The Wavelength: Original Reporting—What’s it Worth? Plus: Tracking the AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

 

By Eric Arnold, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the New York Times debuted a long-awaited paywall, and stats blogger Nate Silver used the launch as an opportunity to explore the value of a news organization based on the amount of original reporting it produces. While Silver’s rankings could be a valuable tool for news organizations, Mother Jones‘ Nick Baumannfinds Silver’s methodology wanting.

“The results, as you might expect, made theTimes [paywall] look like a pretty good value,” Baumann writes. But the real problems are in how Silver ranks “original reporting”– namely that online citations don’t always identify the outlet, and that larger, established news organizations sometimes get credit for breaking stories when smaller orgs actually had the scoop first. That’s not to say that rankings like this don’t have incredible value for media, but that they need to be explored in a deeper manner. Baumann writes:

It’d be nice to see a foundation interested in journalism—the Knight Foundation, say, or Google.org—invest some time and money to expand and rework the rankings. It would be great to see media outlets competing to produce more and better original reporting.

Ultimately, Baumann believes rankings like this, if done right, could be a valuable barometer for measuring quality in journalism. Let’s hope someone takes up his call to arms.

AT&T/T-Mobile Merger still a very bad idea

Free Press’s Tim Karr weighs in on the mega-merger with five reasons why it’s not so great for consumers. According to Karr, “consolidation of the scale being proposed by AT&T resembles the old railroad and oil trusts of the 19th century.”

Karr also notes that the merger would erode competition, result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers, eliminate perhaps tens of thousands of jobs, stifle innovation in the tech sector, and threaten free speech.

How will the merger affect POC users?

The disappearance of T-Mobile, whose low-cost plans offering unlimited data appealed to low-income wireless users, could have a huge impact on communities of color who rely on unrestricted text and web plans, especially those who don’t own computers.

At Colorlines.com, Jamilah King notes that “Mobile broadband is fast becoming the future of the Internet, and it’s already an important way in which communities of color are helping to close the digital divide. ” Blacks and Latinos, she says, are among the biggest users of mobile technology, “and in many cases, it’s the primary way that they surf the Web.”

If unlimited data plans end, and prices for wireless service rise for current T-Mobile users if and when a merger is completed, the digital divide separating under served communities from customers who can afford higher fees will almost certainly widen. This could have a devastating ripple effect on everything from people who use phones for business to people who use phones for social networking — and may affect African Americans, Latinos, and immigrant populations disproportionately.

Impact of merger on Net Neutrality

How will the potential mega merger affect Net Neutrality? Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently interviewed Free Press political adviser Joel Kelsey, who says the FCC’s December decision not to regulate wireless carriers now seems shortsighted. “[The FCC’s] justification was that you’re less likely to see some of the same types of anti-competitive actions for fear that a carrier would lose a large number of customers … looking at it through the lens of this merger, I think that justification has kind of gone out the window.”

Did ISPs buy anti-Net Neutrality votes?

Speaking of Net Neutrality, Crunchgear had an eye-opening article outlining the amount of money donated by ISPs over the last four election cycles to the 15 members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology who opposed Net Neutrality. The article’s findings perhaps aren’t that surprising, but are revelatory: “Looking at the 15 congressmen who voted against Net Neutrality, the top three ISPs gave their campaigns some $868,024 over the past four election cycles. You can interpret that as, well, they were able to knock down Net Neutrality for less than $1 million, which is pretty much a drop in the bucket for these companies.”

Oh, Canada – Why Can’t America Be More Like You?

The AT&T merger is dominating the media policy news cycle, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from an interesting ruling for media made by our neighbors to the north. As Yes! Magazine’s Dave Saldanareports, a Canadian law which prohibits broadcast news from knowingly spreading disinformation—an anti-lying law—was recently upheld by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Saldana writes: “With little fanfare, the CRTC last month scrapped a proposal to revoke or relax a rule on ‘prohibited programming content’ that includes ‘broadcasting false or misleading news.’ The CRTC withdrew the plan when a legislative committee determined that the rule does not run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which like the U.S. Constitution, guarantees press freedoms.”

He goes on to raise the obvious question: If Canada can do this, why can’t the United States? After all, there have been cases where journalists have been pressured into knowingly inserting false statements into stories under orders from executives, in order to protect big business interests engaged in harmful practices.

Unfortunately, the media’s legal right to lie is protected by the First Amendment. But if Canada can ban false reporting without violating freedom of the press, why can’t we choose truth over truthiness?

New Study Details Women in Media Globally

Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lunt reports on a recently completed a study of women in news media covering more than 170,000 people in 500 companies across 60 countries. The study was produced by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).

