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    UCC Media Justice Update

    Move toward Competition, But Where is Diversity?

    FCC Chairman Wheeler yesterday announced his intention to make an important step forward toward more media competition.  The really good news is that Chairman Wheeler is not proposing to permit additional consolidation, which is a significant improvement over the ill-conceived proposal of the prior Chairman, Julius Genachowski.

    In addition, Wheeler is proposing to close some loopholes in the existing rules addressing jointly-run (but not jointly-owned) TV stations.  Many years ago, the Supreme Court said about jointly-run news outlets, “it is unrealistic to expect true diversity from a commonly owned … combination. The divergency of their viewpoints cannot be expected to be the same as if they were antagonistically run.” The same holds true today. When two TV stations merge, they join staff, news teams and sales teams. There are fewer journalists, and fewer places for members of the community to share stories or to get news. If one reporter isn't interested in a news story, no one is, because there is only one reporter! We see the same effects when those two TV stations are operating together using a complex financial agreement as when the joint ownership is out in the open.

     

    And yet, it is still unclear what Chairman Wheeler is proposing to promote media diversity. Today, ownership diversity is devastatingly low. The inadequately collected and analyzed data released by the FCC in 2012 indicated that we have virtually no TV stations owned by people of color or women in the United States, and that number will surely be lower when the more recent data from last December is released.  TV still holds an unprecedented sway over our national conversation, political dialogue and values. Two hundred eighty-three million people (that's out of over 310 million total) in the U.S. watch an average of 146 hours of TV every month.  Without owners from all walks of life and reflecting the full diversity of our nation, our national and local dialogues suffer.

     

    The last Obama FCC Chairman Genachowski kicked the can down the road and left office without addressing these issues. The new FCC Chair is pointed in the right direction, but he needs to get across the finish line.

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    Which is better: Ignorance or Knowledge?

    Last week Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler concluded that he was not comfortable with part of a comprehensive study of the media marketplace and decided to eliminate the portion of the study that gave him concern.

     

    Why would the chair of an independent federal regulatory agency want to stop conducting research? Well, in this case he was falsely accused of launching a government effort to tell reporters and journalists what to write and report. If the FCC had been planning to do such a thing, all of us would have breathed a sigh of relief that such an effort was cancelled. 

     

    But the truth of the matter is that last week conservative activists scored a victory in favor of ignorance over facts. This so-called controversy has a lot in common with the false debate over whether greenhouse gas causes climate change or whether smoking causes cancer. It is entirely possible next week we'll hear accusations that the studies are really all about affirmative action or voting fraud or some other conservative lightening rod.

     

    But, I can hear even my friends on the left asking, shouldn't the government always steer clear of any hint of impacting journalism? The truth is, a wide variety of laws and policies already impact journalism. Everything from libel laws, to copyright rules, to cable access channels, to broadcast indecency prohibitions impact journalism and media. The real question is, do you want an agency that makes media and communications policy to do so without a fundamental understanding of how the media marketplace works? Apparently the critics last week would rather the FCC function from a place of ignorance rather than knowledge.  

     

    This lack of knowledge has been a real problem for the FCC. In fact, a number of policies that many of last week's critics presumably support have been overturned in court because the FCC did not have the facts and analysis to support its decisions. George Bush's FCC tried twice to substantially relax rules that would have led to significantly more consolidation in the media. The courts said no--not because the court has a view on whether big media or competitive media is better--but because the FCC didn't have enough legitimate data to back up its rule changes.   

     

    We can all agree that media and journalism functions best when many outlet and many journalists compete with one another for stories. Journalism functions best when reporters reflect the wide variety of people and communities that are part of these United States. Could a reporter that has never set foot in rural Alabama or remote Wyoming do justice to the stories that impact people there? Shouldn't our media cover both Latinos who are personally or professionally impact by immigration reform in addition to people who strongly oppose it? Often our very lives depend on the media. Just ask people out west evacuating from wild fires or people trying to find safe drinking water in West Virginia. People use media of all kinds to find jobs, learn how to safeguard their own health, pinpoint this morning's traffic jam, or figure out which candidate to support in the next election.   It matters to all of us that the systems we use work well. We can allow the media to get bigger and bigger and swallow up all different points of view into a single, infotainment-producing monolith. Or, we can adopt policies that promote competition and vibrancy in the marketplace of ideas.

