The FCC's Trumpian Shift is On

The governing paradigm in contemporary U.S. communications policy is genuflection to principles that invoke the “free market,” especially post-1980 when economics captured the policymaking process. As such, all Federal Communications Commissioners, regardless of party, will couch their positions and rationales in this language, though nearly all also make the effort to connect their rationales to something akin to “the public interest,” which has been the principal ideal as mandated by the agency’s own authorizing statute.
But the FCC’s also been a safe space for the occasional ideologue who worships capitalism as the human condition most worthy of emulation. It is not a radical notion to believe that an economic theory may not be an appropriate paradigm by which to organize all of the workings of an entire society. Folks who do believe that are market-fundamentalists; and whether it comes in economic, political, or religious flavors, fundamentalism is an extreme that the act of being civilized tends to temper.
Yet the FCC’s produced a strain of them starting with Reagan-era Mark Fowler, Clinton’s Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Powell (who would become Chairman in the Bush II administration), and Bush II second-term Chair Kevin Martin. In the Trump era, this role is represented by Chairman (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai and his trusty sidekick (an architect of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) Michael O’Rielly.
Just like their boss, Pai and O’Rielly are adopting the same policy-management and communication strategies: heavy on bombastic distortion of reality and virulent attacks on any perceived “opposition.” But unlike Trump, these two know exactly what they’re doing, which rachets the nefarious-factor something fierce.
Last week was a busy time for the two as they put their market-fundamentalism and Trump-style demonization tactics on full display. Sidekick O’Rielly laid the groundwork at a panel at the NAB Show in Las Vegas entitled, “FCC: You’re Fired?” In broad strokes, O’Rielly espoused the virtues of a market-utopia for all of communications and indicted the last eight years’ worth of FCC work simply because Democrats were in control.
But he best demonstrated the sort of fundamentalism I’m talking abut when it came to one of his favorite hobbyhorses: pirate radio. In this speech, he first dubbed it an infection which “harm[s] public safety, the livelihood of legitimate radio broadcasters, and the FCC’s spectrum enforcement creditability.” He claimed to have “some success in challeging the illogical perception of people that pirate radio is somehow beneficial,” but a lot remained to be done.
That’s pretty standard fare from O’Rielly, but he didn’t stop there–he cast pirate radio as a cancer that could metastatize: “If the Commission cannot sufficiently protect the airwaves, the harm will expand beyond radio stations, which is bad enough, to devalue spectrum licenses for wireless communications, eliminate or narrow access to capital for such networks, and wreak havoc to the development of the flexible ATSC 3.0 standard.”
It should go without saying in the world of spectrum policy that not all spectrum is equal. The fact that pirate radio exists does not inspire pirate television or pirate wireless broadband or pirate cell phone networks. O’Rielly effectively rejects all understanding of the differential-use nature of spectrum itself, or the motivations that inspire humans to try and gain access to it, primarily because they are driven by human needs to communicate, not by a cold and artificial economic rationale. No matter: if it ain’t in the market-funadmentalist paradigm, those rationales might as well not exist.
Not to be outdone, Chairman Pai took a double-barrel shotgun to the notion of serving the public interest in back-to-back speeches in Las Vegas and D.C. He was fairly effusive in his market-fundamentalism at the NAB Show, pledging to lay waste to “outdated regulations” such as the rule that requires radio stations to actually be stations. Otherwise known as the main studio rule, it mandates that all broadcasters maintain a primary physical presence in their community of license.
At the FCC’s May meeting, Pai plans to issue a proposed rulemaking to repeal this rule. Generally speaking, the idea behind the rule was to require broadcasters to be tangibly engaged in the communities they serve. But Pai thinks “technological innovations” like social media and e-mail provide enough conduits for the public to interact with their “local” stations, many of whom have voicetracked, syndicated, and automated the hell out of their programming over the last twenty years. What better way to be local than to leave town completely, save for a transmitter-shack and a stick?
He also claimed his FCC will completely overhaul existing media ownership rules with an eye toward eliminating many of them. Though Pai said that the process would be based in “fact-based discussion,” it’s hard to believe that after he’s already articulated the intended outcome. Any of that sound familiar? So did his parting words: “Obviously, we have a lot of work ahead of us. And to get it done right, all of us–the FCC, broadcasters, and wireless carriers–will need to work together closely.” Followed by an entreaty to trust him: “You have my word that this FCC will go wherever the facts and the law lead us.”
One constituency in the policymaking process is conspicuously missing from Pai’s list: the public. The day after his NAB address, Pai was back in Washington at a gathering hosted by FreedomWorks, a Tea Party PAC. There, he announced his plan to dismantle the FCC’s network neutrality regulations.