Lunt says the study shows that gender inequality in the media sphere has been institutionalized. The good news is that the gap appears to be closing, especially at the executive level, where women have more than doubled their presence in the past fifteen years. A 1995 study showed women 12% of the top management positions in 239 nations, yet the IWMF report shows women now hold 26% of the governing and 27% of the top management jobs.

Progress? Certainly. But there’s still a long way to go.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. To read more of the Wavelength, click here. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

The Wavelength: What does proposed AT&T and T-Mobile Merger Mean?

By Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium Blogger

Welcome to the Wavelength, your bi-weekly field guide to the world of media policy. Over the next four months, we’ll be compiling great content, connecting the dots, building context, and reporting how media policy impacts the lives of everyday people. From the ongoing battle over Net Neutrality to the wild world of Internet regulation, from partisan crusades to media accountability, the Wavelength is here to keep you in the know.

This week, we're focusing on major mergers, holding telecom giants accountable, and the revolving door at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

So, without further ado, let’s take a spin through the media zone.

AT&T to Absorb T-Mobile?

On Sunday, AT&T announced it had reached an agreement with T-Mobile to buy the mobile phone service provider for $39 billion. As reported in the New York Times, the deal would “create the largest wireless carrier in the nation and promised to reshape the industry.”

The immediate upshot is that the number of nationwide wireless carriers would drop from four to three, with Sprint Nextel running a distant third behind AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon. Another impact could be higher rates for current T-Mobile customers. Advocates of the deal suggest it could improve AT&T’s oft-criticized service, resulting in fewer dropped calls. However, critics note that the roughly $3 billion in projected annual cost savings will likely come at the expense of workers at the hundreds of retail outlets expected to close, if the deal goes through.

Both the Justice Department and the FCC have to sign off on the merger before it can be approved, a process that could take up to a year.

House adds insult to NPR’s injury

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Republican-controlled House voted 228-192 to end federal funding for NPR. The move came on the heels of a secretly recorded video from conservative activist James O’Keefe that purportedly showed NPR fundraiser Ronald Schiller expressing support for Islamic fundamentalism and disavowing the Tea Party as “racist” — leading Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign. The video was later revealed to be excerpted and heavily edited from a longer video which places Schiller’s remarks in context.

At TAPPED, Lindsay Beyerstein watched the entire two hour video, and notes that:

O'Keefe's provocateurs didn't get what they were looking for. They were ostensibly offering $5 million to NPR. Their goal is clearly to get Schiller and his colleague Betsy Liley to agree to slant coverage for cash. Again and again, they refuse, saying that NPR just wants to report the facts and be a nonpartisan voice of reason.

As reported in the Washington Times, the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the bill, making NPR’s federal funding safe—for now. However, the timing of the vote suggests that House Republicans are essentially endorsing O’Keefe’s questionable tactics, showing that their dislike of the so-called liberal media is of greater concern.

Telecoms add ramming to their list of illegal practices

A recent AlterNet story by David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick details sneaky, unethical, and possibly illegal telecom tactics, the most recent of which is "ramming."

“Ramming” happens “when a phone company‘s customer is put on a service plan or package s/he did not need or want or cannot even use.” According to the article, “An estimated 80 percent of phone company customers have been overcharged or are on plans they did not need or even order. These and other scams can cost residential customers $20 or more a month extra and small business customers up to thousands of dollars a month.”

These practices are insidious because modern telephone bills are so cryptic that it’s not easy for even the most astute customer to figure out they’ve been duped.

Powell’s next move

Last Tuesday, former FCC chair Michael Powell announced that he has taken over as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Leading media advocacy organization Free Press snarkily congratulated Powell via a statement from Managing Director Craig Aaron:

If you wonder why common sense, public interest policies never see the light of day in Washington, look no further than the furiously spinning revolving door between industry and the FCC.

Former Chairman Michael Powell is the natural choice to lead the nation's most powerful cable lobby, having looked out for the interests of companies like Comcast and Time Warner during his tenure at the Commission and having already served as a figurehead for the industry front group Broadband for America.

AT&T imposes monthly usage caps

Finally, we’ve got more bad news for those unlucky enough to have AT&T as their Internet and cable service provider. As Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently reported, AT&T customers who use the company's U-Verse cable TV service and DSL hi-speed Internet services in the United States can expect a bump in their monthly bills if they exceed a new usage cap – 50GB for DSL customers and 250 GB for U-Verse users. Those who exceed the storage fee will be charged $10 extra for every 50GB over the limit.

