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Press gives a free pass to citizens groups allied with telecoms

ASK THIS | May 07, 2007

At a New Jersey utilities board hearing on cable franchises, three guys from Verizon – the elephant in the room – go unnoticed by the regulators, and by the press.

Q. Citizens groups get funding or other support from telecoms and then testify on their behalf, neglecting to point out that they are beneficiaries. Is that acceptable behavior by the citizens groups?

Q. Newspapers run op eds by these citizens groups promoting their benefactors, but do very few news stories – usually none – on the issues involved, which affect millions of Americans. Is that acceptable behavior by the press?

By Bruce Kushnick

I’m sitting in a government-looking room attending an open meeting of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to discuss giving Verizon new cable franchise gifts, removing various obligations.  There are 50 to 75 people and I notice something odd. Three guys are standing in the back by the exit door and they keep shaking the hands of the speakers, most of whom testified that Verizon should get a new, statewide franchise to offer cable services.

The state legislature has already passed a bill; this session is held to iron out the details. And what I notice at this meeting is that the majority of speakers, those representing the Hispanic organizations, the black organizations, a computer club and some business execs, have been parroting words that I’ve heard before with sentences directly out of Verizon’s press materials.

The mantra: Don’t you want cable competition? Won’t competition lower prices? Blacks, Hispanics, seniors, the poor, persons with disabilities, and even common folk all agree that the poor baby bells need to get rid of that cumbersome obligation to the public known as a cable franchise.

What I didn’t notice were any reporters from news organizations. Even had one or more been there, the plain fact is that the media are mostly blind and deaf to the Astroturf problem. For example, I googled to see if anything had been written about the issues involved. What I found were op eds by Astroturf groups in various New Jersey papers, such as the Newark Star Ledger. It and other newspapers paper don’t seem to look behind the curtains, for the most part.

I later learn that the three men in the back of the room, Moe, Larry and Curly, work for Verizon, and it is clear by the smiles and handshakes that a room of witnesses have been brought by Verizon to testify on its behalf. Not one mentioned that Verizon gives their organization money or other support.

Why is the statewide cable franchise bad? Because in New Jersey, Verizon is already supposed to have rewired 80 percent of the state with fiber optic, 45mbps bi-directional services – with 100 percent completion pledged by 2010. This network, under the original plan, was to be open to all competitors and to be ‘ubiquitous’ – meaning Verizon would not pick and choose who does and does not get upgraded. Verizon, New Jersey has collected over an estimated $5 billion in higher phone rates and tax perks – about $2000 per household. Yet, not one person or group, except for my group, Teletruth, requested an investigation of the money already collected for networks not received, even though it is part of the current law on the books.

You would think every consumer group would be outraged and want a full accounting and refunds of thousands of dollars per customer, not to mention the missing cable competition. Worse, AT&T and Verizon may never roll out ubiquitous service or even any service. As of April 24th 2007, AT&T had 20,000 cable-IPTV customers, and Verizon claimed 348,000 at the end of the first quarter of 2007. That’s the entire U.S. competition status of fiber-based cable competition by both companies. There are approximately 110,000,000 households in America, of which we estimated that 86 million should have been completed by the end of 2006 with upgrade fiber to the home.

The cable franchise campaign and the New Jersey meeting

It is clear that this same scenario is being played out across the U.S. – in possibly every state meeting or discussion, every hearing or forum, in every municipality, even hamlet, every state capitol.  Verizon and AT&T are using thousands of groups nationwide to make their point: The groups get money, then back the corporation’s position. This is very well coordinated, and very well financed with national astroturf organizations, co-opted groups, lobbying firms, research ‘think-tanks’, political machines, and media, especially op-eds, which are placed by the corporate press or others paid to do this work.

It is also clear that this is happening on every topic that impacts broadband and telecommunications, but let’s focus on the cable franchise fight.

According to the Nashville City Paper, "More than 27 state legislatures throughout the U.S. are expected to decide on franchising legislation next year, including AT&T, Verizon and Bellsouth."