     

    So back to the studies debated so intensely last week. That research protocol was part of a multi-year deliberate process to assemble all the scholarship on the media's function, building on a comprehensive study and a literature review of more than 500 studies conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg Communications and Journalism School and a phalanx of the leading scholars in the field. The research design was available to the public since last May, when the FCC sought input and comment. The process underway was designed to test the research instrument to verify its effectiveness in the field. 

     

    And what of the so-called secret army of "media monitors" spreading out across the country to intimidate journalists into giving the "right" answers and covering the "right" stories? They don't exist. What we did have government-funded researchers conducting a voluntary, anonymous series of questions to understand better the decision-making process in newsrooms generally.   The study would have permitted the FCC to start from a place of knowledge and facts when it makes policy, rather than merely guessing about what is driving news and story production in this rapidly-changing media environment. When reporters are sometimes simultaneously video reporters, bloggers, free-lance journalists and ideological activists, when ownership structures of media get more complex and misleading every day, when TV viewers in cities around the country see the same exact newscast on two or three different networks every evening, we know that things are changing at a pretty rapid clip. And it is up to the policymakers to at least try to keep pace. 

     

    This data is important. A knowledgeable expert FCC is important. Policies to promote a multiplicity of viewpoints and as many journalists as we can muster (covering stories from all perspectives) are important. Scholars have been working on this type of research for years and hopefully they can continue to do so now that the self-appointed First Amendment defenders have declared victory.   Maybe the FCC will at least be permitted to read these studies if they are completed by scholars and academics. Because how can the FCC help safeguard journalist independence if it doesn't have data on how journalists operate?

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    Categories: media concentration

    Open Internet Goals

    The United Church of Christ's media justice ministry, OC Inc., released the following statement in reaction to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Wheeler's statement yesterday, indicating how he plans to move forward on Open Internet:

    Everything about Open Internet policy seems to be a compromise in this politically polarized and legally challenging environment. At the same time, the Commission's decisions in this matter will impact the right to communicate, which is fundamental to a series of questions that impact all aspects of social justice.
     
    Can all people speak with their own, God-given, voices regardless of their incomes or race? Will government actors be able to ensure all children and families have access to broadband in their homes and schools? Will our ability to speak and participate in civic discourse depend on whether we reach the internet via a smartphone or a computer? Can all speech be heard, regardless of its commercial popularity?
     
    We will judge the Commission's ultimate action on whether the communication rights of all people are protected.

    The United Church of Christ is a faith community rooted in justice.  Established in 1959 as part of the civil rights movement, UCC’s Office of Communication, Inc. works to replace the media we have with the media we need to create a just society.

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    Lower Prison Phone Rates Start Today!

    For over ten years a coalition of organizations and individuals has been asking the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) to lower the cost of calling prison, jail or detention centers. Finally, last year we won! The FCC’s new rate caps take effect February 11, 2014.  The new rates will protect families, pastors, community members and others making phone calls to people in prison, jails, or detention centers.  We have prepared a summary and resources to help people apply the new rules.

    New Rate Caps

    On February 11, 2014, the new rate caps adopted by the Federal Communications Commission for telephone calls to people in prison, jail or detention take effect. The FCC caps for interstate calls (calls between two different states) are:

    • 25 cents per minute for collect calls and
    • 21 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls

    The FCC also capped the total cost of a call between two states, including per-call charges. Those caps are:

    • $3.75 for a 15-minute collect call and
    • $3.15 for a 15-minute debit or prepaid calls

    For calls after February 11, 2014, a charge over these limits is in violation of federal rules.

    Need more help understanding the new rules? See our Frequently Asked Questions and How to File a Complaint at the FCC for Prison Phone Call Charges that are Too High.

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    Categories: prison phone

    10 Reasons Net Neutrality Matters to Progressive Christians

    A guest blog from Kimberly Knight, one of OC Inc.'s board members.