Surprisingly, the telecom behemoth continues to insist their price-gouging moves are in the consumer’s best interests. According to an AT&T press release: “Our new plan addresses another concern: customers strongly believe that only those who use the most bandwidth should pay more than those who don't use as much."

Personally, I don’t spend too much time thinking about how much bandwidth other people are using, as long as I’m getting the download speeds I’m paying for.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint and repost. To read more of The Wavelength, click here. For the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: How to Avoid Fracking and Oil Spills in 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re posting the Weekly Mulch on Thursday this week because of the holidays. It’ll return to its regular Friday morning posting next week. Until then, Happy New Year!

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

2010 was a disappointing year for environmentalists.

This was the year Congress was supposed to pass climate change legislation, but each and every time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed on the verge of pushing the bill forward, the effort fell short. In April, off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon explosion led to one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history, and in the aftermath, neither President Barack Obama nor Congress has pushed for the sort of strong regulations that would rein in the oil industry and the risk it poses to coastal ecosystems.

Meanwhile, a newly invigorated natural gas industry has been plowing forward with a controversial drilling technique called hydrofracking. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has committed to studying the environmental impacts of the practice, it’s unclear at this point how much leeway the industry will be given to use techniques that have contaminated water and air across the country. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben had trouble convincing the president to take the small symbolic act of reinstalling a solar panel on the White House roof. And in November, the country elected a group of lawmakers who are skeptical that climate change even exists.

Hope springs eternal

But the news was not all bad, as Change.org’s Jess Leber reports. In California, green-minded voters defeated a proposition that would have rolled back the state’s ambitious climate law. Coal-fired power plants are closing in states like Oregon and Colorado, and mountaintop removal coal mining is losing its funding.  And cities like New York, Washington D.C., Denver and Minneapolis made it easier for their inhabitants to use bikes as a primary mode of transportation.

“All over the world, activists are fighting in their states, towns and cities to do right by the environment,” Leber writes. “They are also moving to pressure the corporate world. So while, given the results of Election Day in the U.S., progress in Congress will be an uphill battle, I’m confident there will be even more victories to report this time next year.”

A year can be a long time. Consider, for instance, Steph Larsen’s reflections on her farm’s first year. “I feel like I’ve lived a decade in the last 12 months,” Larsen writes in Grist. Last year, her pasture did not exist, and the farm buildings on her land had sat unused for years. But in the past 12 months, she’s grown cherries and tomatoes and squash, kept chickens and hunted for their eggs, and raised livestock that later became her dinner.

Larsen’s goals for her farm are modest: “to grow food for her household and community.” It can be hard sometimes to see how individual choices like hers can make a difference while global leaders cannot agree on how to reduce carbon emissions and industry continues to exploit and pollute the environment. But as Winslow Myers, the author of Living Beyond War, writes at Truthout, “the cause-and-effect relationship between what I do personally in my daily life and those planet-wide challenges has become infinitely clearer” over the past 50 years:

Now we can see how the two are connected – between my diet and the effect of industrial agriculture on the land, between my energy consumption and global climate change, between the chemicals in my laundry detergent and the health of the oceans – and between my political commitments and the world-destroying weapons built with my tax dollars….the reality is that I am so deeply connected to the whole entity that I am responsible for it, answerable to it.

Local leaders step into the breach

It’s true that individual decisions to turn down the heat, or eat local food, or bike instead of drive cannot turn back global warming. But in aggregate, they do make an impact. And although nationally and internationally, politicians are finding it difficult to create strong policies on climate change, that would reduce emissions, not all lawmakers are avoiding the issues. Franke James’ visual essay on climate change at Yes! Magazine puts it like this: “Don’t be fooled by the global leaders loafing. Local leaders and cities are making plans to adapt to climate change (because it’s affecting them NOW!) “

And ultimately, these sorts of decisions on local and individual levels do send a signal to leaders that their constituents care about keeping the planet healthy, care about preserving our environmental resources. To that end, check out these ideas for individual action from the staff and readers of Mother Jones.

And next year? Leaders like Bill McKibben are working to create a global movement around climate change, a people-driven movement that will convince legislators and negotiators that it is incumbent upon them to act. Look for them to start making lots of noise in 2011.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Save Affordable Housing, Help Revive America’s Middle Class

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Over the past decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac transformed themselves into some of the worst-run companies in recent history. But contrary to current talking points, the firms’ failings had almost nothing to do with their programs for low-income borrowers. As policymakers debate what should be done with the mortgage giants, a battle is now beginning in which the very availability of affordable housing for the middle class may be at stake.

