President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler the next chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Grant Seiffert, the president of the Telecommunications Industry Association enthused: “He has the proven ability to transcend a broad range of industry perspectives to reach balanced outcomes.”
Indeed. Wheeler, 67, is the former head of — and chief lobbyist for — both the National Cable Television Association and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. Or, as Obama spins it, “He’s helped give American consumers more choices and better products.” (He’s also helped give the president more than $245,000 in bundled contributions for his re-election campaign.)
For Wheeler’s views on the challenges confronting American media, we have his blog “Mobile Musings.” It’s remarkable how one man can write so much (59 posts since 2007) yet say so little. Particularly when it comes to two critical media issues.
The first such issue is net neutrality, the idea that the nation’s information highway should be free of toll booths. In 2009, Wheeler seemed resigned to the framework of net neutrality:
How [net neutrality] is implemented thus become more important than whether it exists. … [A] rule that allows for variable pricing is an opportunity for wireless carriers to change the revenue paradigm. … Accepting the inevitability of the concept [of net neutrality] and working to maximize its positive effects — from appropriate network management, to flexible pricing and even new spectrum — could be the opportunity for a big win.
Yet the “flexible pricing” he advocates could be antithetical to net neutrality, depending on where the flexibility comes from. With different fee structures for different content, Internet providers could fence users out of certain areas of the web, in effect making the Internet similar to cable TV with its host of access packages.
Second, on the vital issue of media consolidation, Wheeler has expressed no opinion whatsoever. “The American people deserve to know where [Wheeler] stands,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.).“More and more of our media are owned and controlled by fewer and fewer multinational media conglomerates. Will Mr. Wheeler support that dangerous trend or will he oppose it? In 1983, the American media was dominated by 50 companies. Today, media ownership is overwhelmingly concentrated in just six corporations: Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom and CBS.”
In the end, the legacy of Wheeler’s tenure at the FCC will be owned by Obama, who when nominating Wheeler said, “As technology continues to shape the way that we do business and communicate and transform the world, we want to make sure … that we’re setting up legal structures and regulatory structures that facilitate this continued growth and expansion.”
At In These Times, we take our inspiration from anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who said: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.” But the president seems to view the nation’s communications infrastructure as an instrument through which to maximize widget sales — a great Sunday circular. Accordingly, he has selected an industry-friendly Babbitt to be the top media watchdog.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.