Overcoming digital distraction. Plus, The New York Times’ $1.1b folly, and saving community access TV.

Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?

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Is community access TV on the FCC chopping block?

FCC chair Ajit Pai. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Federal Communications Commission has opened a new front in its war on behalf of corporations and against the public it purportedly serves. A proposed FCC rule that could take effect as early as December would drastically cut funding for community cable television stations — the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY local news reports.

The rule, pushed by the telecom industry, would allow cable providers to deduct the cost of local programming from the franchising fees they pay to cities and towns. According to Eli Sherman of GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local newspapers, groups like Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative lobbying organization, have argued that those fees result in artificially high prices for cable subscribers.

But Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), sees it differently. “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe,’” she said in an email interview. (Disclosure: I am a member of CCTV’s honorary board.)

At a time when local newspapers are shrinking beyond recognition, local cable stands out as a vital outlet for meeting the informational needs of communities. Because cable companies are assessed fees to support PEG (public, educational, and governmental) programming on a per-subscriber basis, operations in some of the larger cities and towns are pretty robust. The Boston Neighborhood Network, as the city’s community TV effort is known, even has a half-hour nightly newscast produced in collaboration with journalism students at Boston University.

What’s at stake if the FCC has its way, says CCTV’s Fleischmann, is “the elimination or curtailment of one of the few remaining non-commercial free speech media platforms.” In Cambridge, she adds, that includes services such as training for hundreds of community residents who produce “thousands of hours of hyper-local news, current affairs, and entertainment,” the 27-year-old Youth Media Program, and coverage of local events.

Says Darlene Beal, executive director of HC Media in Haverhill: “Any reduction in funding for PEG hurts the entire community, especially as local news and information becomes scarcer. A funding cut as drastic as proposed by the FCC could reduce PEG to little more than a closet full of old out-of-date camera equipment. By that, I mean that the thriving community PEG organizations that provide media services to cities across Massachusetts will not exist in their current form.”

Despite the threat posed by the FCC’s proposed rule, coverage has been scarce and mainly relegated to local newspapers, although Boston 25 recently took on the issue. U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., recently sent a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai raising concerns about the rule, writing:

Our constituents watch PEG channels to monitor local government proceedings, hear the latest news from nearby college campuses, and consume other locally produced programming including emergency alerts and directives. Your proposal may jeopardize these important functions. We encourage you and your colleagues on the Commission to ensure that any final decision will not threaten the sustainability of PEG stations.

In one sense, community cable is yesterday’s technology. Local stations are already under threat as increasing numbers of households cut the cord, dropping cable in favor of internet streaming services. Both Fleischmann and Beal say they are working to broaden their funding sources and distribution outlets, posting their content on their own websites, on YouTube, and on social media.

But funding from cable operators remains key. At the very least, local stations need time to make the transition to a post-cable world rather than suffering a drastic reduction immediately.

“We have long realized that the days of cable television, as we knew it, are coming to an end,” says Fleischmann. “The primary challenges are the loss of funding, as well as the need to find new distribution models for programming created by the community. CCTV has prioritized the diversification of our funding sources, yet we are still about 75 percent reliant on cable funding.”

So what can you do? Unfortunately, the FCC’s public comments window closed on Nov. 14. But you can email the FCC commissioners, whose contact information is listed here. Or you can try to send a “reply comment,” as CCTV suggests. Not that we should expect much. FCC chair Pai’s push to repeal net neutrality was successful even though there was a public outcry in favor of keeping the rule, which banned internet service providers from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic by slowing it down or charging more.

Local television is part of the glue that binds communities together. Whether you watch it a lot, a little, or never, you need it. Let’s try to save it.

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The end of net neutrality will cripple the First Amendment

FCC chair Ajit Pai

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The guiding principle behind the First Amendment is that we all have a right to be heard. It is up to each of us, of course, whether we choose to listen. But no one — not the government, and certainly not the giant corporations that control so much of our communications infrastructure — may prevent anyone’s speech from competing in “the marketplace of ideas.”

But now that the internet has become by far the most important and prevalent means for conveying free speech, the demise of the First Amendment may be at hand. If, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission votes on Dec. 14 to do away with net neutrality, then the distribution of news, information, and entertainment will become utterly dependent on the whims of internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. If you want your website to load quickly and be easily accessible, then you may have to pay a fee to the ISPs. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad.

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally — that ISPs shouldn’t be able to speed up some services that are willing to pay and slow down or even block others. A hot topic for many years, it was finally enacted as a binding rule by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. With President Trump now in charge, though, the FCC has a new Republican chair — former (and, no doubt, future) telecom lawyer Ajit Pai — and a three-to-two Republican majority.

Hypotheticals put forth by net-neutrality advocates tend to focus on non-journalistic scenarios. For instance, in 2004, according to a Daily Dot round-up of net-neutrality violations, a North Carolina telecom called Madison River Communications blocked Vonage as it was attempting to launch its voice-over-internet phone service. The problem, you see, was that Vonage threatened Madison River’s landline business. The FCC, then as now under Republican control, fined Madison River $15,000, which just goes to show that dog-eat-dog capitalism was not always a matter of GOP orthodoxy. In 2011, reports the media-reform organization Free Press, Verizon blocked the Google Wallet payment system so that it could promote its own software instead. There are plenty of other examples as well.

The threat to journalism posed by the end of net neutrality is also very real. Imagine that a major media corporation owns the largest television station and largest newspaper in a given market (now allowed thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the cross-ownership ban), and that it pays the telecoms a hefty fee to guarantee that its digital platforms will load quickly and play video flawlessly. How can, say, a small start-up news organization compete?

Or imagine a ban on certain types of content — as happened in 2007, when Verizon briefly blocked pro-abortion-rights text messages. As the St. Louis-based commentator Sarah Kendzior wrote Sunday in The Globe and Mail of Toronto:

The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.

So what is to be done? At this point, it may seem hopeless. The FCC will repeal net neutrality, and that’s the end of it. But there are a few threads we can grasp onto.

For one thing, we are beginning to learn that many of the messages the FCC received in support of ending net neutrality were bot-generated fakes. It’s not clear exactly how many, but Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine that more than a million identical anti-net neutrality messages had a pornhub.com email address. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating, and has complained that the FCC is being uncooperative in turning over the documents he needs.

For another, it is possible that the legal system may intervene and keep net neutrality alive. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times last week that “by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”

Finally, it’s never over until it’s over. Last week Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times urging the public to speak out and stop the agency from voting for repeal. “Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” she said. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”

Despite all this, it is more likely than not that the FCC will repeal net neutrality. What options will we then have? Perhaps a company with real financial power, such as Google or Amazon, will roll out its own network, with net neutrality guaranteed. All you would have to lose is your privacy, or what little remains of it. Or, as this Vice story recommends, we should encourage the development of local ISPs, including municipally owned systems. (Thanks to the indefatigable Saul Tannenbaum for sending me the link.)

It would all be so much easier, though, if the FCC did the right thing. If you favor keeping net neutrality, what is the best way of registering your views? The FCC website is a maze. But Free Press has started a petition urging Pai to cancel the Dec. 14 vote and leave net neutrality in place. As a journalist, I rarely take direct political action except in matters like this, where freedom of speech and of the press is at stake. I’ve signed, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.

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