A history of affordable housing

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, before the U.S. government created Fannie Mae in 1938, mortgages were very pricey 5-year loans, so expensive that only very wealthy Americans could ever hope to own a home. Fannie Mae changed all that by rolling out the 30-year mortgage, which lowered monthly payments for borrowers by providing a government guarantee against losses for banks. It worked.

But as Fernholz notes, without some kind of government involvement in the housing market, home ownership will revert to its pre-Depression status a privilege reserved for elites. Policymakers will have to implement significant changes in the mortgage finance system to ensure stability in the U.S. housing market, but whatever changes may come, a robust role for the government in housing will be essential.

Fannie and Freddie have been justifiably but inaccurately maligned in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. In recent years, their executives ran the firms like out-of-control hedge funds, lobbied Congress like arrogant Wall Street banks and did nothing beyond the bare minimum required by law to help low-income borrowers. But Fannie and Freddie did not go headlong into subprime mortgages—the primary source of their losses came from loans to relatively high-quality borrowers.

The terrible mortgages that crashed the economy were issued by banking conglomerates and Wall Street megabanks—Fannie and Freddie were almost entirely divorced from that line of business. The problem with Fannie and Freddie was largely structural– investors and managers saw the potential for big profits from taking on loads of risk, but believed (accurately) that the government would eat losses if those risks backfired. So Fannie and Freddie ramped up risk, taking on as many mortgages as they could while keeping as little money as possible on hand to cushion against losses. Eventually the strategy destroyed them.

Fixing the mortgage system

Exactly how the government stays involved in the mortgage market is still open to debate, as Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent. Nearly every member of the private sector who testified at a recent housing forum sponsored by the Treasury Department endorsed some kind of government backing for the housing market. This was a meeting of private-sector bigwigs—no community groups or affordable housing advocates were invited to speak at the meeting. Proposals ranged from scaling back government support for some types of mortgages, to the full nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Fannie was a nationalized entity for the first 30 years of its existence).

In other words, the government is going to have to keep subsidizing housing, but it will have to find new ways to do it. The old Fannie and Freddie model didn’t work, but the private sector will be unable to get the job done by itself. Private-sector banks and mortgage brokers, after all, were the source of all the predatory loans issued during the subprime crisis, and the source of all of the most offensive loans that drove the economy off a cliff.

Inefficient and often predatory players on Wall Street are still causing problems today. As Ellen Brown highlights for Yes! Magazine, the mortgage system is so bizarre that banks are finding themselves unable to document their right to foreclose on properties—and courts are (fortunately) refusing to let them do it.

It’s a rare situation in which borrowers may actually hold the higher legal ground against powerful corporations. About 62 mortgages are registered through an electronic documentation system called the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which helps banks with the foreclosure process. But MERS has repeatedly been unable to show proper documentation assigning a mortgage to a specific bank, and courts are now challenging its right to foreclose on behalf of big banks.

That’s good news, Brown notes, because MERS’ shoddy documentation has made it very difficult for borrowers to figure out who actually owns their loan. If you don’t know who owns your mortgage, it’s impossible to modify it if you find yourself unable to pay it off.

As Shamus Cooke argues for Truthout, even successful innovations like the 30-year mortgage are beginning to look a little outdated in an era of heavy, chronic unemployment. Many people can no longer expect to be gainfully employed for three decades on end. If the government refuses to repair our damaged jobs infrastructure, even simply maintaining the status quo in housing could become impossible.

Deficit reduction is not a cure-all

That brings us to another favorite conservative bogeyman, the federal budget deficit. The deficit and jobs generally stand in direct opposition. Creating jobs costs money, and spending that money expands the deficit. Cutting the deficit, by contrast, means cutting support for jobs.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, conservative lawmakers are still harping on deficit reduction as a cure for everything that ills the nation, when the real solution to our problems is a serious jobs bill.

Even if the deficit were a huge problem, trying to cut important social services in the middle of a deep recession is not a good way to go about solving it. Drastic cuts to government spending in a recession result in lower tax returns for the government, which can often be self-defeating, especially in the face of expanding joblessness. The resulting push for deficit reduction—known in economic circles as an “austerity policy,” is better understood as the active pursuit of economic decline. As economist Robert Johnson notes in a New Deal 2.0 piece carried by AlterNet:

Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral.

The government has taken several dramatic steps to repair the nation’s financial system, but it has done almost nothing to help troubled borrowers and not nearly enough to create jobs. Some of this is due to misguided policies enacted by President Barack Obama, and much of it is due to cynical obstructionism. But we cannot repair the economy without fixing jobs and housing. Both are still in a full-blown crisis, and policymakers should feel an urgent need to deal with them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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