community Media that I was truly proud of because it become inherently obvious through the discussions, that commercial media had no interest in following state elections or local politics. And it just made PEG shine all that much brighter.

Now this. A who’s who of industry (no wonder since it was entirely industry sponsored) and even on the political side there were no friends, save Colin Crowell of Markey’s office.

“There are a lot of broken parts to the communications regulatory scheme right now,” said Charles Firestone. The press release goes on to brag “Proposing a major revision of the Communications Act, the report suggests that the competition among broadband DSL, cable modems and other players such as wireless broadband providers will render much of the current regulation unnecessary.”

Oh…really?

I am sure that if the group had been a little less lop-sided, like maybe inviting Elizabeth Beaty, Executive Director of NATOA, the report might have been a little less skewed. I did put her name in as a potential participant for future conferences, but I guess that sheet of paper was eaten by the dog.

My experience was that after the day’s work was done there was a really terrific cigar circle that formed on the back deck. Me, being a person who actually likes the smell of cigar smoke pulled up a chair. I did notice that the two other women at the cigar fest, like me, were set on the outside of the circle while the men did their routine of smoking those big old cigars and discussing important bizness. And I, like the other women, gave up hope quite fast of being part of the discussion and left the men to themselves.

So maybe like the parlor games of old, the Aspen Institute is really a “good old boy’s club?”

T’would seem.

I thought about this blog all day. I really did like my Aspen Institute “experience” and I pondered whether or not I would ever be invited back should I write my scathing comments. Then it occurred to me “Do I care?” And the answer came…like manna from heaven…

“Nope.”

If people are being intellectually dishonest, stacking the deck and just massaging their egos, then I want no part of that.

So puff your big ole’ stogies my friends. Because no matter how you cut it... it’s all just blowin' smoke.

Here's the link to the press release about the report: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/index.asp?bid=20343&i=87

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A question on their data:

The report says: "Fully, 88 percent of U.S. households pay $40-$50 or more monthly for satellite or cable television. These services are hardly necessities. If they can afford HBO, presumably many rural Americans can afford a market-set rate for local phone service.

Where is this from? Is it even close to valid? I really doubt it. (I guess I'm one of the 12 percent)

- In the industry

Sascha Meinrath said...

Does the Aspen institute provide the names and affiliations of the folks who were involved in writing the report? Just curious.

Charlie Firestone said...

The devil is in the details, which are not real plentiful in the Aspen Institute report, but even less so in the press release. I can't expect everyone to read the report, but it does not call for mindless deregulation without alternatives. The
report
is available for free on the Aspen Institute website.
It was written by a single person, North Carolina State professor Robert Entman, who interprests what the people say at the conference and weaves it all into a coherent whole.

Sascha: we do publish the names and affiliations of those who attend, at the back of the report.

We have a caveat in the foreword that not everyone endorses every point, nor do their employers. Rather, it is Entman interpreting the general sense of the group.

Upon reading it, one would find that the deregulation refers to telecommunications primarily. It did not go into broadcasting. It called for deregulation over time unless competition is not existent in a particular area. In the report the very first objective (at p. 4) is "assuring affordable rates for consumers who have no competitive alternatives to traditional ILEC service.

For many years this conference has identified the telecommunications regulatory system as broken. This past year we heard of people in a rural co-op that are actually paid to subscribe to telephone, due to the internal subsidies in the telecom system. That's not such a big deal, but the distortions in the system are untenable as voice over Internet becomes commonplace. The internal subsidies of corporations in the universal service scheme need to be changed so that subsidies are targeted to those who need it, and so that the source is from general revenues or as near to general as possible. To stick to a system that had long distance subsidizing local rates won't work in the new environment.

Anonymous: The data comes from sources cited in the report, in the case of charts, or from participants. In the case of the numbers for cable, I believe that came from the FCC.

As for the diversity of viewpoints in the conference, this group included academic Heather Hudson, who is a voice for the local citizen, as well as state regulators Bob Rowe and Susan Kennedy. We invited someone else at the local level but she could not attend. much to our detriment. We will correct that in the future conferences.

Industry representatives comprised about half the group, but remember that they square off against each other on these issues. So ILECs, cable, inter-exchange carriers, manufacturers, financial institutions, and corporate consumers all take different perspectives on the specifics.

For the next 2-4 years I think we will see Congress take a long look at the Communications Act. The 1996 revisions left a lot to be desired. I think it is important to take a broad and dispassionate look at what will rationally serve the public, and still be realistic in terms of the political process.

Anyway, Bunny, your concerns are fair ones. We certainly would not ban you from the conference table, or even from smoking cigars the next time.

One last item that won't thrill you. Upon his departure from the FCC, Michael Powell will spend three months at the Aspen Institute as a senior fellow. He is the third FCC chairman to accept a senior fellowship at the Communications and Society Program upon departing the Commission (Hundt and Kennard before him). While I don't agree with all of Powell's decisions, particularly on media concentration, this Program is open to a broad variety of viewpoints, left and right. We are non-partisan and are not advocates, ourselves. That is the spirit of the Telecom Report as well, though in that case, the group believes that reform is needed and indeed inevitable.