The draft proposal (which has been mysteriously deleted from the FCC’s own website but a well-connected D.C. telecom law firm has a copy) is pretty much the worst-case scenario, declassifying broadband infrastructure as a common-carriage network and opening the floodgates to any market manipulations incumbent Internet service providers can dream up in their C-suites. The implications of this reversal are negatively massive in terms of the Internet’s capacity for new-entrant innovation and speech diversity. Yet in Pai’s world, the opposite is true, hence the proposal’s title, “Restoring Internet Freedom.”
In his FreedomWorks speech, which also aired on CSPAN, Pai lets his fundamentalism fly free. He disingenuously revised the history of network regulation, quoted false statistics on net neutrality’s impact on broadband investment, and claimed that current law allows the FCC to “micromanage the internet.” He even wistfully invoked Ma Bell.
But what was most disturbing was the time he spent villifying the public itself. He called out one public-interest organization in particular: Free Press, which has been a key player in the actual grassroots movement that mobilized millions of actual people to demand the FCC concretize net neutrality as a governing principle of broadband network regulation.
In Pai’s world, this group is “the other side,” a “spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” whose “true agenda” is the dismantlement of capitalism itself. To make this case, the Chairman cherry-picked quotes from writings from some of the group’s founders (who play no active role there anymore) to cast Free Press as the vanguard of a socialist conspiracy with ideas borrowed from Venezuela, of all places.
“To be sure, it is tempting to dismiss these statements as isolated rants,” Pai said. “But unfortunately, it is all too typical of a larger movement in our country today that is fundamentally hostile to free speech.”
At this point, a disclaimer is in order: I worked with Free Press as a graduate student on a research assistantship some ten years ago, producing a podcast for them (I had complete autonomy regarding its content). I seek no socialist utopia, though I think some of those ideals are fully compatible with capitalism, as many other so-called “advanced” or “developed” countries aptly demonstrate. I have never been to Venezuela nor consume its media. I am also no fan of fundamentalism, and find its economic manifestations perhaps the most odious.
Pai and O’Rielly’s behavior is common in politics. Opposition-research and preemptive attack are unfortuante staples of the electoral process. It’s odious, but candidates for office are public figures who, for better or worse, consent to these tactics when they take the plunge of candidacy. But neither Pai nor O’Rielly were elected and aren’t running for anything else (that we know of). And even more importantly, the target of their tactics is the public itself.
That, too, is a tactic of fundamentalists: find the most extreme to their extreme and then use that to tar all who dissent from their ideology. By casting Free Press in this light, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is also expressing his clear disdain for any element of “the public” who expresses ideas that do not meet his economic-purity test. Ironically, more than a decade ago one target of Pai’s wrath skillfully deconstructed this phenomenon and how it works in the media and policymaking environments over the last few decades (and in which the aforementioned FCC Commissioners and Chairs all played roles).
Free Press’ executive director noted that, at first, Fortune magazine’s own coverage of Pai’s speech highlighted the apparent return of a form of McCarthyism to media policymaking discourse, but then dramatically edited its piece to bury that aspect.
Pai actually demonstrated this penchant earlier this year. When an obvious troll on Twitter did a drive-by on the Chairman, he cheekily responded with a quote from Michelle Obama and tagged it #vastleft, as if the troll was an accurate representation of all who might take issue with his policies. After getting called out for the hubris, Pai deleted the tweet, but screenshots are forever.
While the demonization of the public by unelected regulators is, like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (at least on weekdays), unprecedented, it’s not new to Free Press: since 2010, the telecom industry’s had their own troll on payroll to dish “dirt” on the group and provide a “counterpoint to [Free Press] advocacy in the Congress, the Executive branch, the courts, in the states / localities and elsewhere.” I’m sure we’ll see some of this “journalism” peddled by Chairman Pai, O’Rielly, and other market-fundamentalist syncophants as these media policy fights gain momentum. Pai himself is making the rounds of the right-wing media exclusively to tout his plans and attack all who oppose them with purely ideological epithets.
Not long ago, Ajit Pai was grilled on whether or not the media were, as his boss once famously said, the “enemy of the people.” The FCC Chairman gave a very, very, very soft no to that, in supposed deference to his duty to stay out of politics. That was poppycock: in reality, Pai (and O’Rielly) believe the people are the enemy of the people. The real danger of the Trump administration is not in the bluster and buffoonery of the man at the top, but in the words and deeds of the disciples of market fundamentalism actively using that as cover to indelibly impose their will as law, with effects that will last for generations.