Now hear this: Obama’s head of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, recently announced that he will be stepping down at the end of BHO’s term. This, of course, will open the floor for the incoming King in Orange to appoint an enlightened, balanced reformer with results.
I’m kidding, of course.
Wheeler isn’t being pushed out. It’s customary for the FCC head to give up his seat when the new boss takes over. Until now, Wheeler wouldn’t say whether he was going or not; this caused no end of strife with Congress. The man is important, no question: during his time in office he pushed crucial rulings about treating Internet content equally. Wheeler is a crucial player in the development and continuation of that rare bird, net neutrality. The times may be a‘changin’, though. Brett Molina, writing for USA Today, said:
… those rules could be in jeopardy when President-elect Donald Trump takes office. In a tweet in 2014, Trump called the FCC’s adoption of Net neutrality rules a “power grab” by President Obama. Wheeler also attempted to push rules transforming how consumers could watch cable. The rules would have required TV service providers to create apps allowing consumers view programming without the need for a traditional set-top box.
The departure of Wheeler from the FCC means that it’s soon to be open season on net neutrality, and fair-minded regulation. That’s just on the Internet front. Who knows what the hell will happen in the brave old world of wires and radio waves? After the head man leaves on January 20, the commission will consist of two Republicans and one Democrat. We’re likely to see progressive policies toppled. The year 2017 will be good hunting for telecom powers with big pockets.
Of course, Wheeler wasn’t always so beloved by progressives. Margaret McGill, writing for Politico:
A former lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries and an Obama fundraiser, Wheeler was tapped to lead the commission in 2013. His nomination was initially met with scorn from some public interest groups who disliked his business ties, but Wheeler eventually followed a consumer-focused, activist agenda, and the trade groups he once represented — CTIA and NCTA — have been among the fiercest opponents of his policies, including net neutrality.
Obama, for all his faults and failures, did occasionally appoint department heads who weren’t neoliberal tools. Tom Wheeler was one of his better picks.
Net neutrality states Internet providers should play by the same rules as phone companies. That is, the big boys of telecom and cable can’t favor one channel over the other. Wheeler kept the right from dismantling it. That may change.
There are strong and moneyed powers pushing for net neutrality, of course: Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Tumblr, Etsy, and others want it. Against them are arrayed huge sums of capital. At the end of the day, net neutrality may or may not be on the chopping block, but much else certainly will be. Wheeler brought in regulation to allow competition in a field dominated by monopolists and titans. Those of us who worked in college radio—including yours truly (keep it locked to the left!)—know how devastating the rise of the telecom giants (such as the cannibalistic Clear Channel radio network) were to small-market operators and independent stations.
This state of affairs, where behemoth companies get to call the shots, happened as a result of Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act. That piece of legislation was a truly nauseating love letter to big corporations. Before Clinton signed it, the market was protected against gigantic combinations. Nowadays? It’s possible to drive coast-to-coast and hear the same music played on repeat forever. That was Bill’s doing. In the list of the Democratic Party’s truly amazing failures of leadership, that’s near the top, especially when you consider how central telecom is to the way we live now, and how we get our news.
Communications have always been good business: ask any newspaper baron or the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. But the golden age of mega-profits, the era of Comcast, began there and then.
And what are the results, twenty years later? Our data is sluiced down through a few narrow channels, owned by huge firms: Disney, Time Warner, Fox, CBS, Viacom, Comcast. In 1983, ninety percent of media was owned by fifty companies. Now there are six controlling the same share of the pie. Actually, there was almost five: Sumner Redstone’s movie theater company, National Amusements, owns controlling shares in both CBS and Viacom. They called off a proposed merger four days ago.
What does this mean for democracy? Nothing good, I’m afraid. Ask yourself: how much of our worldview is determined by what we see on TV and the Net every day? More than we realize. I’m not calling into question the judgment of my fellow Americans. I’m simply stating that our idea of what is possible is shaped by what we see and hear—and a lot of what we see, and a lot of what we hear, comes through wires and wifi, whether we like it or not.
If those two pathways are limited, then much else about us will be too. Despite what the cynics say, human beings have a great ability to accept people who are dissimilar to us. We are creatures of empathy. But we can only feel for someone who we can see or hear or read about. We can love the strange and foreign, but first we must know they exist.
Humans are not blind or myopic, but their field of vision is limited. This is why exploration, curiosity, and travel are so key to being a grown-up: you have to go out and hunt for the truth. Sachie Hirano, a video game writer, once noted: “The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they’ll go.”
This was the problem with the rise of Big Radio: they blocked out alternative music. The owned the horizon. Alternative music was not underground and independent because it was bad. It was that way because it could find no place in the mainstream system. Once Americans began to hear indie music, they came to love it. Often, the strange is considered strange because it is new; remember that the word “unusual” literally means “something that doesn’t show up regularly.”
This is a subtle, sly form of control. Only the Britta water filter is more selective. For instance, how much of what I’ve read and seen today comes to me through the good agency of our friends at Viacom? And that’s me, a discerning, stylish, and rarely violent consumer. I only scream at the top of my lungs when the situation really demands it, like fighting anxious moms at Baby GAP on Black Friday. What do we do about people who get one paper, and watch one television station? How do they get their news? What does the world look like to them?
As far as avoiding concentrated business control of the economy and media, Trump hasn’t shown the slightest shadow of give-a-shit, so why should his FCC appointees be any different? Ironically, the man who came to power by figuring out alternative media loopholes (use Twitter, get free advertising through cable news) will probably not care the slightest about what happens to the small guy. If his cabinet is any indicator, Trump will appoint his own hatchet man to the FCC, who will set to work right away dismantling all the rules which have bound the Lear Jet crowd.
In a time where the black mirror holds sway over us all—in an era where so much of what we see and watch and consume comes through lighted screens, Wheeler’s position is crucial. Pundits speak of fake news and real news. Yet each bit of it is brought to us at the same speed, without favor or fear regarding its contents. That will change if Big Telecom gets its way. Wheeler must be replaced by someone who has the best interests of the consumers and citizens of America at heart. The politics of telecommunication are vital; we all live in this network, and at this moment, none of us can stand to be neutral.