There’s a wonkish yet curiously fascinating AP story in the Seattle Times today about an FCC ruling that limits local government authority and oversight in negotiating cable TV franchises. Critics complain that FCC chairman Kevin Martin deliberately misrepresented facts while pushing through the new rules, which the Republican dominated commission passed on a party-line vote.
Supporters of the policy change — giant phone companies like AT&T and Verizon — provided dozens of examples of local governments making unreasonable demands on new competitors. And Martin repeatedly cited these claims without making any effort at independent verification.
It was one of those claims that raised the ire of David L. Smith, the city attorney in Tampa, Fla. He said the FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, made a “blatantly inaccurate allegation” about Tampa’s conduct during franchise negotiations with Verizon Communications Inc.
Martin was quizzing an agency employee during a commission meeting before casting his vote when he asked: “Is Verizon still required to film the tutoring classes for the math classes in Tampa, Florida in order to get a franchise?”
Rosemary Harold, a deputy chief in the FCC’s Media Bureau, answered, “Yes, Mr. Chairman.”
In fact, Tampa never imposed such a requirement. Tampa gave Verizon a $13 million “needs assessment,” required by law to obtain contributions for equipment used in public access production. The assessment may have included video cameras for filming math classes, but nothing like this was ever mentioned in the franchise agreement. Tampa’s existing cable franchise had already committed $6.5 million towards the needs assessment, and under Florida law a competitor would have been required to match that amount to obtain a franchise.
So how did such a “blatantly inaccurate allegation” get read into the public record by the chairman of the FCC himself?
The Tampa allegation outlined by Martin first appeared in a Wall Street Journal story in October 2005 that painted a sympathetic portrait of Verizon’s travails in gaining franchises.
The account said Verizon, seeking permission to offer TV service in Tampa, was presented with “a $13 million wish list” of items it needed, including “video cameras to film a math-tutoring program for kids.”
The story stated that “Verizon lawyers saw it as a demand.”
Uh-huh. Martin read it in the Wall Street Journal — a respectable newspaper — and that was good enough for him.
I have friends in the newspaper biz, journalists who I truly respect, who I think it is fair to say look down a bit at what me and my fellow bloggers and advocacy journalists do. They insist that it is their job to objectively report the story, not become a part of it. But of course, that’s impossible.
Even if the WSJ reporter’s mischaracterization was an honest mistake (as opposed to being the result of intentional or unintentional bias,) the very act of reporting it influenced public policy. Despite a growing level of public cynicism, newspapers are still generally presumed to be credible sources of objective information, and thus not only shape public opinion, but routinely inform lawmakers as they shape public policy. This is just one of innumerable instances where getting the story wrong actually helped change the story.
Lacking the resources or journalistic training (or the desire for that matter) to do much original reporting myself, much of what I engage in as a blogger is media criticism. In the process I have come to know and like many of the journalists I cover, and so it bothers me more than a little bit to learn that they so often take personal offense at they way I critique their reporting and their publications. It wouldn’t surprise me if at this point in the post, some of my friends in the press angrily mutter something about how us bloggers have a track record that is certainly no better, if not considerably worse, than theirs. Hmm. I don’t know if that’s true, but it is entirely beside the point.
As a blogger, I’m not generally considered to be a credible source. As a newspaper reporter, you are.
When FCC Chair Martin wanted to authenticate the veracity of an anecdote, he cited the WSJ. On the other hand, when former FEMA director Mike Brown and his attorney wanted to discredit the Arabian Horse Association story, they cited the fact that it originated on (gasp) a blog.
So to my friends in the press who question who the hell I am to criticize them, I freely acknowledge that yeah, well, we all make mistakes. But the point is, yours matter more than mine.
(At least for now.)