    January 17, 2014 By Kimberly Knight

    This past fall I accepted a board position on the Media Justice arm of the UCC, OC Inc. Since I care deeply about social justice as part of my duty as a follower of The Way, and since I spend  commitment levels of time engaging media of all sorts it seems this is a wonderful fit.

    By now most of y ‘all know that a court in Washington DC struck down open Internet rules on Tuesday, also known as Net Neutrality.  Is this just a meaningless policy debate?  Not on your life!  Communication online is one of the most important ways, we as progressive Christians, are called to work faithfully and tirelessly toward realizing a socially just planet (which translates in Jesusy terms as parenting with God to manifest the Kingdom).  So I’d like to say a few words about why Christians should give a rat’s ass about this week’s ruling.

    Protections that prohibit favoring some content over others were set aside.  Which means that service providers such as Comcast and Verizon can choose to allot more bandwidth (a bigger straw) to the content that steps up and pays the most while we are left with our eyes bugging out and veins poppin’ in our heads while we try to listen to everyman’s voice with speeds comparable to sucking on a Zesto’s banana milkshake in January.

    Thanks to my friends at OC Inc, most especially the dedicated and talented policy advisor, Cheryl Leanza, I have the following ten reasons why progressive Christians should deeply care about the hit we all took this week when net neutrality was vanquished.

    1.   So many social justice achievements rely on the spread of information and knowledge.  Today’s efforts on climate changepoverty, and gun violence, cannot rely on mass, corporate-controlled media that either ignore or distort the issues.  If we hope to see a day when all of creation thrives and swords have been beaten into ploughshares, we need the safety valve, the people’s mic, of an open Internet.

    2.       The progressive faith community stands for social justice and civil rights.  Historically, to protect civil rights, our country has needed rules requiring non-discrimination rules in housing, credit and banking, transportation and scores of other industries.   How can these communities tell their own stories if they need to pass by a network gatekeeper? (It was just this imbalance that sparked the media justice work of the UCC  50 years ago).

    3.       The Internet is supposed to be, and has been most nearly, the great equalizer  by making a space for voices that have historically been relegated to the sidelines, like people of color and the LGBT community.  As Rashad Robinson of Color of Change said, “Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, to access information and connect to the world, and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable.”  The same is true for religious speech.

    4.       Without protection, we are moving to a day of an Internet for the poor and an Internet for the rich. Much like our deeply striated public school system, what do you think information flow is going to look like for folk on the wrong side of the digital tracks?

    5.       Policies must protect this world’s most precious resource—its treasure-trove of knowledge and the ability to create and share new ideas.  If the ability to create is limited by the ability to pay, we once again relegate the “least of these” to the sidelines of our national conversation.

    6.       Open Internet will impact churches directly.  Remember the advertising line in denomination budgets — when we had to pay to distribute our ads?  Go find that money, because we might need it again.  What if Darkwood Brew had to pay exorbitant fees for its content to compete with Netflix or NBC.  Think it couldn’t happen?  Check out the recent decision by AT&T to charge to distribute content.

    7.       All Internet fundraising could be as vulnerable as text messaging fundraising is now.  Did y’all know that Catholic Charities had their text fundraising campaign stymied by Sprint?  Internet speech could be subject to the same thing.

    8.       In this new paradigm, the Internet is destined to become centralized like cable and broadcast TV.  Content could be rejected by network owners.  The UCC knows first-hand what it is like when big media companies decide our content is “too controversial.”  In 2004, the UCC’s ads welcoming the LGBT community were rejected by CBS and NBC affiliates.   Could we have to pay extra for our videos to reach their audiences without stopping to buffer on the Internet?

    9.       Did ya know that downloads of the Bible were blocked because Comcast thought the file was too big in violation of net neutrality…

    10.       We as compassionate livin’, justice seekin’, radically inclusive Christians can be, should be,  role models for the whole world groaning toward justice.  As the World Summit on the Information Society found in its 2005 Tunisia Commitment, “access to information and sharing and creation of knowledge contributes significantly to strengthening economic, social and cultural development, thus helping all countries to reach the internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals.”   We cannot condone a system that conditions a critical right on the ability to pay.

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