Groups like Consumers for Cable Choice, TV4US, LULAC and others are popping up all over the country to make sure that Verizon gets changes to franchises in their states.

In the case of the New Jersey Public Utilities board meeting and the state legislature meetings, groups including Verizon-funded Rossmoor Computer Club, a company called Argent, and the Latino Institute are just some who testified or have written op-eds and other activities on behalf of Verizon. [Click here for more details about the testifiers financial ties.]

Verizon New Jersey even set up its own site for this campaign but it seems to have been taken down after Verizon got the laws changed in its favor(tvchoicenj.com/).

League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC, wrote rave reviews for Verizon in various op eds. "The current marketplace for video, without real competition, adversely impacts Latinos," states one op ed in a Spanish language weekly. LULAC had op-eds and testified in Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey, and California. And they are very friendly with Verizon and AT&T.

AT&T gave LULAC $1.5 million: ”AT&T Foundation Provides $1.5 Million Technology Access Grant to League of United Latin American Citizens. Grant Builds on Success of LULAC Empower Hispanic America with Technology Initiative,” June 30, 2006.

The grants are for LULAC in California, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Missouri.

A question reporters should ask: How many states did LULAC testify in on behalf of AT&T or Verizon to for cable franchises?

It now appears that black and Hispanic groups will receive even more money, especially to lobby Congress, according to Matt Stoller, a District of Columbia activist and consultant. Writes Stoller:

“Why is this debate in the African-American and Hispanic political communities happening now? Why not last year, when net neutrality was in the spotlight? Well, look at the power dynamics - if you are AT&T, you don't need LULAC with Republicans in the majority, but you do when Democrats take over. Once it became clear that the telcos couldn't push the COPE Act through a Republican Congress but would have to go on the defensive in a Democratic Congress, they pulled out their trump cards. LULAC and NBCSL clearly didn't want to come out on this issue, otherwise they would have continued to quietly support the telecom companies as they did last year. They were pushed to come out, probably with prodding by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc. LULAC is going to be a key roadblock in Federal net neutrality legislation, and NBCSL is going to be a key piece of the telecom offensive strategy in the states.”

In some states there has been a small revolt. A writer for Action Committee for Media Education/Boston, a blog, explains how the public was out in force in Massachusetts. Verizon also has its own Massachusetts site, "Consumers for Technology and Cable Choice", though the Patriot Ledger just outed them as a Verizon-funded group.

The outcome of the revolt: According to the Boston Globe, Verizon has suspended applications for new cable licenses and Governor Patrick is proposing new telecom taxes while Senator Kerry and Rep. Markey are also asking to not delay upgrades.

Reporters who connect the dots will find that well-funded national groups go state to state to fight for their corporate sponsor, and few politicians or regulators want to upset the apple cart, lest their own donations be decreased. As the 2008 elections get closer, an obvious but nevertheless effective story would be to see which candidates and office holders Verizon and AT&T help fund.

You would think it would be embarrassing for the press and media to quote astroturf and co-opted groups as ‘authentic’ – but most press simply are asleep at the wheel. In many cases, as with the Newark Star Ledger, op-ed pages run pieces by astroturf or co-opted groups while news coverage seldom questions why various non-profits have come forward to support a corporate position. Reporters and editors need to start questioning just how caustic these deceptive practices have been on the public interest and examine why a non-profit would support the phone or cable company when telecommunications or broadband are not part of their own stated agenda.

Reporters also, unlike the regulators at the New Jersey meeting I attended, can note the goings-on in the back of the room, where the three guys are obviously influencing the entire meeting. If virtually everyone testifying has either been paid to attend and doesn’t identify the monies they received, can we blame the regulators for creating bad policies?

Gordon Cook, a respected telecom analyst, has another take on the New Jersey cable franchise legislation.

And in Georgia, a Web site is dedicated to showing what is wrong with a cable franchise bill is bad: Get Georgia Connected! Stop HB 227!

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