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Tom - As our regular listeners may recall, last month the FCC voted to allow the merger of AT&T and Bell South in return for AT&T agreeing to adhere to the principle of net neutrality for at least two years. This was a big concession from AT&T and was prompted by the fact that the FCC was deadlocked two votes to two with one commissioner abstaining over this issue. Now it appears that FCC chair, Kevin Martin is backpedaling on holding AT&T to this agreement. Martin had been one of two commission members opposed to net neutrality requirements, and on the day the deal with AT&T was announced, he released a statement to a Senate committee saying that some of the negotiated conditions were “discriminatory and run contrary to commission policy and precedent.” The statement was also signed by FCC commission Deborah Taylor Tate, who said that some promises “cannot be accomplished by AT&T alone.” And that “as a policy going forward, we specifically do not support those aspects of the conditions and will oppose such policies.”
Linda – Martin appeared before a Senate committee last week, what did he say on this issue?
Tom - Martin was forced to defend his public statement in which he said he would not enforce some of the conditions that were eventually imposed on AT&T. Of course, chief among those conditions was that AT&T would maintain a neutral network for the next two years. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye, who supports net neutrality principals, reportedly said that Martin’s statement indicated that he “did not intend to stand by the deal that was reached.” When asked by Inouye if he intended to enforce the agreement, Martin reportedly responded that he intends to, but that the net neutrality conditions reached with AT&T could not be a template to “change commission policy or commission rules or regulations.” In essence, Martin’s position seems to be that just because AT&T had to agree to remain neutral with its networks in order to buy BellSouth, it does not mean net neutrality is now a requirement of all future agreements.
Linda – What has the congress done in response to the popular outcry to protect net neutrality?
Tom – Several bills have been introduced, the latest being lodged in the Senate by Democrat Byron Dorgan and Republican Olympia Snowe. Called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the bill aimed to block ISPs from billing Internet companies for preferential access to end users and affiliated companies. Such behavior “threatens to derail the democratic nature of the Internet,” Dorgan said when the bill was introduced last month.
Linda – This past Monday the Anheuser Busch company launched a new online channel of original video content called Bud.tv. Tom, what’s significant about this?
Tom – This is the first time that company that is not primarily in the business of media has attempted to launch an online channel of original content. This is a major advertising effort by Anheuser Busch, who is expected to spend more than $30 million on bud.tv in its first year. While it may seem somewhat odd for a beer company to get in to the media content creation business, it makes sense when one considers the enormous amount of money that Anheuser Busch spends on advertising, which last year totaled $919.4 million. To quote Anthony T. Ponturo, vice president for global media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, “the Internet will be equal to or better than television,” “We’re trying to get out in front of consumers who are spending six hours a week online,”. “Marketers had better understand how to effectively reach them.”
Linda – What are media critics saying about this development?
Tom – This phenomenon has been dubbed “Branded entertainment”, and certainly Anheuser Busch is not the only company that has been experimenting with the concept. According to a New York Times article, Companies such as American Honda Motor, Best Buy, Cadbury Schweppes, General Motors, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble, as well as others have all started creating branded entertainment at some level. In some ways, this harkens back to the period of the 1930’s through the 50’s when companies used to own the TV and radio shows they sponsored. But changes in technology give them a much greater degree of control and a larger canvas, so to speak. 50 years ago a company may have had only an hour a week that it sponsored and it still had to go through the broadcasting company which was regulated by the FCC. With the internet, the company creates and posts the content directly and there is no limit as to how much content they can post. This unprecedented degree of control has prompted media critics such as Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert to observe “It’s the advertisers swallowing the programming,” “We live in a time of great overreaching by the advertising and marketing industry,” “This is one further step toward advertiser control of media.”
Linda – We will provide links to the website for Commercial Alert.
Linda – Last Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, Newscorp owner Rupert Murdoch made an unusual statement. Tom?
Tom – The online source epluribus Media reports that when asked if his company News Corp. had managed to shape the agenda on the war in Iraq, he said "No, I don't think so. We tried." Asked for further comment, he said: "We basically supported the Bush policy in the Middle East...but we have been very critical of his execution." Now this is a very unusual statement for a the owner of a media company to make. News Corps. Flagship news provider, FOX cable News Channel, promotes itself as “fair and balanced”, something this recent statement by their owner seemed to contradict.
Linda – Has there been other criticism that FOX news has maintained a bias in reporting on the war in Iraq?
Tom – There have been several studies that have looked at FOX News in terms of bias toward the right. In 2001, the group Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting studied the guestlist of FNC's flagship news program, Special Report, it found that Republicans made up 89 percent of Fox News' partisan guests, outnumbering Democrats 50 to 6. Avowed conservatives made up 71 percent of guests. Former Fox News producer Charlie Reina described the Fox newsroom as being permeated by bias. In a post he wrote to the Poynter Institute for Journalism, he describes how “The roots of Fox News Channel's day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered.” Reina goes on to say that “The Memo was born with the Bush administration, early in 2001, and, intentionally or not, has ensured that the administration's point of view consistently comes across on FNC. This year, of course, the war in Iraq became a constant subject of The Memo. But along with the obvious - information on who is where and what they'll be covering - there have been subtle hints as to the tone of the anchors' copy.”
Linda – What sort of effect does this style of reporting have on the viewing public?
Tom - A year-long study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes reported that Americans who relied on the Fox News Channel for their coverage of the Iraq war were the most likely to believe misinformation about the war, whatever their political affiliation may be. Those mistaken facts, the study found, increased viewers' support for the war. The study found that, in general, people who watched Fox News were, more than for other sources, convinced of several untrue propositions which were actively promoted by the Bush administration in rallying support for the invasion of Iraq.